Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 569
Considered in isolation, The Land of Mist is an unremarkable example of an author’s employment of a plot device common in fiction about the supernatural: A group of skeptics is converted to belief in the paranormal by a series of undeniably genuine psychic phenomena. Viewed in the context of Doyle’s work, the novel has greater import, for it represents Doyle’s most detailed representation of the belief system that he cherished and assiduously promoted during the last decade of his life. During World War I, Doyle became convinced of spirit communication when he was impressed by the revelations of a family friend who had become a medium. Most of the literary output of his last twelve years of life are nonfiction works dealing with the paranormal. These include The Case for Spirit Photography (1922) and The History of Spiritualism (1926). The Land of Mist was his only long fictional treatment of Spiritualist themes.
The novel is interesting within Doyle’s canon for the way in which it seems to reject the philosophies of the author’s most famous creations, Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger. Throughout The Land of Mist, characters who evince the ultrarational, purely scientific approaches of Holmes and Challenger are either confounded by Spiritualism or converted to it, as Challenger himself is at novel’s end. In fact, this novel all but negates preceding Challenger stories such as The Lost World (1912). In the opening passages, as well as in a sly prefatory note in the first edition, Doyle neatly reveals Challenger’s alleged earlier adventures to be mere fabrications and libelous exaggerations of the press. It is as if Doyle is telling his readers that The Land of Mist is the one true narrative of Professor Challenger and that the professor found truth not in the field or in the laboratory, but in the séance room.
The Land of Mist is practically a catechism of Doyle’s Spiritualist beliefs. Each episode presents tenets or practices of Spiritualism, which Doyle then explains for his readers. These include mediumship, ectoplasm, spirit guides, and other such phenomena. This detailed initiation into Spiritualist lore, combined with proselytizing zeal, leads to the novel’s principal weaknesses: its sketchy plot and preachy tone. Eager to confront his readers with numerous manifestations of the spirit world, as well as with various important Spiritualist dogmata, Doyle must race his characters through dozens of episodes only loosely connected to one another. In almost every episode, Spiritualists rather self-righteously bemoan the ignorance and wrongheadedness of those who do not share their beliefs. Doyle seems far more interested in lecturing readers and converting them than in telling an engaging story and constructing an appealing plot.
Despite these shortcomings, the novel contains interesting passages. Doyle describes Spiritualist séances with a wealth of finely chosen details that create a true sense of eeriness and otherworldliness. For example, an ape-man materializes and skulks around the shadows of the séance room, mediums chatter in a variety of voices as spirits enter and depart their bodies, and Edward’s mother appears before him in an ectoplasmic body that collapses like a sand castle. These depictions, based on Doyle’s own experiences and research, some of which is documented in notes at the ends of chapters, form marvelously engaging set pieces in an otherwise choppy, polemic, and uninvolving narrative. Many readers will find the novel worth reading for these scenes alone.
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