Book review – When the World Screamed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Professor Challenger #4). 1928.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is famous for his Sherlock Holmes stories, but did you know that he created a series of stories for another eccentric genius, Professor George Edward Challenger?
There are five Challenger stories in total, this is the fourth review. Sadly, only one more for me to do. Perhaps I’ll have a stab at writing a sixth myself!
1912 – The Lost World – adventures in a prehistoric world. REVIEW
1913 – The Poison Belt – facing The End of The World. REVIEW
1926 – The Land of Mist – a tale of the supernatural.
1928 – When the World Screamed – An attempt to drill through the Earth’s crust and into the mantle in an attempt to find a giant creature. REVIEW
1929 – The Disintegration Machine. REVIEW
When the World Screamed was the fourth Professor Challenger story to be published, first appearing in the American weekly magazine, Liberty on 25 February and 3 March 1928.
The magazine published nine short stories in total by Conan Doyle, between 1926 and 1930, including some featuring Sherlock Holmes.
When the World Screamed fits into the category ‘speculative fiction’ and was written as an entertaining yarn featuring Conan Doyle’s popular characters Professor Challenger and Ed Malone. A science and engineering adventure, that today probably gives the reader a little more food for thought than it did when it was first published.
The narrator in the story is a new character that we have not come across before in the series, the curiously named, Mr. Peerless Jones, an ‘Artesian engineer’. Mr Jones receives an unsolicited invitation to a job interview from the great Professor Challenger. It’s an intriguing invitation many of us would like to receive.
Sir, — I have occasion to engage the services of an expert in Artesian borings … Looking down the list of Artesian authorities, a certain oddity — I had almost written absurdity — in your name attracted my attention, and I found upon inquiry that my young friend, Mr. Edward Malone, was actually acquainted with you. I am therefore writing to say that I should be glad to have an interview with you, and that if you satisfy my requirements, and my standard is no mean one, I may be inclined to put a most important matter into your hands. I can say no more at present as the matter is of extreme secrecy, which can only be discussed by word of mouth. There is a scraper as well as a mat, and Mrs. Challenger is most particular. I remain, Sir, as I began, George Edward Challenger.
I don’t know about you, but if I had received such a missive I’d have my bag-on-wheels packed and be out the door in about ten minutes. This invitation was from the man already famous for discovering a strange land in Brazil, full of dinosaurs and prehistoric people (see The Lost World), and for having witnessed the near death of the planet (see The Poison Belt). That’s an impressive curriculum vitae for any professor.
As with most Conan Doyle stories, humour is never far away. Mr. Jones thanks Challenger for his “undated letter” and politely confirms his intention to attend the meeting. The outrageous academic (and I’ve met a few) replied as follows:
Sir, he said and his writing looked like a barbed wire fence —‘I observe that you animadvert upon the trifle that my letter was undated. Might I draw your attention to the fact that, as some return for a monstrous taxation, our Government is in the habit of affixing a small circular sign or stamp upon the outside on the envelope which notifies the date of posting? Should this sign be missing or illegible your remedy lies with the proper postal authorities. Meanwhile, I would ask you to confine your observations to matters which concern the business over which I consult you, and to cease to comment upon the form which my own letters may assume.
Clearly the Professor is not an easy man to deal with. I’m sorry to have to admit that I had to look up the word “animadvert” [definition: ‘to pass criticism or censure on; speak out against‘].
– Spoiler alert –
It is impossible to discuss this short story further without giving some of the important stuff away. It is available online (full text), failing that your local independent bookseller longs to secure you a copy. Alternatively, read on.
The Professor has inherited “several million pounds”, using an inflation calculator, five million in 1928 would be the equivalent to £288m (or US $381m) in today’s money – with the provision that it should be used in the interests of science.
Challenger draws upon the money to purchase a property at Hengist Down in Sussex (South-East England) and a large tract of “worthless land” that he has wired off. He then he begins vast excavations, giving the excuse to the world that he is searching for oil. Mostly he is left alone, so presumably there weren’t many environmental protesters in the 1920s. It is poignant that Conan Doyle chose to locate the Professor’s project in cosy Sussex, given recent developments. The UK government is expected to approve various ‘advanced energy extraction techniques’ (inc. fracking and acidisation for gas and oil) across parts of this county. And in 2015 the Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that over £300bn (US $400bn) worth of oil had been discovered in West Sussex (albeit with ‘notes of caution’).
But our crafty Professor is not looking for oil at all, that is merely a subterfuge. As he tells Mr. Peerless Jones at their first meeting together, he was looking for the living organism that lives within the centre of the Earth.
According to Challenger’s ‘World Echinus Theory’:
… the world upon which we live is itself a living organism, endowed, as I believe, with a circulation, a respiration, and a nervous system of its own … You will recall how a moor or heath resembles the hairy side of a giant animal. A certain analogy runs through all nature. You will then consider the secular rise and fall of land, which indicates the slow respiration of the creature. Finally, you will note the fidgetings and scratchings which appear to our Lilliputian perceptions as earthquakes and convulsions.
Reading this passage I immediately thought of James Lovelock’s Gaia theory. The Gaia hypothesis proposes that living and non-living parts of the Earth form a complex interacting system that can be thought of as a single organism. Lovelock is still with us, aged 97 (born in 1919), and would have been 9 years old when Conan Doyle’s story was published. That said, the idea that the Earth is alive, in one sense or another, goes back into antiquity.
One of the interesting things that Conan Doyle does in this piece of fiction is to pack it with words, phrases and ideas from science and engineering (plus a few made up) that in the 1920s must have led greater credence, for the general reader, to this fantastical story.
The temperature!’ I cried. ‘Is it not a fact that it rises rapidly as one descends, and that the centre of the earth is liquid heat?’
He waved my assertion aside. ‘You are probably aware, sir, since Council schools are now compulsory, that the earth is flattened at the poles. This means that the pole is nearer to the centre than any other point and would therefore be most affected by this heat of which you spoke. It is notorious, of course, that the conditions of the poles are tropical, is it not?
I doubt the technical aspects of the story would pass muster for scientists and engineers today, and yet I suspect people from such backgrounds might find it particularly enjoyable. It should put a smile on their faces when they take a break from the slide rule (slipstick) and abacus.
Returning to our story, using the Professor’s extensive funds, a team of specialists use cutting edge techniques to drill a hole 8 miles deep, as deep as the Earth’s tallest mountain is high (Everest). At the bottom of the hole lies what appears to be a living, breathing organism, not unlike a giant echinus (sea-urchin), shivering and trembling. It is the task of two of our heroes, Peerless Jones (engineer) and Ed Malone (reporter) to take a series of lifts (elevators) to the lowest point in the excavation and prepare for the final stage. Installing a remotely activated, electrical control system to drive a massive javelin bolt deep into the creature to elicit a response that can be observed, measured and studied. Challenger’s plan is one that surely only a bona fide mad professor could come up with. If he had access to a nuclear weapon I suspect he would want it dropped down the pit.
As Conan Doyle describes the descent it is noticeably that he chooses to avoid using the standard geological layers that were known at the time, presumably the story was only credible on the basis that science had made a giant mistake about matters subterranean.
Since the cage was latticed and brightly illuminated, we had a clear view of the strata which we passed. I was conscious of each of them as we flashed past. There were the sallow lower chalk, the coffee-coloured Hastings beds, the lighter Ashburnham beds, the dark carboniferous clays, and then, gleaming in the electric light, band after band of jet-black, sparkling coal alternating with the rings of clay. Here and there brickwork had been inserted, but as a rule the shaft was self-supported, and one could but marvel at the immense labour and mechanical skill which it represented. Beneath the coal-beds I was conscious of jumbled strata of a concrete-like appearance, and then we shot down into the primitive granite, where the quartz crystals gleamed and twinkled as if the dark walls were sown with the dust of diamonds. Down we went and ever down — lower now than ever mortals had ever before penetrated. The archaic rocks varied wonderfully in colour, and I can never forget one broad belt of rose-coloured felspar, which shone with an unearthly beauty before our powerful lamps. Stage after stage, and lift after lift, the air getting ever closer and hotter until even the light tussore garments were intolerable and the sweat was pouring down into those rubber-soled slippers. At last, just as I was thinking that I could stand it no more, the last lift came to a stand and we stepped out upon a circular platform which had been cut in the rock.
During the 1800s the industrial revolution had fuelled the demand for ever more resources to be extracted from the Earth – wood, minerals, ores et al. As the “low hanging fruit” became exhausted there was constant demand for better drills, deeper mining, more advanced lifts (elevators). Conan Doyle would have been aware of this. It’s worth mentioning that this process has not stopped, there are ever more advanced extraction methods. It is tempting to think that we live in a high tech, ultra efficient world now. Yet today humankind is even more reliant on “stuff” extracted from the Earth. I was recently surprised to learn that there are dozens of different elements in a computer chip, some fairly rare.
This review is now almost as long as the actual story! I hope I have whetted your appetite to take on this fairly simple adventure yarn. How does it end? Did our heroes awaken the organism? They were eight miles below the surface, did they get out alive? I could briefly answer these questions, but then you would have little incentive to read the story yourself. In my view Sherlock Holmes was Conan Doyle’s finest work, but there’s more to the writer than the great detective. Reading one or two Professor Challenger stories will let you see other dimensions of the author’s work and perhaps give you a fresh perspective on the sixty Holmes/Watson stories to which you will inevitably return.