Blog: Commentary from the den of a pulp super-fan

The adventures of Professor Challenger

Posted by at 10:00 am Monday, March 3, 2014 in Pulps, Sherlock Holmes
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

The adventures of Professor Challenger

The Lost WorldWhen it comes to the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, everyone knows of Sherlock Holmes. Less known are his many historical fiction works. And sadly, also often overlooked is his other major fictional character Professor George Edward Challenger.

If people do know of Professor Challenger, it’s through his first work, the classic “The Lost World,” which has been adopted into film several times and inspired many other fictional works.

In that first novel, we are introduced to the Professor, zoologist, anthropologist, and explorer, who is a large and larger-than-life character. He is immense and imposing, with black hair and a black beard. And he does not suffer fools gladly, likely to get upset and assault people (Phillip José Farmer in his Wold Newton Family linked Challenger to Doc Savage‘s associate “Monk” Mayfair, making Challenger, Monk’s uncle). When reporter Edward Malone (another main character in the series) goes to visit him, he is a bit apprehensive, as the Professor had assaulted several other reporters who had bothered him. Also introduced in that work is Professor Summerlee, and big game hunter Lord John Roxton, both of whom appeared in further works.

Doyle would write several Challenger works:

  • “The Lost World” (1912)
  • “The Poison Belt” (1913)
  • “The Land of Mist” (1926)
  • “When the World Screamed” (1928)
  • “The Disintegration Machine” (1929)

As noted, most probably know of “The Lost World,” a lost plateau in South America on which dinosaurs, cave-men and other prehistoric creatures still exist. It was based on plateaus in South America called tepuis, which had unique ecosystems. (These were the basis for the setting of the Disney/Pixar film “Up”). This lost world is properly called “Maple White Land” for its discoverer. Challenger and his associates travel there and bring back proof of their journey, but things don’t go as planned when they attempt to show it. In addition to being adapted for movies and even a TV show, the novel has also served as a inspiration for a whole range of “lost worlds” of prehistoric life in various distant and hard to access locations.

Most people sadly haven’t read the rest of the Challenger stories. I was fortunate to obtain a two-volume trade paperback collection of all of them several years back. The next novel has an interesting idea: The world will pass through a band of poisonous ether. Learning of this, Challenger calls together his associates from the previous adventure, and they use bottled air to survive. Read the book to find out what happens next.

The third novel, sadly, is one I can’t recommend. Conan Doyle got into various nonsense like spiritualism and such. In this work, Edward Malone, along with Challenger’s daughter Enid (introduced in this work) contact an old comrade who has passed on.

The two later short stories are much better. One deals with discovering that the world is actually a living being, and the other is about an inventor who has created a machine that can disintegrate and reintegrate objects and beings. I really wish Conan Doyle had written more of these stories.

While there has been a ton of new Sherlock Holmes stories and pastiches, there have not been that many new Professor Challenger stories or characters inspired on him and his associates. I’d like to see more.

One interesting one is a recent story in the “Sherlock Holmes: The Crossover Casebook,” which gives Challenger another daughter who is more like her father in temperament. So a “challenge” to the New Pulp world: how about a collection of new Professor Challenger stories?


  1. Also interesting is the somewhat questionable claim that Doyle might have plagiarized “The Poison Belt” from J.H. Rosny’s (author of ‘Quest for Fire’) “La Force Mystérieuse” [The Mysterious Force] which began its serialization in the magazine ‘Je Sais Tout’ two months before Doyle’s “The Poison Belt” began its serialization in ‘The Strand.’ Doyle in a letter of response to a French literary magazine noted that he had already written the early chapters of “The Poison Belt” six months before the serialization began in ‘The Strand’ something confirmed by the editor of ‘The Strand.’ (see: One way or the other, having read both, I can say that the similarities are remarkable — both have comet tails intersecting with Earth’s orbit influencing life on Earth, common alterations of light properties, and a scientist and their assistants observing the events unfold…amongst other things.

    Also of note, 16 years before the first Sherlock Holmes story, the French author Henry Cauvain, published the popular novel “Maximilien Heller,” which recounts the adventures of a disbarred lawyer and righter of wrongs, who uses observation and deduction in his investigations, has a friend and chronicler who is a doctor, who is often worried of the rather manic-depressive behaviour of his genius-level friend. Again, no evidence that Doyle read the French best-seller, but the parallels are again ‘remarkable.’

    In his Preface to the 1913 book edition of “La Force Mystérieuse” Rosny wrote (roughly translated from the French):

    “[…] I went through the issue of ‘The Strand’ where my English colleague, Mr. Conan Doyle, began the publication of a novel entitled “The Poison Belt.” Indeed, there was between the theme of his novel and that of mine unfortunate coincidences, including the troubles with the light, the phases of exaltation and depression of the men, etc. — common elements which will be clear to anyone who has read both works.

    I must admit that I was not without some suspicions, given the extreme specificity of the plot, so much more so because in England it quite frequently occurs that authors buy an idea, which they then exploit as it pleases them: someone might have suggested my subject to Mr. Conan Doyle. Certainly, it is always possible that this arose purely by coincidence; as for me I am inclined to a broad confidence in others. Thus, I have always been of the opinion that [H.G.] Wells never read my “Les Xipéhuz,” “La legend sceptique” and “Catalysme”, which appeared long before his delightful tales. This is because Wells imposes a certain personal seal on his works, which is missing in Mr. Conan Doyle’s.

    Anyways, mine is not to make any claims. I hold as possible a convergence of ideas between Mr. Conan Doyle and myself; and, while I know through already long experience that one is often accused of following those who you follow you, I find it useful to take note of the date, and remark that the two first installments of “La Force Mystérieuse” had already appeared in ‘Je Sais Tout’ when “The Poison Belt’ began its run in ‘The Strand.'”

    A.C. Doyle responded (roughly translated from the French):

    “I have other fish to fry than to spy out Mr. Rosny’s works in order to copy them. The first chapters of “The Poison Belt” were written close to a year before the book was finished, handed in for publication, or even began to appear in ‘The Strand.’ Mr. Rosny states that by then he had published the first two instalments of his book; but common sense should tell him that even should I have wished to imitate him, it would have been impossible to write my novel and have the illustrations ready within two months. […] Therefore, all that remains for Mr. Rosny to do is express his regrets at such an injurious insinuation, which I would not have deigned to respond to had it not raised some doubt in your mind.”

    • Interesting. Hadn’t heard of that. But I would have to agree that since they came out so close together, it’s hard to claim plagiarism. Similar to the claims of plagiarism between Batman and Black Bat.