Professor Challenger: The Island of Terror
Dark Regions Press
As I’ve mentioned in several of my previous reviews, one of the things that, to me, makes William Meikle such an accomplished writer is the sheer variety of stories that he is able to produce. In the titles that I’ve recently reviewed as part of #MeikleMarch, Mr Meikle has fashioned narratives as diverse as a multi-facted collection of ghost stories written in the guise of some of the most famous story-tellers of the 19th Century; several taut, claustrophobic and genuinely unsettling horror stories set in bleak, isolated communities; two fast-paced, cinematically-styled action stories pitting heavily-armed special forces types against nautical and undead foes; and a collection of short stories based on William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost-Finder. Mr Meikle is not limited to any particular genre and seems to be unconstrained by convention, able to pick up almost any kind of story and run with it to produce something immensely readable. An excellent case in point is the next title I’ve chosen to review: Professor Challenger: The Island of Terror, a novella published by Dark Regions Press which acts as a follow-on from Arthur Conan Doyle’s excellent but lesser-known novel, The Lost World.
The novella features characters taken from The Lost World, primarily the reporter, Malone, the big game hunter Lord Roxton and, above all, the adventurer, explorer and palaeontologist Professor Challenger. In the introduction to his collection of Challenger short stories, a review of which will shortly be forthcoming, the author laments that the Professor has “mostly played second fiddle to Holmes in the Conan Doyle canon”, and I have to admit that this seems to be correct; in fact, until I did some research online, I would have struggled to even name the Professor, let alone remember that he had featured in The Lost World – and apparently several other novels, to my surprise. And yet, as soon as I started reading The Island of Terror and met Professor Challenger for the first time, something clicked with me – the larger than life personality, the booming voice, the irrepressible energy partnered with a towering temper barely kept in check at the best of times – all of this spoke to me in a way that no other character had in a long time, even in Mr Meikle’s fine Carnacki and Sherlock Holmes collections. Challenger is a fantastic creation of Conan Doyle’s that has fallen into undeserved obscurity – but in the assured and skilled hands of Mr Meikle, he comes alive once again in a fantastic new adventure.
Set in the aftermath of the First World War, the novella begins with Challenger’s old confidant Malone receives a terse letter from the Professor, summoning him to an isolated and obscure section of Devon in search of a story. He finds the beginnings of a story – strange lights in the distance, gutted farm animals, people going missing – but cannot find the Professor himself, who appears to have gone missing while investigating a nearby farmstead. After a disturbing conversation with the local undertaker, Malone makes his way to the farm and finds Challenger – only to be assaulted and detained by none other than the British Army. Transported to an island off the Devon coast, Malone and Challenger find themselves in the midst of a secretive and incredibly dangerous experiment by the British Army to develop a weapon that could win the next conflict – and indeed every conflict thereafter. The weapons themselves are a direct result of Challenger and Malone’s adventures in the Amazon during the events of The Lost World, and soon they find themselves having to fight for their lives against a brutal and unpredictable foe.
The nature of that foe, of course, is revealed in the fantastic piece of cover art by M Wayne Miller, who does his usual sterling job of creating an evocative and action-packed scene – Malone and Challenger desperately fighting off a pack of vicious dinosaurs as they balance precariously on the edge of a lighthouse. That fight in the lighthouse is merely one of a number of cracking fight scenes in the novella, with the author creating some particularly brutal and vicious fights between beleaguered Tommies and hordes of dinosaurs – Mr Meikle isn’t afraid to show the consequences of a pack predator being unleashed, with limbs being severed, guts splayed and bodies dismembered with an almost atavistic glee. The writing throughout is superb, up to Mr Meikle’s usually sky-high standards, and while Malone, Challenger and the rest may not have been the most tree-dimensional of characters when written by Doyle, he manages to imbue them with a great deal of personality – particularly Challenger, who is both outraged by the machinations of the British Army and their political masters, and also comes to develop a certain sense of sympathy for the dinosaurs. I particularly enjoyed the character arc of Roxton, who goes from nadir to nadir in an attempt to make up for bringing back the dinosaur eggs from their expedition, and thereby unleashing all of the chaos on the island. Finally there’s some subtle but intriguing world-building that takes place throughout the novella, with implications that could lead nicely into some further Challenger tales, especially the fate of the dinosaurs themselves – and whether Roxton brought back any other kinds of lizards from his expedition into the jungles.
I finished The Island of Terror in only a few hours – the characters, setting and world-building really grabbed me and wouldn’t let go until I’d reached the final page. There’s something about Challenger – perhaps his brash nature, which actually conceals a deeply sensitive and bright soul – that really spoke to me, and made me immediately seek out the rest of Mr Meikle’s Challenger short stories. Accompanied by some excellent artwork from M. Wayne Miller, The Island of Terror is a thrilling and accomplished piece of writing that combines a whip-fast and action-filled plot with a bold and vivid resuscitation of Professor Challenger and his coterie that does Mr Meikle a great deal of credit. It deserves to be read by anyone with an interest in Conan Doyle’s characters, gory, dinosaur-filled adventures, or just damn good writing.