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32 • “The Lost World” • When I reached the age of 14 or 15 someone casually mentioned that Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment was a murder mystery, so I unearthed a Bantam paperback of the Constance Garnett translation and lived in Raskolnikov ’s tormented soul for three glorious days. I particularly admired Dostoevsky’s nightmarish intensity; every word was heavy, every action fraught. That was how I viewed my own adolescent life. A liking for hallucinatory Russian fiction doesn’t, however, preclude a lasting passion for comics, and then, as now, I particularly loved the adventures of Uncle Scrooge. More often than not, the world’s richest duck, having somehow lost his immense fortune, would end up traveling to some fabled realm to retrieve it, usually with the larcenous Beagle Boys in hot pursuit. Like today’s readers of Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien, I felt strongly the allure of lost civilizations and other worlds, of faerie realms beyond the fields we know. One evening I found myself, as so often, at Whalen’s drugstore reading my way through the comics rack while trying to avoid being noticed “The Lost World” • 33 by the gruff manager (“Hey, kid, this ain’t no library !”). Suddenly, a book cover on an adjoining shelf of paperbacks caught my attention: It showed a guy on the edge of a rocky cliff, beating off a tyrannosaur with the butt end of a rifle. When I realized that the book’s author was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I immediately plunked down my 50 cents. Unlike the cheesy 1960 movie adaptation with the voluptuous Jill St. John (and Michael Rennie and Claude Rains), The Lost World (1912) doesn’t feature any women on the scientific expedition up the Amazon to a plateau of Jurassic monsters and ape-men. It does open in London with the journalist-narrator Edward Malone being informed by his beloved Gladys that she will only marry a hero, but that’s about it. The Lost World belongs squarely in that sometimes despised subgenre called “boys’ adventures.” Conan Doyle had thought about attempting one of these as early as 1889. That year he wrote to his mother: I am thinking of trying a Rider Haggardy kind of book called ‘the Inca’s Eye’ dedicated to all the naughty boys of the Empire, by one who sympathizes with them. I think I could write a book of that sort con amore. . . . The 34 • notable experiences of John H. Calder, Ivan Boscovitch, Jim Horscroft, and Major General Pengelley Jones in their search after the Inca’s eye. How’s that for an appetite whetter. Conan Doyle never got any further with “The Inca’s Eye,” but twenty years later he renamed his quartet of heroes, retained the South American locale, and built a new plot around the latest speculations about dinosaurs and “missing links.” The novel’s epigraph underscores that it was still the same sort of adventure story: 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. To my youthful surprise, The Lost World wasn’t just exciting, it was also funny. The squat, choleric, and heavily bristled Professor George Edward Challenger resembled “a stunted Hercules whose tremendous vitality had all run to depth, breadth, and brain.” In appearance, he himself might have passed for the “missing link,” a point hammered home when it turns out that Challenger could be the twin of the king of the savage ape-men. His scientific rival, the precise “The Lost World” • 35 Professor Summerlee, was naturally his opposite: “a tall, thin, bitter man, with the withered aspect of a theologian.” Rather than Holmes and Watson, this squabbling pair often call to mind Laurel and Hardy, or Abbott and Costello. (The vaudeville quality of their relationship is underscored in the 1925 silent film version of the novel.) Today, in fact, The Lost World strikes me as more comic than not, a decidedly tongue-in-cheek homage to the “boys’ adventure.” Little wonder that Conan Doyle actually dressed up as the heavily bearded scientist for a series of photographs, and really looks like “a primitive cave-man in a lounge suit.” The writer would later choose the cantankerous Challenger as his own favorite among his characters. Humor pervades Conan Doyle’s fiction, the Baker Street saga itself being shot through with wit and gamesmanship. In one classic...


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