CLUBHOUSE: Review: Professor Challenger Anthology. New Worlds. Lost Places.

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OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.

PROFESSOR CHALLENGER. NEW WORLDS. LOST PLACES.

Published by Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing, Calgary, Alberta, Canada in 2015.

Edited by J. R. Campbell and Charles Prepolec. Cover illustration by Dave Elsey.

Note: the first four reviews previously published in OBIR Magazine, now defunct. Clubhouse has replaced it.

Hind and Horn by Wendy N. Wagner

Premise:

Professor Challenger and Mr. Ellsworth, a specialist in ancient Irish language and symbolism, have been sent by the British museum to aid Dr. James Morran, a noted Irish amateur archaeologist, and his beautiful wife Saeve, in the excavation of a bog mummy and an accompanying hunting horn near the village of Seghmoin in County Kerry. The Morrans are convinced the symbols painted on the chest of the mummy will prove the well preserved body is that of Finn McCool, a legendary hero, and that the horn is the nearly-as-legendary Dord Fiann, McCool’s hunting horn of magical power. Challenger dismisses the possibility, but Ellsworth is willing to examine the evidence. It turns out that the Morrans’ enthusiasm has a curiously practical aspect to it.

Review:

The story builds nicely, with Challenger’s disdain for his scholarly companion evident to all, a pair of rather odd servants, and entirely too many Red Deer about the place at night. Something odd going on, and if not exactly evil, certainly very dangerous and not to be trifled with. Challenger’s blunt and in-your-face approach to all problems and mysteries, not to mention obstacles, tends to exacerbate matters toward an unpleasant revelation of a threatening nature. Well and good, and I was eager and anxious to enjoy myself thoroughly as I read, but the ending of the story was a let-down, a real disappointment. Were the story the opening chapter of a novel, with promise of further chaos and mystery to come, it would have been perfectly acceptable. But as a story complete unto itself? Nope. Not only did the ending seem weak, it also struck me as being entirely out of character for Challenger. Up to the last couple of pages though, I quite enjoyed the story, but the ending didn’t work for me, wasn’t a satisfying resolution. You may react differently.

The Shug Monkey – by Stephen Volk

Premise:

Edward Malone, who had accompanied Professor Challenger on their famous trip to the lost world, now seeks his help in tracking down the Shug Monkey, a bestial creature, possibly related to Black Shuck, Gallytrot, or Padfoot, spectral monsters all of past and current legend in England, in order to put the public mind at ease. Challenger is skeptical, dismissing all the slight evidence, but astonished by one seemingly irrefutable eyewitness and so moved to investigate. Before he can begin, word comes of newly discovered evidence that will reveal the truth once and for all.

Review:

The tale has a Sherlock Holmes flavour to it, which is very appropriate given that Conan Doyle, the author of the original Challenger series, is most famous for his invention of that splendid detective. So the story of the Shug Monkey is in homage to both characters, methinks. As for the nature of the Shug Monkey, on final determination, the implications are far worse than the creature itself, which presents Challenger with a considerable conundrum. The fate of the human race may depend on his decision. This, to my mind, is a successful story with a satisfying ending. Nifty title, too.

The Crystal Minders – by John Takis

Premise:  

Edward Malone, intrepid reporter and willing/unwilling sidekick of Professor Challenger, is astonished late one evening when a much-worse-for-the-wear Professor Summerlee staggers into the Daily Gazette’s office with a tale to tell. Seems Challenger demanded Summerlee come along to visit a former acquaintance by name of Ackerman now residing at Stebbing Hall, a country estate in Essex. Ackerman and Challenger were enemies, having had a falling out in their youth over the little matter of living crystals discovered in a cave in France (which later collapsed). Turns out Ackerman has discovered how to grow the crystals into functioning replacements of human limbs and organs. Now the damn fool has cultured a thing infinitely worse.

Review:

There’s something very Victorian about a science fictional exploration of natural crystals as the key to futuristic technology. Today’s high-tech tends to build on previous advances, but this story deals with first-stage technology based on a break-through study of an entirely new natural phenomena roughly equivalent to the discovery of electricity or radiation. A genuine throwback to the spirit of the times in which the story is set. Helps make the story curiously credible and convincing. Love the title too. Sounds like one H.G. Wells would come up with.

King of the Moon – by Lawrence C. Conolly

Premise:

As we all know, Mr. Bedford and Mr. Cavor went to the Moon. Mr. Bedford came home alone. Being a crass opportunist he peddled his tale to one Mr. Wells. There the matter ended. For a while. Then Bedford met Ann, Cavor’s niece and heir. Apparently Cavor kept notes in his lab. With the aid of Jimmy Major and Jimmy Minor (both inventors), Ann and Bedford soon cobble together another sphere and rise to the Moon to rescue Cavor should he still be alive. They bring Professor Challenger on the assumption that the Selenites, if their race still exists, will stand in awe of him and do his bidding. Tidy little theory.

Review:

The premise of this tale is “absolutely imperial,” as Cavor was wont to say. Definitely a “ripping good yarn.” There’s a not a lot original to be found, in that it is a return to a setting and experience of some nostalgia to many readers, but charming and enjoyable precisely because of that. You CAN go home again, so to speak. At the same time the implications of the “what if?” scenario of Cavor remaining, living, and working on (or rather “in”) the Moon are worked out to gleeful advantage. My only complaint is that the fate of the Selenite bus driver is not fully explained. Perhaps best not to know.

To One Table – by J. R. Campbell

Premise:

It has been said that the primary function of British upper class twits is to bore each other to death with a seasonal round of dinner parties at their country estates, usually beginning in August, the start of the Grouse hunting season. In this tale, however, Malone and Challenger are called to a mansion in London where the host served his dinner guests fresh-cooked dinosaur. Unaccountably the cook stripped naked, fought with the servants and guests, set himself on fire and burned to death, except that his body is still lumbering about and needs to be strapped down. Peculiar, that. Challenger has one and all transferred to the country estate of Lord Roxton so that he can determine the nature of the contagion beginning to afflict the guests. Most peculiar of all, Malone is smitten head over heels by a female guest hitherto unknown to him.

Review:  

That Challenger’s initial assault on the unknown plateau in Venezuela was immediately followed by multiple gentleman-explorer missions intent on making money off the dinosaurs is a nice conceit. The host of the dinner party, being an extremely wealthy man, had no difficulty acquiring six predatory dinosaurs for a planned series of dinners. Only one has been eaten. The other five remain alive, albeit curiously lethargic, and transferred to Lord Roxton’s estate so that Challenger can explore the curious attraction between dinosaurs (predator) and guests (prey). Something more that mere hunger seems to be going on. Assembled doctors assume the guests are suffering from an undetectable toxin present in the dinosaur flesh they ate. Challenger is convinced something more biologically sophisticated is responsible for their aberrant behaviour. He is correct, much to the peril of everyone involved. I rather like the underlying concept as it is an extrapolation of a condition already known to exist here and there in nature but so far not to the detriment of mankind. Genetic mutation may remove our immunity some day. Or bringing back the dinosaurs could accomplish same. Hmm, another argument against Jurassic Park, now that I think about it. Good story.

The Fool’s Sea – by Simon Kurt Unsworth

Premise:

It is 1915. An aging Challenger has insisted an equally aging Malone accompany him on a small fishing vessel The King’s Glory to the Fool’s Sea, a region of the Atlantic where undersea cables break most often. They are seeking the Josephine Anne, a cable repair ship that has gone missing. Challenger blames the cable breaks on a sea monster. Specifically, he believes the interfering presence of man on the bottom of the ocean has awakened the Kraken which is not, however, the problem he seeks to resolve. Rather, it is the intention of the Admiralty to weaponize the Kraken and use it against the Germans that worries him. He is out to destroy the Kraken to prevent its misuse, for once unleashed it could easily get out of control and threaten the very freedom of the seas for any and all nations.

Review:

This is a simple story which calls into question Challenger’s sanity. As he flees with Malone through the innards of the Josephine Anne in a desperate attempt to escape from the Kraken’s questing tentacles, he giggles with glee at how easily he has trapped the beast and how soon he will triumph over it. A healthy ego is a useful thing when confronting monsters but I think Malone can be forgiven for entertaining doubts given the circumstances of the moment. And I quibble over the Admiralty allowing a cable repair ship, a sitting duck when lifting or lowering undersea cable, to be at sea when the Kaiser’s U-Boats are everywhere, but perhaps they hoped the Kraken would use the ship as a lure to attract U-Boats in order to destroy them. In any event I enjoyed the story for the same reason I enjoyed the 1998 film Deep Rising. Always great fun to be trapped aboard a ship by an invincible, gigantic sea monster, or, at least, great fun to be vicariously present. Not sure I could be as cool as Challenger were the situation real.

The Eye of the Devil – by Mark Morris

Premise:

There has been a coal mine disaster in the tiny village of St. Lenwith in Dartmoor. Apparently, while a mine tunnel was being extended, poisonous gas seeped out which killed six miners. A seventh, the sole survivor, managed to flee, though not without first catching a glimpse of the Devil himself. Intrigued, Malone’s editor sends him to investigate. While walking along the dirt track between the little train station and the village Malone is attacked by a monstrous bull that is not a bull. Barely making it to the village in time to avoid the creature tearing him to pieces, Malone phones Challenger to come help him solve the mystery.

Review:

There is a twee English village atmosphere to the story similar to that portrayed in many a Hammer Horror film and no doubt a ton of English literature. Always enjoyed this sort of ambience. Don’t know why. Simultaneously creepy and civilized, perhaps it serves as some sort of antidote to modern big city life. That the bull creature is the first of several monsters is pleasing. And the final revelation behind the creatures’ origins, though at first a shift in tone I didn’t quite buy, ultimately I accepted as a suitable resolution to the conundrum albeit one which took me by surprise. My one quibble is that Tom Bindle, the only survivor of the first encounter, is never met in the story. I would have thought his character could have served several purposes in the unfolding plot. In fact, had this been a Hammer film, I visualize him being played by Michael Ripper in one of his glorious character-actor set-pieces. Instead, it’s as if he wound up on the cutting room floor to make room for more monster sequences. Despite this, the story falls into the category of a rollicking good tale, so I’m happy.

Professor Challenger and the Crimson Wonder – by Guy Adams and James Goss.

Premise:

Jessie, Mrs. Challenger, writes to her husband to chide him for beating Austin, their chauffer. She happens to mention that, having some ladies over for tea, a newcomer by name of Miss Withers had walked off with a sample of The Crimson Wonder from his laboratory. Said weed, a leftover from The Affair of the Poison Belt, is now extinct but for the sample in Challenger’s possession. He begins his reply letter (he is attending a conference in London) with the words “If I didn’t love you so very much I would most certainly kill you.” He is not pleased. It turns out that Miss Withers knows how to propagate the weed to the advantage of her alien design upon the human race. As for Challenger, he is cast into prison when a young girl accuses him of molesting her. Thus the fate of the human race is largely left in the hands of Mrs. Challenger, who is by nature far too polite to comfortably confront a monstrous evil.

Review:

Odd as it sounds, this is actually a delightful story, or rather a delightful satire of the misogyny and violence built into Victorian culture and, indeed, built into Challenger’s nature. In his introduction J.R. Campbell states Doyle based Challenger on three individuals known to him; Sir Edward Lankester, a man who resented imposture; William Rutherford, a bull of a man with an Assyrian beard; and Dr. George Budd, a roaring, aggressive extrovert. I think the resulting composite character Doyle intended as a foil to contemporary over-sophistication, foppish pedantry, and muddled thinking. However, I think this story’s exaggerated version of the character goes beyond Doyle’s intent in that it reflects the perverse morality of the era. Challenger is a genius who often thinks with his fists, yet is forgiven by one and all (except his many enemies) for being such a sweet fellow at heart. There is parody here of the “right” to treat one’s inferiors as inferiors. There is even an element of parody to do with alleged modern “oversensitivity” to perceived affronts. While the treatment is amusing and witty, and the plot ingenious and satisfactory, in sum the story makes me wonder just how far I am prepared to accept a fundamentally brutal “hero” as a charming character. Granted, the girl’s accusations turn out to be false, merely a part of the plot against the human race, but Challenger’s resort to mindless fury and violence before his rational brilliance kicks in does seem a trifle caddish by modern standards. If ever a man needed to be sentenced to anger management training, it’s Challenger. The Crimson Wonder entertains, but also makes one think. A good thing, I believe.

Time’s Black Gulf – by Josh Reynolds

Premise:

Challenger is not himself. Literally not himself. Spends all his time building an infernal device. Malone and Lord Roxton watch over him while his friend Summerlee goes to enlist the aid of Thomas Carnacki, famed occultist. They arrive just before the visitors Challenger is expecting, visitors who are quite nasty, and worse, far more than what they seem. Then Challenger has to go and turn the machine on. Once again the world is under threat.

Review:

First of all, it is a pleasure to find William Hope Hodgson’s famous character Carnacki The Ghost-Finder in the company of Professor Challenger. The detective who solved such mysteries as The Thing Invisible and The Whistling Room surely is a man after Challenger’s own heart. Also fun to witness creatures more literally after his heart, namely Lovecraft’s Hounds of Tindalos here referred to as The Tind’Losi – the Hounds of the Angles. This is the kind of pastiche I love. The premise and plot are acceptable but the real joy of this story is the interaction of Challenger, Carnacki, and the Hounds. Comes across as a story written by Doyle, Hodgson and Lovecraft working together. A dream collaboration, in my opinion. Makes the story all the more entertaining for me.

Out of the Depths – by Andrew J. Wilson

Premise:

The discovery of a leftover experiment by Dr. Moreau in Hobbs Lane in London leads Challenger to explore a gigantic underworld cavern where his worst suspicions are confirmed, the Nazis are seeking to weaponize the living Earth he had discovered When The World Screamed. It all has to do with that gigantic creature’s ability to recreate prehistoric life forms. He and Malone must revisit Maple White Land in Venezuela to put a halt to the Nazi’s nefarious plans, but perhaps they are both too old to do any good?

Review:

In the tradition of many Sherlock Holmes movies where the decidedly Victorian era hero confronts the Nazis during WWII, in this story Doyle’s other famous character strives to defeat the Nazis in the 1930s. It also contrives to present a curiously long-lived Dr. Moreau, a famous H.G. Wells’ character, forced to work on behalf of the Nazi desire to create the perfect super race. Further, a character obviously based on the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl is thrown in, and not as mere window-dressing either, she plays a role in the Earth creature’s plans. The story is in some ways a homage to the movie Jurassic Park (At one point Challenger shouts “Life will find a way!”) itself ultimately derived from Doyle’s The Lost World, but more than that it ties the latter with When the Earth Screamed and The Island of Dr. Moreau rather well, throwing in the ultimate villains, the Nazis, for good measure. It sounds like a hodgepodge, but in fact is seamless good fun. Call it a good extrapolation romp. I enjoyed it.

CONCLUSION: 

Only one author in this anthology is Canadian. How does this square with my self-imposed mandate to review Canadian authors and books? Edge is a major independent Canadian publisher. Justification enough, I say, especially as I love Victorian era science fiction, even though it was a horrible time to live unless you were very well off. I like the “cozy” atmosphere of life back then. My favourite scene in the George Pal movie The Time Machine involves the time traveller explaining his plans to a few select friends in the comfort of his drawing room. Such a civilized life style. Such civilized conversation. Nowadays we make do with Facebook.

It was an era of machines, but machines one can visualize as Mecanno constructions, only minimally beyond the ability of the average person to comprehend, unlike today’s electronic monstrosities threatening to replace us. It was a civilization I find easy to grasp, one that furnishes a comfortable, even comforting background to relatively simple SF conundrums. Thwart the plans of the bad guys and all is well. Victorian era science fiction or modern stories in the style are comfort food for the mind, containing many nicely defined boundaries which avoid the mind-numbing complexity of today’s surfeit of information. Besides, such stories conjure up a lost world in more ways than one. A pleasant form of time travel. For anyone who seeks refuge in a nostalgic past, as I often do, this book is a great read.

Check it out at:    < Edge Books: Professor Challenger >

 

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