Book review – The Poison Belt: Being An Account of Another Amazing Adventure of Professor Challenger by Arthur Conan Doyle.
Today is the anniversary of the birth of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 – 1930). So it seems fitting to post a review of one of his stories: The Poison Belt. One of my favourite genres is the “cosy catastrophe”. A chance to sit in a comfortable armchair with a dozing cat and a mug of hot tea and contemplate the world as it’s destroyed by nuclear war, floods, monstrous sea creatures, alien children, agricultural failure and homicidal vegetables. What’s not to like? The Poison Belt fits nicely into this category. The Earth is passing through a belt of poison gas and no living thing higher than an amoeba will survive – delightful!
Nothing could be done. The thing was universal and beyond our human knowledge or control. It was death – painless but inevitable – death for young and old, for weak and strong, for rich and poor, without hope or possibility of escape.
The phrase “cosy catastrophe” was dreamed up by that fine writer, Brian Aldiss. I was a member of the H.G. Wells Society for years and well remember him attending a Society weekend conference on The War of the Worlds. Saturday afternoon we broke off and escaped in a coach to nearby Horsell Common, the site where the Martians were said to have landed. We also visited assorted buildings destroyed by Martian rays in the author’s text (Wells was not keen on churches or the clergy in general). I’m not sure how educational it was, but it was a delightful afternoon exploring a brush with Armageddon and everyone got back to the conference venue in time for a delicious supper with wine and a surprise musical guest. But, as usual, I digress.
The Poison Belt is the second of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger stories, the first is The Lost World. If I can get my hands on decent print copies I shall review them all (don’t look so worried, it might never happen).
Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger stories:
1912 – The Lost World (see previous review)
1913 – The Poison Belt – the Earth passes through a cloud of poisonous gas and the Professor and his colleagues face The End of the World.
1926 – The Land of Mist – a story of the supernatural.
1928 – When the World Screamed – explores Challenger’s intriguing World Echinus theory. An attempt to drill through the Earth’s crust and into the mantle in an attempt to find a giant creature.
1929 – The Disintegration Machine – a story about the invention of a machine that can disintegrate objects and put them back together, with a surprising ending.
The Poison Belt brings together the four main characters from The Lost World: Prof. Challenger, Prof. Summerlee, Lord John Roxton and Ed Malone. But whereas the first story involved an arduous expedition down the Amazon, most of the action in The Poison Belt takes place in Professor Challenger’s sitting room while our heroes wait to observe The End of the World. Can you get much more “cosy” than a professorial sitting room? Or any more “catastrophic” than the end of (nearly) all life on Earth? Wondering how the ever playful Conan Doyle will pull off this particular writing feat is undoubtedly part the pleasure in reading the book.
Challenger summons his dinosaur hunting colleagues via a brief and intriguing missive, instructing them to join him at his comfortable home near London and to ‘bring oxygen’. I ask you this question, gentle reader, could you resist such a tempting invitation? A chance to meet up with an outrageous genius and ex-fellow adventurer? And only a short train journey from Victoria station? I know I couldn’t.
The Earth is about to pass through a belt of poisonous gas (ether) that will destroy all life. However, in the interest of science, Challenger has transformed his wife’s boudoir and his own room into a single airtight chamber, so the chosen few can gain a few hours and witness the extinction of life on Earth.
We drew four chairs up to the long, low window, the lady still resting with closed eyes upon the settee. I remember that the monstrous and grotesque idea crossed my mind … that we were in four front seats of the stalls at the last act of the drama of the world.
Someone should wake Mrs Challenger up, I’m sure she wouldn’t want to miss The End of the World taking place just beyond the front garden. That would be taking lack of curiosity to an absurd level – besides there is the rest of eternity to nap.
Now – I don’t wish to spoil the end of the story for you, perhaps one day you will read it yourself. Despite the subject matter, it’s a modest story with relatively humble ambitions, but there is a twist and a moral message. Quality writers have difficulty dashing off even the lightest of tales without imparting something beyond pure yarn.
The book was written in 1913, only one year before the outbreak of the first global war of the industrial age. Some might credit Conan Doyle with astonishing foresight into the tragic and hideous slaughter of millions that lay ahead.
Over the wall of the yard we looked down upon the winding road, which led to the station. A group of the reapers whom we had seen running from the fields were lying all pell-mell, their bodies crossing each other, at the bottom of it. Farther up the nurse-girl lay with her head and shoulders propped against the slope of the grassy bank. She had taken the baby from the perambulator, and it was a motionless bundle of wraps in her arms. Close behind her a tiny patch upon the roadside showed where the little boy was stretched. Still nearer to us was the dead cab-horse kneeling between the shafts. The old driver was hanging over the splash-board like some grotesque scarecrow, his arms hanging absurdly in front of him.
But I think this would be wrong. Few anticipated the devastation that modern nations would inflict upon each other in the coming war, using the latest technology and mass mobilisation. War was in the air, but the atmosphere in Britain was generally patriotic. See the blog post on the poet Rupert Brooke. And there was a widespread expectation that if war broke out it would soon be over.
Nevertheless The Poison Belt ends by clearly asking us to consider whether humanity can afford it’s continual squabbling and whether many of our values might be ill-founded:
From the prophets of old and from the philosophers of our own time the same message and warning have reached us . . . what will not be forgotten, and what will and should continue to obsess our imaginations, is this revelation of the possibilities of the universe, this destruction of our ignorant self-complacency, and this demonstration of how narrow is the path of our material existence, and what abysses may lie upon either side of it. Solemnity and humility are at the base of our emotions to-day. May they be the foundations upon which a more earnest and reverent race may build a more worthy temple.’
Instead, the reader is asked to focus on simple pleasures – reading, music, gentle family communion, greater health and, intriguingly, “increased contributions to the common fund which have so raised the standard of life in these islands“.
As mentioned earlier, today is Conan Doyle’s birthday. He was born in 1859, the same year as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published.
The Victorian Crisis of Faith was a process rather than an event, but surely the theory of natural selection helped fuel it. Popular works such as H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau and Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and The Poison Belt did much to widely disseminate the notion of natural selection (as it was then understood) beyond the scientific community and the chattering classes.
In the following exchange The Poison Belt’s two professors quietly throw verbal hand grenades into long established religious teaching and popular belief.
Hence, we may argue that every amoeba outside this room, instead of being dead, as you have erroneously stated, has really survived the catastrophe . . . If you had the scientific imagination, you would cast your mind forward from this one fact, and you would see some few millions of years hence – a mere passing moment in the enormous flux of the ages the whole world teeming once more with the animal and human life which will spring from this tiny root … Here in this tiny creature are the roots of growth of the animal world, and by its inherent development, and evolution, it will surely in time remove every trace of this incomparable crisis in which we are now involved.’
Professor Summerlee queries Challenger’s confidence in the future. And in his words perhaps reflects some of Conan Doyle’s loss of faith in mainstream Christianity. Though it was not until after the Great War that Conan Doyle’s interest in Spiritualism grew substantially, and eventually became the major occupation of his writing life. A little more on that in coming weeks.
‘You seem to take it for granted, Challenger,’ said Summerlee, ‘that the object for which this world was created was that it should produce and sustain human life.’
‘Well, sir, and what object do you suggest?’ asked Challenger, bristling at the least hint of contradiction.
‘Sometimes I think that it is only the monstrous conceit of mankind which makes him think that all this stage was erected for him to strut upon.’
‘Think of all the millions and possible billions of years that the earth swung empty through space – or, if not empty, at least without a sign or thought of the human race. Think of it, washed by the rain and scorched by the sun, and swept by the wind for those unnumbered ages. Man only came into being yesterday so far as geological time goes. Why, then, should it be taken for granted that all this stupendous preparation was for his benefit?’
This from the trusted pen of the author of Sherlock Holmes. Read by the whole household – every sex, age and class. And matching many of the thoughts of that other astonishingly popular author, H.G. Wells. I feel sure this must have had an impact on propelling natural sellection into the public consciousness.
The Poison Belt is a pleasurable and interesting novella that I would recommend to anyone who enjoyed The Lost World and/or delights in dystopian stories and/or are Conan Doyle completists.
Despite the subject matter, this is not a heavy read and it seems only right that I finish on a light note. A brief conversation that made me chuckle. Professor Challenger informing his long suffering servant, Austin, that the end of the world is almost upon them:
‘Austin!’ said his master.
‘I thank you for your faithful service.’
A smile stole over the servant’s gnarled face.
‘I’ve done my duty, sir.’
‘I’m expecting the end of the world to-day, Austin.’
‘Yes, sir. What time, sir?’
‘I can’t say, Austin. Before evening.’
‘Very good, sir.’
The taciturn Austin saluted and withdrew. Challenger lit a cigarette, and, drawing his chair to his wife’s, he took her hand in his.
Keep calm, it’s not the end of the world. Oh, it is?! Keep calm anyway.
Conan Doyle Interviewed on Sherlock Holmes & Spirituality (10mins 34s, Youtube)