Doyle’s first recorded short story – a rejected horror story called “The Haunted Grange of Goresthorpe,” which was later recycled into 1883’s comical “The Ghosts of Goresthorpe” – was a ghost story written in the Victorian tradition. His first published supernatural tale was similarly crafted, and incidentally a masterpiece of the genre, commonly included in anthologies of Victorian bogey stories. It shares its principle features with the best of them: the wild sublimity of the Brontës, the lonesome spiritual alienation of Charles Dickens, the chilling and otherworldly grotesqueness of J. S. Le Fanu, the domestic social and romantic tensions of Nesbit, Braddon, Broughton, and Riddell, and the humbling and horrible pathos of Amelia B. Edwards, Mrs Gaskell, and Mrs Oliphant. Doyle also linked himself with the Gothic tradition that immediately preceded the elegance of Victorian supernaturalism: the desolate Romantics Coleridge, Burns, Keats, Byron, Scott, and Mary Shelley, including American masters of the uncanny such as Hawthorne, Melville, and Irving.
In many ways “The Captain of the ‘Pole-Star’” is a great homage to the past century of Romantic ghost stories, carefully interweaving Shelley and Coleridge’s wild wastes with Oliphant and Dickens’ existential elegance. The story is one of a number of spook tales (Frankenstein, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The Mountains of Madness, Arthur Gordon Pym, The Shadow of a Shade, etc.) which concern mankind’s encroachment into the lonely Southern and Northern Poles. While most tend to feature the Antarctic wastelands, Doyle pastiches Frankenstein’s diabolical pursuit of a supernatural being into the unpeopled North. The story is a classic, weighed down by only a touch of melodrama, by sustained by the author’s dedication to emphasizing the emotional while restraining horrible, which prevents it from descending into a cheap horror story. Instead, we are presented with a tale rife with mystery, wonder, and sadness.
“The Captain of the Polestar” is 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. Told through the diary of a young ship's doctor on a polar voyage (a job once held by Doyle), who becomes fascinated with the captain's tormented mind. Not unlike Shelley's Captain Walton, Doyle's gloomy mariner finds his ship ice bound and his crew on the brink of mutiny. Clearly distracted by some past misfortune (apparently attached to the portrait of his deceased fiancee), he seems to disregard both his safety and that of his men, and finds himself sinking deeper into a morbid reverie. Before the madman can be displaced by a mutiny, he is overwhelmed by mania, slips out of the ship, and is lost among the snow and ice. The search party locates him too late, but observe a strange phenomenon: rising above his corpse they see what appears to be a woman shaped out of frost and snow -- bent over in an attitude of love. So ends the mystery.
It is entirely reasonable to be suspicious of the good captain’s involvement in his fiancée’s death, and regular readers of both Arthur Conan Doyle and/or the Victorian ghost story will have plenty of precedent to suggest that he is not merely a heartbroken lover. Mary E. Braddon’s “The Cold Embrace,” Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story,” Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “The Shadow’s on the Wall,” Jerome K. Jerome’s “The Man of Science,” Kipling’s “The End of the Passage,” and Henry James’ “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” are exemplars of the genre, and each feature a similar set-up: a person responsible – either directly or indirectly, it is no matter – for the death and ruin of another person are haunted to the point of extinction by their victim. The last word of the story suggests something of the sinister beyond mere disease, and Doyle demonstrates a tremendous (and, considering the melodrama that often overwhelmed the genre, applaud-able) amount of restraint by remaining vague to the point of confusion about his hero’s backstory.
Precedent does imply foul play, but – as Doyle’s silence on the matter suggests – this is ultimately immaterial. My personal thoughts on the matter – my theory if you like – is that both parties bear guilt of some kind, and I am disinclined to suspect the captain of murder, though that is one of four possibilities I have identified. Without going into too much detail, it seems most probable to me that the headstrong and impulsive fiancée was either murdered by the captain or a lover, died from a hideous disease, or expired during childbirth as a result of extramarital sex – again either with the captain or a lover. An expanded over view of these four theories can be read in the final note to this story. Like Shelley (Frankenstein) and Coleridge (Rime of the Ancient Mariner), Doyle banishes his protagonist to the polar wastelands as a means of penance – penance for murder, for sexual seduction, for abandonment, for abuse, or for simply failing to be there for her at her death. Whether responsible for the death or merely depressed by it, this Captain Ahab has shunned society, begrudging romantic bliss (like that of his surgeon) in pursuit of spiritual absolution. By putting his body is peril (both in the frozen Arctic floes and the blistering Turkish battlefields), he hopes to atone for his sins, and ultimately – at the cost of his life in an act of self-execution – he receives his dearly sought extreme unction and appears to die in the presence of a peace that life forbade him. Doyle’s story is swept with grand but understated Romanticism in the elegant tradition of Melville, Shelley, and Coleridge which is difficult to find except in the very best examples of Victorian supernaturalism, which was often either sere and ambiguous (á la Henry James) or garish and vulgar (á la Varney the Vampire). Here is truly a disciplined, artistic masterwork of the genre, a pleasant surprise from such an unseasoned writer.