With his big mustachioed laugh and a twinkle in his eye, maybe Conan Doyle was only pulling our leg about his absolute and seemingly naïve belief that the Cottingley Fairy photographs were real. I’m not saying he didn’t believe in the spirit world at all. For that matter, I don’t know why people make such a big deal that a medical school graduate and creator of the logical-minded Sherlock Holmes might also believe in life after death. Even so, we should remember that Doyle was a very playful character. While his friends and colleagues may have been embarrassed by his apparently gullibility, Doyle seems to have remained nonplussed.
Researcher Cory Gross, on his magnificent site dedicated to The Lost World, tells us about a practical joke Conan Doyle played on a group of magicians, including Houdini, in 1922:
Conan Doyle’s good friend Harry Houdini invited him to the annual meeting of the Society of American Magicians. But despite being close, their friendship was frequently tested by Houndini’s deep-seated skepticism of Spiritualist claims. Anticipating more of the same at the Society’s meeting, Conan Doyle prepared a little trick of his own.
Doyle brought a movie projector to the meeting and, without explanation, gave the attendees a screening of what appeared to be living, breathing, walking dinosaurs. This was, of course, footage created by Willis O’Brien, the great stop-motion film pioneer responsible for the special effects in The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933).
The New York Times ran an article about the event, the next day (June 3, 1922), which said in part:
Whether these pictures were intended …as a joke on the magicians or as a genuine picture like his photographs of fairies was not revealed…His monsters …were extraordinarily lifelike. If fakes, they were masterpieces. Hitherto, the famous visitor has not been inclined to play with his subject. Sir Arthur is the author of “The Lost World”, a novel in which a British scientist discovers in South America a plateau which has survived through geologic time and is still stocked with monsters which roamed the earth millions of years before man developed from the lower forms or was created.
A day later, the Times published a letter from Doyle in which he verified that he was simply having fun with footage from the planned movie adaptation on his novel, The Lost World. Whether intended or not, this was top-notch publicity for the film!
Elsewhere on the same site, John Lavas tells how, in the first editions of The Lost World, “Conan Doyle included faked photographs (some of which he created himself) and maps purporting to represent the plateau (where the dinosaurs were discovered).” Lavas further tells us that the hero of The Lost World, Professor Challenger, “was, after Holmes, Conan Doyle’s favourite character. Conan Doyle even used to walk about London streets in full Challenger disguise complete with fake beard and eyebrows! Challenger would later appear in four other Conan Doyle stories, but was never again as memorable as he proved to be in his debut.”
Reading the Lavas article, followed by a Cory Gross piece called The Land of Mist, got me thinking about Doyle as a “metafictionist.” (I thought about using the term “metafictionalist” but I like the Steampunk ring of metafictionist. It’s like saying “machinist” instead of “mechanic.”)
The Lost World introduced readers to Professor Challenger in 1912. Challenger returns a year later in The Poison Belt. Here’s what Cory Gross says about the third Professor Challenger novel, The Land of Mist:
After the publication of The Poison Belt in 1913, there was a 13 year gap in which nothing was heard from Professor George Edward Challenger. Then in 1926, perhaps in reaction to the success of the Lost World film in 1925, he surfaced again… one doesn’t get very far into the text before the strong impression is given that The Land of Mist is intended to take place in an alternate continuity. The book begins with the following paragraph:
The great Professor Challenger has been- very improperly and imperfectly- used in fiction. A daring author placed him in impossible and romantic situations in order to see how he would react to them. He reacted to the extent of a libel action, an abortive appeal for suppression, a riot in Sloane Street, two personal assaults, and the loss of his position as lecturer upon Physiology at the London School of Sub-Tropical Hygiene. Otherwise, the matter passed more peaceably than might have been expected.
So, here we have Conan Doyle writing about professor Challenger as if he were a real person about whom two fictional stories have been written, in the introduction to what purports to be a real account (but which we know is also fiction)!
Or do we? Some people, after all, even wondered if the dinosaurs were real!
Lavas also raises the possibility that Doyle himself may have perpetrated the Piltdown Man hoax. An orangutan jaw affixed to a human skull, the so-called Piltdown Man relic was discovered in the vicinity of Doyle’s home in 1908. Some evidence points to Martin Hinton, a curator at the British Museum, as the culprit, while other clues implicate Doyle. It is possible that they acted together, but it is also possible that neither man was involved.
We may conclude one sure thing: In matters of science vs. mysticism, fiction vs. metaficition, or prank vs. publicity, when it comes to Arthur Conan Doyle, nobody knows for sure.