Unquestionably, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is considered the most significant contributor to the detective story genre – what Verne and Wells are to science fiction, what Tolkein and Lewis are to fantasy, Doyle is to that genre. And yet – unlike his fellow sleuth writers Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Rex Stout, his excursions in virtually every sub-genre of speculative fiction merit attention. Following in the tradition of the original detective story writers Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins, Doyle managed to infuse all of his fiction with a rich veneer of atmosphere and romance which easily translated over to science fiction, horror, or supernaturalism.
In this wise a Sherlock Holmes story could steep in rich atmospherics which were entirely foreign to the more logic-focused exploits of Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, and Nero Wolf. Holmes has always fostered a relationship with the supernatural (in spite of his famous injunction in the case of the Sussex vampire: “This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply”): Holmes anthologies, fanfiction, pastiches, films, criticism, art, and general geekery has frequently been featured alongside (and sold along with) corresponding materials on Dracula, H. P. Lovecraft, H. G. Wells, Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, and Carnacki the Ghost-finder. I can assure you that the fan fiction which pits Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey against the forces of darkness is few and far between.
For whatever reason, the fact that there are no stories of the supernatural in the Holmesian canon (The Hound of the Baskervilles and “The Sussex Vampire” are material Gothic detective stories, “The Creeping Man” is science fiction, and no other tale comes even close) Baker Street irregulars continue to crave a side of supernatural fiction with their Holmes, while many pastiche writers see fit to season the entrée liberally with spooks and monsters (Neil Gaiman’s Lovecraftian “Study in Emerald” is a masterpiece of the form). But all of this talk of Holmes (who will continue to haunt this collection time and time again before materializing in “The Speckled Band,” “The Devil’s Foot,” and “The Sussex Vampire”) distracts us from the true focus of our attention today, and that is the speculative fiction of A. Conan Doyle – his horror and supernatural writings.
While Doyle spilled himself into dozens and dozens of detective stories, science fiction, and thrillers, his supernatural output was surprisingly compact (E. F. Bleiler puts him down for fourteen tales and four novels) considering both the wild breadth of his life’s oeuvre (some 400 pieces of fiction), and his religious convictions as a Spiritualist. However, the batch left with us contain a variety of unique qualities which have ensured his legacy as a critical if concise contributor to speculative literature.
His virtual creation of the mummy genre alone would secure his reputation, for what Stoker, Shelley, and Stevenson are to vampires, monsters, and werewolves, Doyle is to the malevolent mummy – a trope that didn’t exist previous to his penning “Lot No. 249.” This tale along with “The Ring of Thoth” were combined – the former being a Frankenstein-esque story of mad scientist employing a zombie assassin, and the later following the tragic love story of an immortal Egyptian desperately trying to reunite with his eons-dead lover – into the plot of Karl Freund’s 1932 horror masterpiece, The Mummy.
The film stared Boris Karloff who perfectly shifted between the roles of Doyle’s sympathetic, lovelorn priest, the villainous Egyptologist Bellingham, and even Smith’s grisly helpmate (although Karloff is on screen as the wrapped mummy for less than four minutes, his transformation is truly chilling and unforgettable). Before “Thoth” and “249” the few mummy stories in existence were almost exclusively romances, future-minded science fiction that crossed Frankenstein with The Time Machine (battery attached to physically preserved mummy equals time-traveler), or social satire (Poe’s “Some Words with a Mummy” has disappointed thousands of young horror buffs, myself included, who read it expecting thrills only to find it to be a hysterical critique of modern society on par with Twain, Wilde, or Bierce in which a reanimated mummy is thoroughly unimpressed with anything in the nineteenth century except for cough drops. Horrifying, no. Hilarious, yes). Doyle saw the potential of the dried up corpse to be frightening rather than romantic or intellectual, and one of the great monsters of Western culture was born through his two visionary stories.
Doyle’s greatest tales also dabbled with monsters and werewolves. “The Terror of Blue John Gap” follows the cryptozoological investigation into a blind, prehistoric “cave bear” living in an abandoned mineshaft. In “John Barrington Cowles” he uses a tremendous amount of creative restraint by merely implying what horrible being the narrator’s friend’s fiancée might be. Although the term “werewolf” is used, she could be a conventional vampire like Le Fanu’s similarly sketched Carmilla (complete with hypnotic powers), a sadistic man killer like Keates’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci, or a proto-Lovecraftian hybrid she-devil in the pattern of Arthur Machen’s suicide-causing temptress Helen Vaughn in The Great God Pan.
The story closely resembles Pan (both follow a mysterious society woman who leaves a wake of dead suitors in her path, implying a hideous, supernatural secret). As Machen would go on to write his magnum opus six years later, and as that work would be of foundational use to Lovecraft and his followers (compare to The Dunwich Horror which has been called a Machen pastiche by some critics), and Doyle’s impact on horror fiction becomes even clearer.
One of his greatest stories in the genre can be easily seen as a cozy transition from the ponderous science fiction of H. G. Wells to the cosmic terror of Lovecraft. “The Horror of the Heights” follows an aviator trying to break the altitude record all while suspecting that something hideous living in the clouds overhead has been responsible for a slew of recent pilot deaths.
Written in the infancy of aviation, the story’s beastly monsters pay homage to Well’s squidlike, beaked Martians while presaging Lovecraft’s amphibious, gelatinous Cthulhu, and the story often flips between science fiction and weird fiction seamlessly, leaving a lovely bookmark between Late Victorian horror a la The War of the Worlds and post-war weird tales a la The Haunter of the Dark. Complete with a blood-stained journal with half-mad last words scribbled onto it, a host of slimey, corpulent, fishlike monsters, and an unseen world of terror lurking just beyond human attention, the story had a doubtless impact on the American dean of weird fiction, and is one of Doyle’s most innovative.
On the conventional side are Doyle’s tales of ghosts and hauntings, which are no less artful and effective. Of particular mention is “The Captain of the Polestar,” a haunting narrative that combines atmospheric elements of Frankenstein, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym in its polar wastes where a Byronic whaling captain (with strong hints of Ahab) risks his crew’s lives to escape (or is it to find?) the ghost of his fiancée, a woman whose vague description leaves the nature of her untimely death a fascinating mystery (I present my pet theory in the notes).
A genuinely beautiful ghost story complete with shivers, unease, and pathos, this is one of Doyle’s best (and first) supernatural tales. Its level of humanity and feeling rival the best Victorian ghost stories of Elizabeth Gaskell, Mrs Oliphant, and Mrs Henry Wood. “The Bully of Brocas Court” is a phenomenal little spook tale written in the manner of J. Sheridan Le Fanu, the undisputed king of Victorian ghost tales, with its sense of sadism, moral decadence, physical fear, and blurring of boundaries between good and evil, living and dead, punished and punisher.
Other tales follow haunted objects, like the genuinely chilling account of “The Leather Funnel,” a torture device that brings with it dreams of its use in a manner which
would titillate BDSM junkies, or the horrifying “Silver Hatchet” which causes its wielder to inadvertently chop to pieces the person they consider their best friend.
Complete with homoerotic subtext, a fascinating murder plot, and disturbing philosophical questions, “The Silver Hatchet” was quite ahead of its time. Similarly, “A Pastoral Horror” follows the movements of a serial killer, whose M.O. is shockingly modern (he ambushes his victims with his face hidden under a scarf and a wide-brimmed hat, wielding a pickaxe – very in kind with Friday the 13th, I Know What You Did Last Summer, etc.).
Doyle’s supernatural fiction does not seem to have a unifying theme, ethos, or worldview. Unlike the oeuvres of Lovecraft, Stevenson, Le Fanu, Machen, Oliphant, Broughton, Blackwood, Hawthorne, or M. R. James, his stories do not connect to a higher philosophy other than a sense of chivalric, Nietzschean justice that permeates most of his fiction. Instead, his stories are simply good stories.
They’re tightly written, evocative, innovative, and above all entertaining. He was a showman, and knew how to grab an audience. Keenly aware of pathos, he used it to great effect in the Holmes stories, and with excellent attention in the best of his horror fiction (“Polestar,” “Through the Veil,” “Bully,” “Ring of Thoth,” and others are brilliant in their use of the emotional appeal).
Sometimes his stories went too far into the eccentric or maudlin, and several of those were excluded from this anthology due to their lack of excellence, which so many other of his tales achieved. “The American’s Tale” is a Wellsian (cf. “Valley of the Spiders”) anecdote about a man-eating plant in the Wild West. “The Jappaned Box,” often unfortunately anthologized in horror volumes, seems to be a ghost story (a widower locks himself in a room and a strange woman’s voice is heard) until the big reveal: he is an alcoholic listening to a recording of his dead wife’s encouraging voice in a bid for temperance. Even “Playing With Fire,” included here, is somewhat ridiculous with its spectral unicorn (the story is only salvaged by having the beast fail to manifest to the reader).
The cake is taken, however, by one of Doyle’s most anthologized “horror” stories, a ludicrous tale called “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement,” which is mentionable only because of its contributions to the mythos of the Mary Celeste case – a derelict ship, the disappearance of whose crew in 1872 has never been explained. Doyle’s story is rarely summarized online or in print, but it continues to be referenced liberally in both as if it is a classic.
The story explains the mystery thus: a roving band of black supremacists murder the white passengers one by one before finally hijacking it from the survivors who are horrified to learn that the ship – bound for Portugal – has secretly been sailing to the African coast, where they are slaughtered as the blacks return to their motherland. The only survivor is saved because of a totem given to him by a slave during the Civil War, which just so happens to be the missing ear of an idol venerated by the tribe on shore.
It is one of – and I say this seriously – one of the stupidest and most disappointing things I have read in all my life. After the buzz generated by so many references to the work, I now understand why I have never found a summary of the wholly unbelievable and pointless story which somehow finds its way into so many collections of Doyle’s horror tales. We shall pass.
No discussion of Doyle’s relationship to supernatural fiction could be complete without addressing his Spiritualism. “Through the Veil,” “Playing with Fire,” “De Profundis,” and “How it Happened” are each episodes of psychic phenomena wherein the reincarnated souls of a Celt rapist and his Roman victim marry one another centuries later (to her eventual horror), a séance creates and summons a monster accidentally through reckless experimentation, a dead man appears to his wife as she sails over the spot his body was dumped, and a spirit recounts the story of his death – respectively.
All of these tales involve either the theories or the practice of Spiritualism, a religion which focused primarily on investigating, celebrating, and utilizing psychic connections between the living world and that of the dead. Telepathy, ESP, hypnotism, premonitions, and mediums were their province, and Doyle was a devoted adherent, especially following the death of his wife from consumption, and that of his son and brother from Spanish flu contracted in World War One. Culminating in his impassioned defense on the existence of fairies, Doyle’s faith caused him to become a public laughingstock, indeed, as E. F. Bleiler puts it, “in his old age his gullibility was pathetic.”
Harry Houdini, a devoted debunker, tried to prove to his friend that psychic powers could be tricks by performing one for him personally, then explaining how the trick was managed. Doyle refused to believe the explanation, arguing instead that Houdini was endowed with psychic powers and was denying it. The friendship was thenceforth terminated.
The role of Spiritualism in his life affected his literature negatively, too. Spiritual belief is often important in how it manifests in a writer’s work, whether they be believers (Machen, Blackwood, King), materialists (Lovecraft, Poe, Aickman), or open-minded agnostics (M.R. James, Onions, Gaiman). On one hand was Blackwood – like Doyle, a one-time member of the Society for Psychical Research – who believed in reincarnation, ghosts, and elementals. He infused his work with mystic wonder, awe, and madness derived from his feelings on the subject.
On the other hand is Lovecraft, a devoted atheist who thought horror spoke best to the materialist because nothing could be more shattering than for an atheist to witness the supernatural; to him it was a genuine fear. Doyle, however, neither practiced awe or fear, rather accepting the spirit world as a scientific fact, often describing it in dully academic language. While many of his stories revel in romantic descriptions, moods, and settings, the more supernatural they are – with some exceptions (e.g. “Polestar”) – the more tedious, preachy, and vapid they become. Doyle’s tendency to invent words and scientific jargon in order to sound authoritative in his texts is something that plagues many of his stories, including the Holmes canon (“Shall I demonstrate your own ignorance? What do you know, pray, of Tapanuli fever? What do you know of the black Formosa corruption?” Watson is excused for never hearing of these things because Doyle made them up to sound good).
In spite of putting on airs, attempting to scientific-ate his prose, and shamelessly propagandizing on behalf of psychic frauds (in “Polestar” he essentially has the haunted captain say in defense of mediums “don’t throw away the barrel because of one rotten apple”), Doyle’s storytelling was masterful in most cases, and his gift for poetic justice made the conclusions of his horror stories especially effective.
The tales that follow feature mummies, werewolves, vampires, zombies, reincarnations, serial killers, haunted axes, torture chambers, ether monsters, polar wastelands, booby-trapped treasure chests, psychedelic poisons, and yes, even a scary unicorn. They were created to entertain, to wonder at, and to give us some pause. I have confidence that they will perform exactly as designed.