Authors: Jeff Campbell,Charles Prepolec
Fantastic Tales of Sherlock Holmes
J.R. Campbell & Charles Prepolec
EDGE Science Fiction and
An Imprint of
HADES PUBLICATIONS, INC.
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Ghosts May Apply
David Stuart Davies
Arthur Conan Doyle was an accomplished practitioner of the supernatural tale and created some classic narratives in the genre. ‘The Ring of Thoth’, for example, was very influential within the realm of mummy stories. The idea of an ancient Egyptian achieving immortality and the setting of a museum after closing time became the essential ingredients of the 1932 movie,
, starring a very desiccated Boris Karloff. Other Doylean horror gems include ‘The Brazilian Cat’, ‘The Terror of Blue John Gap’, ‘The Leather Funnel’ and ‘The Nightmare Room’, to name a few — stories which are particularly chilling and memorable.
It must therefore have been a little frustrating for Doyle not to be able to involve his detective hero Sherlock Holmes in this mysterious and frightening world. What exciting scenes, puzzling scenarios and scary moments he could have created if he had allowed himself this guilty pleasure. But he had established Sherlock Holmes as a purely rational detective investigating real crimes with logical solutions. He knew that he would be weakening Holmes’ appeal and powers if he involved him with ghosts and other creatures from beyond the grave where logicality had no foothold. As Holmes memorably observed in ‘The Sussex Vampire’, ‘This Agency stands flat-footed upon the ground and there it must remain. This world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.’
Nevertheless, Doyle did tease his readers with suggestions of supernatural interventions in two of Holmes’ cases. In the aforementioned ‘The Sussex Vampire’ it was implied that a bloodsucking fiend was at work in the Ferguson household; and in
The Hound of the Baskervilles
, for some time the reader is unsure whether the phantom beast of the title really does exist. Even at the climax of the novel, when the hound finally makes its appearance — ‘Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smouldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined in flickering flame’ — we are still not absolutely certain that the thing is of flesh and blood and not a spectre from the pit. It is only when the creature howls with pain after Holmes has shot it several times that we are assured that the beast is mortal.
Despite these deceptive forays into the realms of the unknown Doyle actually stopped short of presenting the Great Detective with a real supernatural mystery. Other writers, perhaps seeing a niche gap in the market, took advantage of Doyle’s reticence and around the end of the nineteenth century there was a rack of ghost detectives materializing in print. 1898 saw the first appearance of Flaxman Low in
. Low was a sleuth cast clearly in the Holmes mould: clever, well read, possessing strong deductive powers with the ability to discern clues where others failed to do so. The marked difference between Low and his Baker Street counterpart was that he specialized in solving problems of a supernatural nature. Low was the joint creation of Kate Prichard and her son Hesketh who published the tales under the pen name of E. and H. Heron. Hesketh was a friend and admirer of Conan Doyle and the Holmes influence on the stories is marked, especially in the two final cases where Low encounters the Moriarty-like figure of Kalmarkane. This collection brings Low and Holmes together as an intriguing double act in ‘The Things That Shall Come Upon Them’.
Other spook sleuths followed in Low’s wake. Most notably there was Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence, who first appeared in 1908, and Carnacki the Ghost Finder penned by William Hope Hodgson. Carnacki, who made his debut in 1910, is of particular interest because not all his cases turned out to be supernatural ones. On occasion human agencies were at the root of the various upheavals. Usually there is a chamber or a specific location that needs to be examined and carrying his trusty electric pentacle, Carnacki approaches the scene in very much the same way that Holmes does in many of his cases, with a close observation of the area searching for clues. You can observe how these two sleuths fare together in ‘The Grantchester Grimoire’, one of the tales in this volume.
As the twentieth century rolled on other psychic detectives followed in the footsteps of Low, Silence and Carnacki. There was Alice and Claude Askew’s Aylmer Vance, Dion Fortune’s Dr. Taverner, A. M. Burrage’s Francis Chard and Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin to name but a few. None really achieved the notoriety of Silence and Carnacki and certainly none approached the success of earth-bound Sherlock Holmes. Maybe the reason for their failure to catch the imagination of the mainstream reader is that these fellows not only believed in, but embraced the idea of the supernatural. They did not need convincing that there was a goblin in the cupboard, a vampire in the cellar or an ogre up the chimney. There was no surprise for them when they faced their demons … literally. The appeal then of these stories falls into two camps: the unusual nature of the haunting or supernatural event and the strange methods used by the psychic sleuth to alleviate the problem. These methods of course for the main part are invented by the author and have no roots in reality. This fanciful approach tends to rob the stories of suspense.
What is appealing about the prospect of Sherlock Holmes facing and battling the dark forces is that he is not a believer. The supernatural world is a fairy tale to him. No ghosts need apply because to his mind there are no such things.
When I wrote my first Holmes novel I took the brave or foolhardy step of pitting Holmes against Count Dracula, the king of all vampires. I don’t do things by half measures. However, the novel began with Holmes holding exactly the same opinions as he did in ‘The Sussex Vampire’, decrying the idea that such fantastic nocturnal creatures exist:
‘It should be clear, even to the most elementary of scientific brains, that the explanation of such beliefs lies not in the supernatural, but in the acceptance of weird folk-tales as factual occurrences. For the simple mind, the line between reality and fantasy is blurred, but the educated brain should reject any such nonsense without hesitation.’
And, indeed, Holmes continues to reject any such nonsense until he encounters one of these blood-sucking fiends himself and then is schooled by Van Helsing in vampire lore. I believe that Holmes’ gradual and reluctant acceptance of the supernatural world and his understanding that certain rationalities can still apply to it is one of the interesting aspects of this exercise in Sherlockian fiction. The fact that Holmes approaches any problem which may have supernatural connotations with scepticism and doubt adds extra interest and tension to the narrative, which is missing from those tales featuring ghost detectives. It is a subtle difference but it adds a richer and more engrossing element to the story.
Sherlock Holmes has always been a supremely gothic character with a strange costume, emerging himself like a ghost from the eerie fog and investigating bizarre crimes which take place in various ancient houses. The scenario of ‘The Speckled Band’ with bells ringing in the night, an unstable step father and a snake slithering down the bell rope are all elements that could have been plucked from one of Edgar Allan Poe’s nightmare tales. Consider also the conclusion of ‘The Creeping Man’ (a good ghost story title if there ever was one) where we have a respectable academic turned into a libidinous monkey, swinging through the trees. Is this any less believable than one of Carnacki’s poltergeists?
The point I am making is that in reality it is not too giant a step to take Holmes and Watson into the twilight world of the supernatural — Doyle brought them close to it on several occasions. As long as Holmes can still function as a detective, surprising Watson and others with his deductions, the introduction of a werewolf or an avenging spirit adds an extra frisson to the Baker Street scenario.
Doyle had to defend himself when critics observed that the stories in his final collection,
The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes
, lacked the freshness and ingenuity of the earlier tales. He explained that in repeating the basic formula of the stories there was bound to be a sense of
about them, a certain tiredness which was inevitable. If that was the case with Doyle, think how much more apposite it is to all the pastiches which have followed in the wake of the great man’s work. In an attempt to replicate Doyle’s style and approach, so many pastiches end up being pale imitations with that awful sense of repetition. ‘Great heavens,’ Watson will cry, ‘How did you know I’ve just been to the tailors/been playing billiards/had a romantic liaison with Irene Adler/just shot your brother Mycroft.’ Holmes will smirk and say, ‘Elementary, Watson, you’re wearing a new waistcoat/there is billiard chalk on the index finger of your left hand/there is lipstick on your earlobe, the hue of which is peculiar to Miss Adler/I saw a bullet with Mycroft’s name on your dressing room table this morning.’ We’ve read that kind of stuff a hundred times before. The formula needs perking up. And maybe giving Holmes a taste of the supernatural is just the fillip needed. Of course it has been tried before. In recent years there’s been a volume of the Lovecraftian extravaganzas,
Shadows over Baker Street
(2003), Caleb Carrs’s ghostly stab at Holmes in
The Italian Secretary
(2005) and a collection called
Ghosts in Baker Street
(2006). However in general these stories were penned by writers who, for want of a better expression, were having a go at a Holmes tale unlike the authors featured in this volume who are very well-versed in the world of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson and so can effectively blend the world of Baker Street with the world of the unknown. I can guarantee you a good time here. Expect a few shivers along the way.
How will Holmes cope with things that go bump in the night? Well you’ll have to read the stories to find out, but let me leave you with this thought. What better detective is there to delve into the unpredictable and frightening world of the supernatural than the one whose motto has always been: ‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains however improbable must be the truth.’
him, the thin-lipped leering countenance of the author of The Dynamics of an Asteroid.
“I have, I think, made my point,” said Professor Moriarty. “And you, Stent, have finally learned your lesson.”