Friday, October 16, 2020

The Land of Mist by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Prof. Challenger betrayed for spiritualist propaganda
Outside of his Sherlock Holmes stories, the most famous recurring character in the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is Professor Challenger, the bearded, blustering scientist who led the expedition to The Lost World. Conan Doyle featured Challenger in three novels and two short stories. Unfortunately, with the exception of The Lost World, none of them are regarded very highly. The Land of Mist, published in 1926, is the third novel in the Challenger series, which follows Challenger’s second adventure, 1913’s The Poison Belt. The two short stories were published later, but I believe they are prequels to The Land of Mist.

One of the things (among many) that makes this novel so disappointing is that Challenger is merely a guest star in this book and only present for small portions of the narrative. The story centers around Ned Malone, journalist and sidekick from The Lost World. Professor Challenger’s daughter Enid Challenger is also a reporter and plays a major role in the story. Malone and Enid are assigned by a newspaper to co-write a series of articles on the spiritualist movement. Though both begin as skeptics, they resolve to keep an open mind while investigating possible paranormal phenomena at a series of seances where mediums claim to receive communications from the dead. (Gee, I wonder if the two reporters will fall in love.) Lord John Roxton, another supporting character from The Lost World, also appears in a couple chapters.

Conan Doyle wrote many works on spiritualism and the paranormal, both fiction and nonfiction. He was a firm believer in the supernatural world and gave pubic lectures on the topic. Sometimes he even managed to craft an entertaining story around the subject, such as in The Parasite. The Land of Mist, however, reads more like one of his lectures than one of his entertaining stories. As Malone and Enid attend more seances and meet more mediums, they become more convinced of the veracity of spiritualist claims. Meanwhile, mediums are being persecuted in London for their beliefs. If they could only convert a confirmed materialist into seeing the truth and beauty of the spirit world, it would go a long way towards popularizing spiritualism for the good of the masses. Thus, Ned and Enid conspire with the spiritualists to convince Professor Challenger to attend a seance where he will see the light and become converted. By following this course, Conan Doyle betrays the integrity of his own character in order to push his spiritualist propaganda.

Conan Doyle was also a church-goin’ man, so he does not view spiritualism as a departure from the Bible. In fact, a few of the ghosts who appear in this story have actually met Christ, and the prophets mentioned in the Bible were nothing but mediums who received messages from the dead. The spiritualists’ belief system, as sketched by Conan Doyle in this novel, is an absurd house of cards built on convenient rationalizations. When a seance fails to achieve results, for example, it is because a skeptic in the room disturbs the energy. In addition to messages from beyond the grave, Conan Doyle asserts physical manifestations such as ectoplasmic apparitions, spirit photography, and poltergeists. Even those who believe in ghosts and TV mediums who speak to the deceased will find many of the Victorian Era spiritualist beliefs to be ridiculous.

Besides all the pseudo-science, this is just a poorly written story, boring for most of its length, that can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be an essay or a melodrama. Conan Doyle presents a dull catalog of dozens of paranormal occurrences he’s read about, which leaves room for only the thinnest of stories, every turn of which is predictable. Although Conan Doyle has every right to write about his supernatural beliefs, he should have left Professor Challenger out of it.

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