And Then I Read: THE POISON BELT by A. Conan Doyle


The second science fiction novel by Doyle featuring Professor Challenger is one I had high hopes for. First edition above, but I read it on my phone and iPad. The cast of characters is much the same as “The Lost World,” and the story begins with reports of unrest and cataclysms around the world, and a newspaper article by Challenger suggesting the cause: the Earth, and the entire solar system, is drifting into a section of ether or space that contains some kind of poison, one that is affecting all animal life on our planet. Challenger soon contacts his “Lost World” team-mates, reporter Edward Malone (again the story’s narrator), adventurer Lord John Roxton and Professor Summerlee and invites them all to his home in the country, asking each of them to bring a cylinder of compressed oxygen. When they arrive and have the situation explained, they seal off a small suite of rooms in the house and prepare to try to stay alive when everyone else they can see is falling to the ground, and apparently dying. The oxygen keeps them going for a day or two, and when it runs out, they discover the poison has dissipated, and they go out to explore a world greatly changed.

This seemed a promising beginning, and I was expecting an end of the world story perhaps along the lines of Jules Verne’s “Off On a Comet,” or an even closer idea, “The Purple Cloud” by M. P. Shiel, written in 1901, well before this one, and very much along the same plotline. I was disappointed in Doyle’s handling of Challenger this time, though, as he seems to have lost his passion for scientific inquiry. The group of survivors is surrounded by those apparently dead, but they don’t even examine the bodies, other than to move Challenger’s chauffer from the yard into his bedroom. The rest of the book, the four and Challenger’s wife travel by car to London, or as far as they can before the number of bodies halts them, then they walk into the city. There’s no realistic description of the mass death, other than huge numbers of prone bodies, no smell, no signs of decay…and perhaps you can already figure out where this is going. Of course, everyone is not dead, merely in a catatonic state, and before long they’re all coming back to life and resuming their lives as if nothing had happened. The chief wonder that everyone keeps exclaiming over is the silent city, but they hardly get up the nerve to enter a few buildings.

So, rather than getting involved, as Challenger and his crew did so much of in “The Lost World,” here they’re mere observers, and of an episode that doesn’t go very far. I can’t recommend the book, but there’s one more Challenger novel and some short stories that I’m going to try next. In all, I felt the plot of this one was a cheat and a disappointment.

The Poison Belt by A Conan Doyle

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