11. Lost Worlds
“…There are heroisms all around us waiting to be done. It’s for men to do them, and for women to reserve their love as a reward for such men…”
So the silly lass tells her besotted lover—our narrator—who, being Irish, believes her. It puts him into contact with Professor Challenger where he tries unsuccessfully to pass himself off as a science student.
… “It proves,” he roared, with a sudden blast of fury. “that you are the rankest imposter in London—a vile, crawling journalist, who has no more science than he has decency in his composition!”
He had sprung to his feet with a mad rage in his eyes. Even at that moment of tension I found time for amazement at the discovery that he was quite a short man, his head not higher than my shoulder—a stunted Hercules whose tremendous vitality had all run to depth, breadth and brain…
… “Don’t be such a fool, Professor!” I cried. “What can you hope for? I’m fifteen stone, as hard as nails, and play centre three-quarter every Saturday for the London Irish. I’m not the man—”
It was that moment that he rushed me. It was lucky that I had opened the door, or we should have gone through it. We did a Catherine-wheel together down the passage. Somehow we gathered up a chair along the way, and bounded on with it toward the street. My mouth was full of his beard, our arms were locked, our bodies intertwined, and that infernal chair radiated its legs all round us. The watchful Austin had thrown open the hall door. We went with a back somersault down the front steps…
Despite this early set-back, our hero, Ed Malone, wins his way into the professor’s confidence. At a hilarious public meeting, Challenger is ridiculed when he purports to know of a plateau in the upper Amazon where dinosaurs still roam, and when an expedition is proposed—comprising Challenger, his most avid opponent Professor Summerlee, and the renowned white hunter Lord John Roxton—Malone gets to go along as scribe, and they are his reports to the media that we read as they mount their expedition to The Lost World. Soon, we are far upriver…
By late afternoon that day… at least six or seven drums were throbbing from various points. Sometimes they beat quickly, sometimes slowly, sometimes in obvious question and answer, one far to the east breaking into a high staccato rattle, being followed after a pause by a deep roll from the north. There was something indescribably nerve-shaking and menacing in that constant mutter, which seemed to shape itself into the very syllables of the half-breed, endlessly repeated, ‘We will kill you if we can. We will kill you if we can.’ No one ever moved in the silent woods. All the peace and soothing of quiet nature lay in that dark curtain of vegetation, but away from behind there came ever the one message from our fellow man. ‘We will kill you if we can,’ said the men in the east. ‘We will kill you if we can,’ said the men in the north.
They reach the plateau and find there is no way up except to climb a detached pinnacle, where they can fell a giant tree and make a bridge to the plateau. But when they achieve it, the tree is pushed into the ravine by the treacherous half-breed as a result of an old grudge against Roxton, and now they are trapped on the plateau and, although a faithful negro remains below to whom Malone can throw his despatches, it proves to be not a place where one can be happily ensconced.
An enormous three-toed track was imprinted in the soft mud before us. The creature, whatever it was, had crossed the swamp and had passed on into the forest. We all stopped to examine that monstrous spoor…
… “A beast?”
“No; a reptile—a dinosaur. Nothing else could have left such a track…”
But even I knew that dinosaurs were not reptiles, although Arthur Conan Doyle, of course, could not have.
… There were, as I say, five of them, two being adults and three young ones. In size they were enormous. Even the babies were as big as elephants, while the two large ones were far beyond all creatures I have seen. They had slate-coloured skin, which was scaled like a lizard’s and shimmered where the sun shone upon it. All five were sitting up, balancing themselves upon their broad powerful tails and their huge three-toed hind-feet, while with their small five-fingered front feet they pulled down branches on which they browsed. I do not know that I can bring their appearance home to you better than by saying that they looked like monstrous kangaroos, twenty feet in length, and with skins like black crocodiles…
But soon, things get tough.
We were all sleeping around our dying fire when we were aroused—or, rather, I should say, shot out of our slumbers—by a succession of the most frightful cries and screams to which I have ever listened. I know no sound to which I can compare this amazing tumult, which seemed to come from a spot a few hundred yards from our camp. It was as ear-splitting as any whistle of a railway engine; but whereas the whistle is a clear, mechanical, sharp-edged sound, this was far deeper in volume and vibrant with the utmost strain of agony and horror. We clapped our hands to our ears to shut out that nerve-shaking appeal. A cold sweat broke out over my body, and my heart turned sick with the misery of it. All the woes of tortured life, all its stupendous indictment of high heaven, its innumerable sorrows, seemed to be centred and condensed into that one dreadful agonised cry. And then, under this high-pitched ringing sound there was another, more intermittent, a low deep-chested laugh, a growling, throaty gurgle of merriment which formed a grotesque accompaniment to the shriek with which it blended. For three or four minutes, the fearsome duet continued, while all the foliage rustled with the rising of startled birds. Then it shut off as suddenly as it began…
… “We have been privileged to overhear a prehistoric tragedy, the sort of drama which occurred among the reeds along the border of some Jurassic lagoon, when the greater dragon pinned the lesser amongst the slime,” said Challenger, with more solemnity than I have ever heard in his voice. “It was surely well for man that he came late in the order of creation.” …
Before long, Malone is separated from the others and the ‘greater dragon’—an Allosaurus—is on his tail.
…I stood like a man paralyzed, still staring at the ground I had traversed, Then suddenly I saw it. There was a movement among the bushes at the far end of the clearing which I had just traversed. A great dark shadow disengaged itself and hopped out into the clear moonlight. I say ‘hopped’ advisedly, for the beast moved like a kangaroo, springing along in an erect position upon its powerful hind legs, while its front ones were held up in front of it. It was of enormous size and power, like an erect elephant, but its movements, despite its bulk, were exceedingly alert. For a moment, as I saw its shape, I hoped it was an iguanodon, which I knew to be harmless, but, ignorant as I was, I soon saw that this was a very different creature. Instead of the gentle, deer-shaped head of the great three-toed leaf-eater, this beast had a broad, squat, toad-like face like that which had alarmed us in our camp…
Of course, we now know that an Allosaurus ran like an ostrich, rather than hopping like a kangaroo, but it is not the time for such quibbling. There is no way Doyle could have known that. Needless to say, Malone does what any sensible person would have done—
… Flinging away my useless gun, I set myself to do such a half mile as I have never done before or since. My limbs ached, my chest heaved, I felt my throat would burst for lack of air, and yet with that horror behind me I ran and ran and ran. At last I paused, hardly able to move. For a moment I thought I had thrown him off. The path lay still behind me. And then suddenly, with a crashing and the rendering, a thudding of giant feet and panting of monster lungs, the beast was on me once more. He was at my very heels. I was lost…
Naturally, he escapes. Then Doyle makes a curious mistake, one where he should have known better, introducing Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon men to the scene, which somehow breaks the credibility, making you wonder just how the beasts could have survived the advent of man. After many adventures, they turn to that of escape from the plateau—Challenger uses a dinosaur hide and a volcanic vent to contrive a balloon with which he plans they will safely descend from the plateau.
… Never was our expedition in such danger of complete annihilation. The inflated membrane shot up with frightful velocity into the air. In an instant Challenger was pulled off his feet and dragged after it. I had just time to throw my arms around his ascending waist when I was myself whipped up into the air. Lord John had me with a rat-trap grip around the legs, but I felt he was also coming off the ground. For a moment I had a vision of four adventurers floating like a string of sausages over the land they explored. But happily, there were limits to the strain the rope could take, though none apparently to the lifting powers of this infernal machine. There was a sharp crack and we were in a heap upon the ground with coils of rope all over us…
I suppose it would spoil the story to tell how they actually make their escape. They return in triumph to London where Malone discovers the young lady who propelled him on this adventure has married an accountant, and Challenger has a big surprise for the mass gathering of his astonished doubters.
… There was turmoil in the audience—someone screamed, two ladies in the front row fell senseless from their chairs, and there was general movement on the platform to follow their chairman into the orchestra pit. For a moment there was danger of a general panic. Professor Challenger threw up his arms to still the commotion, but the movement alarmed the creature beside him. Its strange shawl suddenly unfurled, spread, and fluttered as a pair of leathery wings. Its owner grabbed at its legs but too late to hold it. It had sprung from the perch and was circling around Queen’s Hall with a dry leathery flapping of its ten-foot wings, while a putrid odour pervaded the room…
The pterodactyl terrorises London briefly before its homing instinct kicks in and sends it winging homeward.
The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle was the first book on which I ever spent my own money to buy, from the newsagency during a family trip to Warrnambool. It remained my favourite book for years, and indeed all novels I encountered faced an open challenge to be as good or better than it. It is a well written adventure, an original idea (many times imitated since), with strong characters, excellent credibility (considering the premise is ridiculous), and plenty of wit. Rarely do prehistoric adventures come so well equipped. Admittedly, I bought it only because of the terrific picture of a Tyrannosaurus on the cover—John Murray’s paperback edition—although in the text the creature is actually an Allosaurus—the prehistoric period being Jurassic, not Cretaceous. Amusingly, Michael Crichton, rewriting this stuff ninety years later for digital movie technology, made the same error. But there are many other interesting matters concerning this book.
To be sure, Doyle and his characters come with a fully functional set of Victorian values, perfectly designed to offend the sensibilities of the modern reader—white superiority, male superiority, the rightness of despoiling the environment for the betterment of humanity, justifiable murder if the victim is a half-breed, scientists arrogant in a manner that they would never dare be these days. In fact, the book is an outstanding chronicle of just exactly how appalling social values were a century ago. But I was reading it in 1959, just before those atrocious attitudes would begin to be destroyed by rampaging students in the streets of the great cities of the Western world. And anyway, the book is such a tremendous and influential adventure that it easily overwhelms such shortcomings.
To me, everything about it was wonderful—even the chapter headings. And the poem on the dedication page.
I have wrought my simple plan
If I give one hour of joy
To the boy, who’s half a man,
Or the man who’s half a boy.
Which possibly sums up my entire life.
In 1924, a movie version awed the world with its brilliant stop-motion monsters, which resulted in a remarkable controversy. Conan Doyle had, by then, developed a strong belief in mysticism, much to the horror of his good friend Harry Houdini, who was spending much of his spare time debunking false mediums. Houdini persuaded Doyle to be guest speaker at a meeting of the best magicians around, in the hope that his friend might see the light, but Doyle foresaw it was a trap and made amazing preparations for it.
At the time the movie was in production in secret but Doyle had been consulted concerning the authenticity of the stop-motion dinosaurs, and was able to obtain pre-release footage of the monsters in action. This he showed at the meeting, claiming it to be real film of actual dinosaurs. Unbelievably, they fell for it, the meeting disintegrating into uproar in just the same fashion that Challenger’s did in the book. Doyle was saluted as a hero, and the existence of living dinosaurs was reported on the front pages of the world’s newspapers next day, although some journalists were more sceptical than the world’s greatest magicians had managed to be. Later that day, Doyle jubilantly confessed to the trick, beating Houdini and the magic men at their own game and achieving huge publicity for the movie at the same time.
Unfortunately, despite the confession, the rumour he started never went away, and while the film was a great success, an awful lot of silly people were sure it was real. They were far more able to believe that dinosaurs had survived than they were that such splendid special effects could be accomplished.
These days the dinosaur footage from that film is obviously fake and completely unconvincing and it is impossible to understand how anyone could have been fooled. It is a clear measure of how naive and gullible people were less than a hundred years ago, and not just the dumb-arse public but eminent scientists and academics as well.
In 1960, the world’s worst filmmaker, Irwin Allen, remade The Lost World and it was a shocker, although somehow entrancing. Usually reliable actors—Michael Rennie, Jill St John, David Hedison and the once great Claude Rains plainly suffered in their roles, but not so much as did the dinosaurs. To attain these special effects, Allen stuck extra fins on small crocodiles, iguanas and monitor lizards and filmed them large to try and pass them off as the real thing. It was laughable. “Look, a stegosaurus!” gasps Rains, pointing to a very embarrassed-looking iguana. And every little boy in the world shrieked ‘Oh no it isn’t’ The reptiles tried hard to be convincing, but they were what they were—pathetic shadows of their former selves. Eventually, Steven Spielberg got the monsters right but buggered up on the people and the story. The world still waits for the truly great dinosaur movie.
Over time, as my reading matured, Doyle’s book dropped back into the field although it remains one of my all-time favourites. I read it in maturity and still loved it. The Lost World reigned until I finally grew up. Since then, no particular book has dominated my favouritism such as it did in its time.
My all-time favourite book cover, from the John Murray paperback which was the one I actually read.