"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." — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, introducing The Lost World
One of the most unnerving things about the Internet, I find, is the way it reveals the commonality of our human experience. No matter how unique I imagine myself, the online world usually demonstrates that someone else has been there, seen it, and done it all—if not before me, at least at roughly the same time.
Back in July I wrote about an obscure young-adult novel, Danger: Dinosaurs! which had made a big impression on me during my formative years. I thought I was the only person alive who knew such a book even existed. To my surprise, two readers wrote back immediately, recalling a similar fascination with the very same book! Carl Eddy even went on to list as his childhood favorites many of the touchstones of my own youth: the movies King Kong and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the paintings of Charles R. Knight, and Turok, Son of Stone.
My God, when was the last time I heard anyone mention Turok? What wouldn’t I give to have on hand again that beloved series of comic books from the mid-fifties about two Native Americans, Turok and Andar, who became trapped in a lost valley of prehistoric animals (which they called “honkers”) and spent episode after episode trying to find their way out? I could also go on about Gorgo, The Giant Behemoth, The Valley of Gwangi and the other dinosaur-related fantasies which colored my younger days. . .at least until I discovered that perfect television show, The Avengers, with John Steed and Emma Peel--especially Emma Peel, who gave this teenage boy something even more compelling to focus on than dinosaurs.
At some point, I graduated from Danger: Dinosaurs! to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, the story of a group of British explorers who discover a hidden plateau in South America populated by prehistoric creatures. I first came to this extraordinary romance through the 1960 film version, which was colorful and tremendous fun despite being a terrible movie; the dinosaurs were actually lizards with horns and rubber frills glued onto their backs, when every kid knew that the only way to portray dinosaurs was with stop-motion models posed one frame of film at a time to give the illusion of movement across table-top jungles. This Lost World was a remake of the 1925 silent original, (with special effects by Willis O’Brien, who later perfected the same techniques for King Kong), which became my personal Holy Grail of films to see.
Movies were not so easily come by back then; you either saw them first-run in the theatre or waited for them on television, cut to ribbons and larded with commercials. I first saw the 1925 Lost World in a 20-minute 8mm abridgment on my friend’s family movie projector. Although those ghostly shadows projected against the wall were hard to make out, and there was no discernible plot line, I was enchanted. How could I imagine that the complete and fully restored version would one day be available on DVD at the library, where I could borrow it again and again?
As far as I know, the original novel of The Lost World has never been out of print. I bought my first paperback copy from the Scholastic Book Club in grade school (along with my first The Time Machine, but don’t get me started on how that book and movie intersect in my brain, or we’ll be here forever). Although I read the book as a child, it is aimed at children about as much the Sherlock Holmes stories are—how certain books originally meant for a general audience become identified with children’s literature is an intriguing question for another day. The Lost World was first published in 1912 and represents a final grand flourish of romantic adventure before the First World War transformed the world. Earlier, H. Rider Haggard novels had sent British explorers to exotic locales, and, in France, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth had already placed people and prehistoric creatures on the same stage; but I don’t believe these stories still make engrossing contemporary reading experiences. In Conan Doyle, however, the encounters with dinosaurs are memorable.
“The thing moved forward with a dreadful snarl. Lord John never hesitated, but, running towards it with a quick, light step, he dashed the flaming wood into the brute’s face. For one moment I had a vision of a horrible mask like a giant toad’s, of a warty, leprous skin, and of a loose mouth all beslobbered with fresh blood.”
Aside from the sincerity and enthusiasm at the heart of the story-telling, what makes The Lost World such a compelling narrative are the vivid characterizations of its four principal characters: Edward D. Malone, the young reporter who joins the expedition to prove himself to his beloved Gladys, who will not marry any man not capable of “noble deeds”; Lord John Roxton, the quintessential English sportsman and adventurer; Professor Summerlee, the brittle, caustic scientific expert; and Professor George Edward Challenger, the eccentric and extrovert scientific genius who leads the expedition to the headwaters of the Amazon. Challenger was Doyle’s favorite creation, certainly more than Sherlock Holmes, toward whom he was always ambivalent.
What makes the first edition (and its initial publication as a serial in the Strand Magazine) particularly interesting is the illustrations, a few of which I’ve scanned here, including several faked photographs intended to give the impression of a genuine journalistic piece. This photograph of the “members of the expedition” includes a fearsome, heavy-browed, and thickly bearded Professor Challenger--who is in fact Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in disguise.
It must be admitted that each version of The Lost World has some negative qualities. The original novel displays imperialist tendencies which make Rudyard Kipling look PC. In between its special effects, the 1925 film has a few repulsive moments of Hollywood racial stereotyping. The 1960 film features Jill St. John as a wealthy socialite who manages to tag along on the expedition and bring her pet poodle. Truthfully, I no longer give much thought to dinosaurs. And, right now, as I sit at my computer in the South Court of the New York Public Library, I can honestly say that I’m glad not to be anywhere near the headwaters of the Amazon. But having written about The Lost World in its multiple versions, thought about the lost world of my own youth, and stared for awhile at this illustration of the hidden plateau, I am curiously aware of vague and primitive stirrings for something beyond the here-and-now. Hidden plateaus may have disappeared from the earth, but there’s still something about kids and dinosaurs.