Who wrote the first dinosaur novel? For a long time, I thought the answer was Arthur Conan Doyle. His 1912 adventure yarn The Lost World set the standard for dinosaur-inhabited literature—at least until Jurassic Park came along—and Doyle’s story has lived on in at least six film adaptations that run the gamut from landmark film to cinema trash. But contrary to what I had previously believed, Doyle wasn’t the first author to prominently feature dinosaurs in a novel.
Tracking the pathways of dinosaurs through fiction is a difficult task. Contrary to their media dominance today, dinosaurs did not have a monopoly on prehistoric fiction during the time when authors began to incorporate fossil discoveries into their stories in the mid-19th century. Giant ground sloths, mammoths, plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs and other prehistoric animals were more popular choices for emerging science fiction and horror tales, perhaps because these animals were much better known. (The first dinosaurs to be described, in the 1820s—Megalosaurus and Iguanodon—were identified from fragments and were often reconstructed as nothing more than gargantuan lizards until the anatomist Richard Owen coined the name “dinosaur” and gave the creatures a makeover in 1842.)
Consider Jules Verne’s 1864 novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. As described by dinosaur aficionado Allen Debus in his review Dinosaurs in Fantastic Fiction, Verne’s novel was effectively a walking tour through prehistoric time modeled closely on Louis Figuier’s recently published prehistoric survey The Earth Before the Deluge. Yet there were no dinosaurs. Marine reptiles, prehistoric elephants, pterosaurs and even primordial algae all make appearances, but there’s not an Iguanodon or Cetiosaurus to be seen. In short-form fiction, too, authors often turned to other fossil muses. Writer C.J. Cutliffe Hyne resurrected a carnivorous crocodile in a cave for his 1898 story “The Lizard,” and in 1910 Arthur Conan Doyle characterized “The Terror of Blue John Gap” as a monstrous descendant of prehistoric cave bears that had somehow been loosed on the modern countryside.
Dinosaurs, if they appeared in fiction at all, typically made fleeting appearances. In the opening of his 1852 novel Bleak House, Charles Dickens used a Megalosaurus metaphor—the unpleasant weather had turned the streets in mud wallows better suited to prehistoric life than travelers of Victorian-era England. (When Dickens wrote this, the theropod dinosaur was still considered to be an “elephantine lizard” and had not been given its more modern form by Owen’s scientific rival Thomas Henry Huxley.) Sadly, Dickens did not keep the dinosaur on as a character. Bleak House would surely be a very different novel if he had.
Authors may not have fully realized the science-fiction potential of dinosaurs until 1901. In that year author Frank Mackenzie Savile published his adventure tale Beyond the Great South Wall about explorers searching for signs of the lost Mayan civilization. That’s not all the adventurers find. The crew is menaced by Cay, a huge, reptilian carnivore revered as a god by the Mayans. Savile describes the monster at the outset of chapter 12:
High up the slope of the mountain-side, lurching slowly across the bare, bleak slabs of granite, was a Beast, and he was like unto nothing known outside the frenzy of delirium. Swartly green was his huge lizard-like body, and covered with filthy excrescences of a livid hue. His neck was the lithe neck of a boa-constrictor, but glossy as with a sweat of oil. A coarse, heavy, serrated tail dragged and lolluped along the rocks behind him, leaving in its wake a glutinous, snail-like smear. Four great feet or flippers paddled and slushed beside—rather than under—this mass of living horror, urging it lingeringly and remorselessly toward us. The great neck swayed and hovered before it, poising the little malignant head. The horny eyelids winked languidly over the deepset wicked eyes. The lean, red tongue, slavering over the thin, hide-like lips, wagged out at us as if in mockery. The teeth, and the nails in the webbed, puddy feet, were yellow and tusklike, and a skinny dewlap rustled as it crawled across the stones.
Though certainly embellished, Savile did not invent a new monster for his story. In a footnote, Savile assures readers that this was the last dinosaur of its kind—a living Brontosaurus excelsus that had apparently acquired a taste for seals and humans. Since the dinosaur did not simply pop in for a cameo, but was a real and persistent threat to Savile’s protagonists, the invention of the ravenous “Cay” may mark Beyond the Great South Wall as the major literary debut of dinosaurs.
And Savile wasn’t the only writer to beat Doyle to the dinosaurian punch. In 1910, the French horror and science-fiction writer Jules Lermina published L’Effrayante Aventure, recently translated and republished as Panic in Paris. While this strange novel involves the mysterious death of a boxer, flying machines and the invention of a new element, prehistoric creatures also show up as a prominent threat to the “city of light.” Lermina’s heroes discover numerous “preanthropic animals” frozen in a cavern beneath the Parisian streets. There are pterosaurs, mammoths, crocodiles and, of course, dinosaurs. Included in the cold menagerie is “a brontosaurus, the giant of the dinosaurs, with a length of more than fifteen meters and a weight of more than fifteen tons, which was lying full length, its long neck raising its minuscule head into the air.” The cavern seems to be the most authentic museum imaginable—the actual creatures, locked in place—at least until the Triceratops, Iguanodon and other prehistoric creatures thaw out and take a stroll through the city streets.
Regardless of who featured dinosaurs first, the works of Savile, Lermina and Doyle reflect a growing fascination with prehistory and the possibility that ancient life might survive in isolated, little-explored habitats. After all, paleontology was still a young science that had only just begun to catalog prehistoric life and understand the grand pattern of evolution. New discoveries raised as many questions as they answered, and the bones of giant dinosaurs such as Apatosaurus and Triceratops gave writers made-to-order monsters more fantastic than anything imaginable. Even though dinosaurs had come to be objects of scientific study and attention by the time Savile, Lermina and Doyle set about writing their novels, these authors and others continued a tradition that various human cultures have been carrying on for centuries. The peculiar bones in the earth raised questions about the nature of life and time—and Deep Time is an inspirational well for storytelling that never runs dry.
Update: Sometimes I like to be wrong. In the comments below, reader Robert Lebling notes that dinosaurs played a significant role in a novel even earlier than Savile’s Beyond the Great South Wall. The book is A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, written in serial form by James De Mille and published as a novel in 1888. This was a “lost world” tale that came more than a decade before Savile’s tale and more than two decades before Arthur Conan Doyle’s book. Rather than being a unique invention of a single author, the idea of there being a lost land filled with prehistoric creatures and ancient civilizations was a common literary device that plenty of writers took advantage of.