The Downfall of Professor Challenger: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Spiritualism

For nearly one hundred years, Professor Challenger, the gruff but loveable hero of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, has thrilled successive generations of readers with his crackpot zoological adventures. Less famous are the ends to which his creator used him in later works — works that explore the darkest crevices, not of the world’s forgotten places, but of Doyle’s own psyche.

Fans of old-time adventure novels have long considered The Lost World a classic. It features Doyle’s not-quite-as-famous-as-Sherlock-Holmes character as he sets off on an expedition to discover living dinosaurs in the Amazon rainforests of South America. Professor Challenger is a big, burly bear of a man with a booming voice and an arrogant, ignorant manner, a scientific colossus whose genius does not extend to include such overrated virtues as modesty or politeness. Just as legend has it that Sherlock Holmes was inspired by one of Doyle’s professors at Edinburgh, it is also said that the description of Challenger chimes with that of one Professor Rutherford, who also taught there during Doyle’s studentship.

The Lost World is genuinely thrilling, funny, staffed with great characters, and plenty of that fin-de-siècle adventurous spirit that characterizes British fantastic fiction of the period. Challenger disappears into the wilds with scant regard for personal safety like a true son of the British Empire, taking with him only a small group of those he trusts the most. The camaraderie between the characters is a large part of what makes the novel great, touting without irony the old-fashioned idea that when you’ve got your trusted friends on board, you can take on the world (as long as there are no troublesome women around, of course!). The boys-own feel is laid out clearly in the brief and whimsical verse that opens the narrative-

I have brought 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.

Unfortunately, for those generations of man-boys who grew up regarding Challenger’s Lost World exploits as the epitome of naïve entertainment, his other adventures have rarely seen print. But there’s a shock in store, in the form of a ‘Classics’ edition, adorned with a nauseating blue cover, called The Lost World and Other Stories, placed innocently on the shelf, like a landmine of bilge hiding amidst the snow-white flowers of the beautiful Yugoslavian landscape.

On the whole, most of the stories are brief and unremarkable. When the World Screamed and The Poison Belt are serviceable enough, but they both find the Professor leaping to ridiculous conclusions without evidence. He is, of course, constantly proven correct simply because the writer makes it so.

No matter, the reader will reassure himself. There is one final story left in the collection, and it’s a whopper—The Land of Mist the only story in the collection of comparable length to The Lost World. Ah yes, the reader is tempted to speak to himself, Doyle has been holding out on us, but here’s where the real meat is. This is where he’s been hiding his aces. Everything’s going to be okay.


Between writing The Lost World and The Land of Mist, Doyle became pretty heavily involved with Spiritualism and this interest had begun to bleed, more than a little, into his writing. He turned his considerable talents of propaganda writing towards promoting his new religion, giving lectures to packed halls on sell-out tours all over the Empire. This happy thought is never more than the length of a silver cord from the mind of the reader who peruses the pages of The Land of Mist.

One of the chief pleasures of reading turn-of-the-century fantastic fiction is the presence of a wealth of bizarre ideas which were still taken for granted at this time—ether, spirit-writing, mesmerism, the hollow Earth, social Darwinism and the like. Science was in its adolescence, and was confidently expected to finally prove things that everybody already knew—that God was in his Heaven, white men were fit to rule the world, and that the lower classes were happy with their lot. Souls could be weighed and fairies and spirits could be photographed (because the camera never lies, right?). It is a unique period, and in a way, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle served as an apt representation of it as a whole.

As a young man, Doyle turned his back on his Catholic faith. Nobody in his day and age could believe such nonsense, could they? As far as he was concerned, science (and Darwin in particular) had banished the Age of Superstition. The future creator of Sherlock Homes declared that he would never again believe anything that could not be proven. Fast-forward to the end of the Great War, though, and the picture is very different. With Europe in ruins, with every last Victorian ideal of decency and honour lying strangled and mashed in the muck of the Somme, and with his beloved son dead from Spanish flu, Doyle discovered (as much of the world did) that the gap left by religion has to be filled by something else. Traditional Christianity would clearly not do. Some new idea that could return meaning to life, but which was amiable to the new mechanistic nuts-and-bolts universe that science was revealing, was in order.

Over the course of the 20th century, many people would come to fill this hole with UFO’s, automatic writing, electronic voice phenomenon, new age-ism, star people, Scientology, creation ‘science’, intelligent design, and dancing statues at Ballinspittle. Doyle filled it with Spiritualism.

From its humble beginnings in rural upstate New York in 1848, Spiritualism had grown to become, in the eyes of many, a legitimate counter to science’s gloomy claim that life was material and nothing more. Spiritualism was a religion that didn’t ask its followers to believe anything beyond that which they could experience themselves firsthand. Any doubting Thomas who wished to be convinced could take part in a séance, during which a medium would contact spirits from the other side, and those spirits would manifest themselves, in various ways, in the physical realm. There would be knocks and raps. Furniture (and sometimes people) would levitate.

But these were mere parlor tricks, as the real meat of the thing was the communication with the spirit-folk. They spoke through the mediums, who gave messages to those present from loved ones who had passed on. Readers adept at detecting connections between cultural trends will probably notice that this shameful manipulation of grieving patrons has not entirely ceased today.

In The Land of Mist, Professor Challenger examines this strange phenomenon. Of course, he begins as a skeptic, applying the correct amount of caution. He is a scientist, after all, and he knows that Spiritualism is a minefield rife with cads and charlatans. After attending several séances and witnessing the manifestation of his dead wife, he decides that the phenomenon is genuine. Doyle then gets up on his soap-box, and allows Challenger to make the case clear—death is not the end, spiritualists and mediums are really in contact with the dead, and a new and better world is around the corner for those of us who accept that this is really happening. Challenger (and thus Doyle) believes that this is the most important breakthrough in history.

Remind yourself that this writer was knighted for his ability to create propaganda, which he did during the Boer War and the Great War. And were it not propaganda, The Land of Mist would be a great book. Nobody wrote supernatural fiction as well as Doyle, and in this book he really excels himself. In one standout chapter, the characters of Malone and Roxton spend a night in a haunted house and encounter a ‘degraded spirit’. In any other context, this would be a sterling example of a spine-chilling ghost story. But when Doyle uses such incidents as examples of his own worldview rather than simply as a fictitious device, the result is a depressing yet fascinating example of a flawed masterpiece. It’s literally heartbreaking to see beloved characters reduced to mouthpieces for such hokum.

By the 1920’s, Doyle’s ‘simple plan’ for his novels had become anything but. The very opening of The Land of Mist announces that, while Challenger and his friends are real in the world of the book, their previous adventures (i.e., the events of The Lost World and the other Challenger stories) are to be considered nothing more that the exaggerations of certain zealous pressmen. This incredible piece of ret-con serves to indicate that The Land of Mist is somehow more important and ‘real’ than the other stories, as it ostensibly takes place in the ‘real’ world and not the world of fantastic fiction, being that it is dealing with the important ‘realities’ of Spiritualism. It seems that Doyle wished to use the character of Challenger to lure the reader into his lecture, while jettisoning the ‘baggage’ of his previous unlikely adventures. I can think of no surer way to alienate fans of The Lost World.

I enjoy Spiritualism as one of the bizarre ideas that gives the Victorian literary period its flavor, but this book is just sad. It is sad that Doyle really believed that a bunch of fakers shaking tables in dark rooms were going to change the world. It is sad that the creator of the most famously logical character in history also created this misguided polemic. And it is especially sad that he hijacked a bunch of my favorites characters to do it.

In his book Arthur Conan Doyle: Beyond Sherlock Holmes (2007), Dr. Andrew Norman makes the case that Doyle was slightly schizophrenic. Such torturous explanations are unnecessary. Quite apart from the fact that, as one wit put it, “psychology should not be a long-distance sport”, even the briefest glance at the world around us should be enough to convince that people will always need strange things to believe in. Doyle truly believed that he had met and conversed with apparitions. He saw, smelt and touched them. In his own head, he was completely convinced. We know now, of course, that Spiritualism was no more than a bunch of cads and charlatans, but perhaps we have also gained a deeper understanding of how the human mind can be fooled when it really wants to believe. It seems that even a fictional character, created by the brain behind Sherlock Holmes, is not immune to this yearning.