Not many people are aware that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote more than the Sherlock Holmes stories. Doyle was a curious man and wrote many stories that today might be classified as science fiction. Take a peek at The Lost World (a 1912 classic) that imagined dinosaurs alive on earth long before Jurassic Park.
The Poison Belt suggests a murder mystery, but is in fact a nice little piece of speculative fiction in which Doyle imagines the course of events that would occur should the Earth “swim through the poisonous current which swirls like the Gulf Stream through the ocean of ether.” The story begins with journalist Mr. Malone being dispatched to interview his friend Professor Challenger. Those readers familiar with Doyle’s The Lost World will recognize the characters here – Malone and Challenger return, as well as Professor Summerlee and Lord John Roxton.
Professor Challenger has postulated through a letter in the London Times that the Earth has moved into a “poisonous belt” of atmosphere that is responsible for significant changes in the color spectrum as well as for widespread illness and panic in other parts of the world. Malone is dispatched to Challenger’s country home to get the story, but at the same time receives a summons from Challenger imploring him to “bring oxygen!” Malone meets Summerlee and Roxton on the way, they too having been summoned to Challenger in the same mysterious way.
Once they arrive at their destination, the three friends discover an excited Challenger who informs them they have but few hours to live before they also succumb to the poison belt. Challenger, genius that he is, has devised a way for the friends to last a little longer by sealing a room in his house. The room is furnished it with food and oxygen, which he believes will allow the friends to breathe and live beyond the rest of the household and neighborhood. As the day lengthens into night, the friends observe many terrible sights, such as a train running amok and eventually crashing into one giant heap, neighbors apparently dropping dead where they stand, and fires apparently burning great cities such as Brighton.
Our Mr. Malone, reporter to the end, records his observations and feelings as the night moves into day. As the sun rises, the friends see they are nearing the end of their oxygen supply and decide to meet death head-on. In a grand gesture, the window is thrown open and all prepare to meet their deaths. Or do they?
I was unprepared for the depth of Doyle’s speculation and found it quite refreshing. I am an avid Sherlock Holmes fan and hadn’t read anything else by the author, so this was a treat. Doyle’s rendition of what the world would be like after a catastrophic event is haunting, especially in a scene where a bell rings out over a London completely devoid of life. If Doyle had thrown in a few zombies or vampires, I might have thought I was reading Richard Matheson!
A solid 4 out of 5 date due cards.