Comfortable Beasts | The Lost World

There is something wonderfully flowing about Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing.

Though at first glance the much-loved Victorian writer’s style displays much of the typical archness of his august age – he doesn’t exactly shy away from long sentences or labourious descriptive passages – after finally reading through his only famous non-Sherlock Holmes novel, I feel confident in saying that his popularity could be attributed to a masterful grasp of the rhythm and flow of his sentences.

Much like his contemporary H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, The Lost World plays on an undying desire for adventure, and the exploration of then still relatively unknown countries and climes.

Of course, this same desire has now been transmuted to its keener, more cutting counterpart: since the world is now pinned down, chartered and Google Mapped down to every little corner and byway, our urge to venture out into the unknown is undermined by the reality that there isn’t much of an unknown anymore. Nostalgia, that deadliest of emotional toxins, is thrown into the mix.

And thanks to Doyle’s way with words, the nostalgia is not just limited to content. We tend to prize stylistic minimalism nowadays – at least in prose – and there is a kind of guilty pleasure to be had in Doyle’s often ornate, but always easy sentences.

First edition of The Lost World (1912)

Just one look at a random passage in The Lost World is enough to confirm that while this tale of an expedition to a South American plateau populated by dinosaurs and ape-men promises unknown vistas and dangerous creatures, it will be delivered to us in distinctly ‘Victorian’ overtones – which, like a hobbit hole, essentially means comfort.

A casual bit of typical colonial bigotry from the novel’s narrator, the meek journalist Edward Malone, is an amusing-in-retrospect example of this:

‘I was plodding up the slope, turning these thoughts over in my mind, and had reached a point which may have been half-way to home, when my mind was brought back to my own position by a strange noise behind me. It was something between a snore and a growl, low, deep, and exceedingly menacing. Some strange creature was evidently near me, but nothing could be seen, so I hastened more rapidly upon my way. I had traversed half a mile or so when suddenly the sound was repeated, still behind me, but louder and more menacing than before. My heart stood still within me as it flashed across me that the beast, whatever it was, must surely be after me. My skin grew cold and my hair rose at the thought. That these monsters should tear each other to pieces was a part of the strange struggle for existence, but that they should turn upon modern man, that they should deliberately track and hunt down the predominant human, was a staggering and fearsome thought.’

This is potted exoticism; a danger confined, clipped and neutered in a cage of carefully constructed sentences. Perhaps the popular space which Doyle’s novel – serialised in The Strand magazine over 1912 – occupied has now been taken over by television, as wildlife documentaries and various reality shows offer a similar vicarious thrill.

But as The Avengers continues to smash box office records even as I type these words, I’m reminded that The Lost World also boasts another more immediately transferable nugget of delight: a superhero of his own, in the shape of the indefatigable Professor George Edward Challenger.

Over and above the fact that we basically owe Jurassic Park to Doyle – another topic for another article – Challenger is the kind of character who is remembered, loved and copied partly because he’s arrogant and insufferable, despite all odds. Indeed, this ‘cave-man in a lounge suit’, an intuitive – and unconventional – genius with a penchant for adventure that often comes with a bloody-minded disregard of his peers’ sensibility or safety, could survive a comparison to the Avengers’ own Tony Stark.

It’s hardly surprising that Winston Churchill was a fan.

Comparisons and metaphors reappear, floating like purgatorial ghosts: cigar-chomping Churchill, uncompromising but pithily articulate; booming and bearded Challenger, pig-headed and brilliant; venal and vain Tony Stark, heroic when the Iron Man suit is locked onto his alcohol-laden body – a symbol of industry and domination, of technology defeating danger, defeating nature, and mapping out the world…