Professor Challenger: The Kew Growths and Other Stories by William Meikle, Dark Renaissance, p/b, $17.95, Publisher’s website
Reviewed by David Brzeski
I enjoyed William Meikle’s previous Professor Challenger book, which I reviewed here, so I was very much looking forward to this new collection.
It starts with a bang, with the title story, ‘The Kew Growths’, which teams up Challenger and Malone, with another classic character that the author has written before—William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki: the Ghost Finder. The newly opened greenhouse at Kew Gardens is very proud of its exhibit of some huge parasol mushrooms from Mongolia. It’s not much of a stretch to guess that these mushrooms are not going to be the spectacular crowd-puller they hoped—at least not in the way they’d prefer. Thomas Carnacki has already seen the potential disaster and taken what steps he could to prevent it. Sadly, these steps prove inadequate and before long, London is under grave threat. Challenger does what he can, but it looks hopeless… until Malone brings the two heroes together. Challenger is, of course, resistant to Carnacki’s ideas but, having nothing better to offer, he agrees to at least give the man a chance. Where William Meikle is clever is in the way that neither of our heroes could save the day alone, but together, pooling their individual knowledge and resources, they become a whole that is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. A classic team-up story that uses both characters equally well and one that I suspect may be anthologised a few times in the coming years.
‘The Petrified Forest’ isn’t really about petrified trees as such, although there are plenty of petrified humans when the strange, ancient barrel-shaped entities prove to be still alive. Lovecraft aficionados will easily recognise these beasties—even without their cries of “Tekeli-Li!”
One might have expected a man like Professor Challenger to investigate an ages-old mystery like the Loch Ness Monster at some point. Well, it turns out he actually did. The reason we hadn’t heard about it before was simply that he chose not to share his findings. In ‘The Monster of the Ness’, we finally discover the truth, and Challenger’s reasons for keeping it to himself.
‘The Auld Grey Man’ is a weird little tale. Challenger and Malone investigate reports of a mysterious primate on the Cairngorms. An eight foot tall, shaggy beast, it appears to be the Scottish answer to Bigfoot. What they eventually discover falls more into Carnacki’s purview than that of a hard-nosed scientist like Challenger. It seems the great man’s horizons have, indeed, been broadened by their meeting. I particularly liked the reference to “Piltdown Man” in this one.
I happen to know that William Meikle would give his eye teeth to be allowed to write new Professor Quatermass stories, but the rights are not so easy to acquire. So, it’s no surprise that his Challenger stories often stray into Quatermass territory. ‘The Penge Terror’ is a case in point. Challenger is called in to investigate a strange meteorite, which turns out to be a metallic sphere, carrying very peculiar passengers. The usual military bull-headedness brings the story to an abrupt end and leaves me wondering if we might see more of these visitors from Mars at some point.
Many stories have been written about ancient aquatic civilisations over the centuries. Gill-Men are not uncommon in both literature and film. H.P. Lovecraft’s Deep Ones have a particularly bad reputation, but occasionally I’ve seen a tale which casts them in a less overwhelmingly negative light. In ‘Drums in the Deep’, Challenger has an almost fatal encounter down a recently opened mineshaft at Ellington Colliery in Northumberland. Can he broker understanding between the profiteers and those who have lived deep beneath the surface in peace and secrecy for countless ages?
‘The Cornish Owlman’ is the second story in the collection to feature Thomas Carnacki. Challenger believes the escaped pterosaur from ‘The Lost World’ has been sighted. It seems, however, that everybody sees whatever it is differently. Carnacki has his own theories, which Challenger finds hard to swallow. I have to be honest. I was a little disappointed with the ending of this one, although I can’t easily explain why without risking spoilers. I can’t help but feel there is more to be said about the mysterious apparition. Maybe it’ll be addressed in a future Carnacki tale.
A classic theme of Victorian genre fiction is that of the possible dangers inherent in scientific enquiry. In ‘Ripples in the Ether’, Challenger and Malone find themselves in a race to reverse the catastrophic repercussions of an experiment, blindly conducted by the well known Scottish inventor, John Logie Baird. There’s a slight Lovecraftian tone, in that messages broadcast into the ether are noticed by something extra-dimensional.
‘The Valley of the Lost’ is a sequel of sorts to William Meikle’s novel, ‘The Valley ’. Challenger has come across evidence of giant Thunderbirds in Montana. The redoubtable Malone accompanies him, along with a couple of men from the Smithsonian, in an expedition to capture one alive. The tale is set very much in the same ethos as ‘The Lost World’. They find themselves in an isolated ecosystem, similar to that in Maple White Land. This time, however, the fauna are not dinosaurs. They encounter woolly mammoths and a sabre toothed tiger, and meet a survivor of that earlier novel.
Finally, in ‘Parting the Veil’, a grieving Challenger works with Logie Baird again, in an attempt to contact his late wife. Despite the disaster the Scottish inventor almost brought down on the world in ‘Ripples in the Ether’, Challenger evidently still places more faith in him than he does in Carnacki, who would seem to be a more obvious choice to help him with such matters. Naturally, a problem occurs, causing much chaos. An attempt to correct the problem makes things so much worse.
The sold out deluxe edition of this book has three extra stories. One is ‘The Island of Terror’, which is the novella I previously reviewed on it’s initial release as a separate book. For those (like me) who didn’t get a copy of the sold out, extremely limited deluxe edition, the other two will be made available elsewhere at some point in the future.
‘The Kew Growths and Other Stories’ is, as those familiar with William Meikle’s work would expect, a worthy addition to the Professor Challenger canon.