Arthur Conan Doyle's The Horror of the Heights: A Two-Minute Summary and a Literary Analysis
Doyle’s final great horror story is truly a worthy swan song – a tale who’s science fiction maintains a level of effective awe in spite of having been categorically disproven by aviators a mere decade after being written. And indeed the tale is science fiction, fitting snuggly on a shelf between the speculative horror of H. G. Wells which preceded it and the cosmic terror of H. P. Lovecraft which succeeded it.
Both authors’ DNA seems to thrive in Doyle’s plot, which resembles elements of Wells’ War of the Worlds, ”In the Abyss,” and “The Sea Raiders,” as well as Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space,” “From Beyond,” and “The Haunter of the Dark” – complete with gelatinous predators, barely hidden humanity-threatening horrors, and a set of written-out last words that rival Lovecraft’s infamous “I see it—coming here—hell-wind—titan-blur—black wings—Yog-Sothoth save me—the three-lobed burning eye...”
Where Wells foresaw terrors percolating in the solar system, and Lovecraft under the sea and in the stars, Doyle predicted the ten-year old aeroplane had the potential to unlock haunting terrors in the very atmosphere that snuggles the earth and gives humanity life. From this same nurturing comfort could emerge a devilish monstrosity, and all that was necessary to expose it was for science and technology to continue its trajectory into the blue, life-giving skies.
Set sometime in the near future (apparently the late 1920s or thereabouts), the story comes – Blair Witch Project-style – from a found document: the blood-splattered journal of aviator Joyce-Armstrong, which was found at a farm in Surrey shortly after his disappearance. Since it is missing some of the first and final pages, it becomes nicknamed the “Joyce-Armstrong Fragment” by the press. Known for his bravery and his ambition, Joyce-Armstrong was determined to break the flight altitude record of 30,000 feet (the record in 1910 was 11.000, and 30,000 wouldn’t be attained until 1919; his eventually achievement of 43,000 would finally be accomplished until 1930), undaunted by the grisly fates of recent flyers whose record-attempts resulted in their deaths.
There was Verrier, whose plane was recovered without his body; Baxter, who vanished but whose engine was recovered in a woods (an observer on the ground noted that the plane suddenly paused, midflight, seemed to be shaken up and down, and sucked into the clouds); Connor, a healthy youth who managed to land, but died of heart failure before he could be removed from the cockpit, and whose last word was “Monstrous…”; and of course Myrtle, whose decapitated corpse was found in the seat of his landed plane – clothes “all slimy with grease…” Joyce-Armstrong is undaunted by these tragedies, and brings his journal with him on his attempts to break the record.
He is, however, not a sceptic, per se, and blames the bizarre deaths on some as-yet undiscovered “air jungle” which he hopes to uncover and survive to relay his findings. He doesn’t think that air jungles cover the skies, but rather that they exist – rather like the infamous “vile vortices” – in particular places. One, he discerns, exists over the Pyrenees in France, one over Frankfurt, and one over his home turf of Wiltshire.
Without difficulty, Joyce-Armstrong takes off one day and achieves the record by climbing his monoplane to 41,300 feet, where he dodges meteors and stumbles into the ethereal wilds that he suspected to exist. Swimming around him among the clouds are glorious, gelatinous creatures resembling massive jellyfish. They are marbled pink in color with green veining – floating as softly as a soap bubble.
He finds even more of these creatures – ranging in size from a hot air balloon to St. Paul’s dome – along with ghostly, smoke-colored 30-foot-long serpents twisting about like water snakes. At first he is relieved by the impression that they are semi-solid – almost vaporous – but his relief is stunted when he is attacked by a squid-like monstrosity which is apparently more solid than the gauzy jellyfish.
It gnashes its vulture-like beak at him and changes colors from an indifferent rose to an angry purple, and appears to have evolved three transparent bladders on its head that allow it to float in the atmosphere while still providing a very material threat. Snapping aggressively at him, and reaching out with its greasy tentacles, the squid charges Joyce-Armstrong, who turns his gun on the beast, emptying both barrels into one of the bladders which explodes and threatens the creature’s buoyancy.
He returns to earth thrilled: “I have seen the horror of the heights – and greater beauty or horror than that is not within the ken of man.” But his delight is short-lived: he returns to the air-jungle shortly after, only to disappear forever. The bloodied journal is missing some of the latter pages, but the last words seem to be Joyce-Armstrong’s last: “Forty-three thousand feet. I shall never see earth again. They are beneath me, three of them. God help me; it is a dreadful death to die!”
It continues to surprise me how gripping this story can be. The idea that the atmosphere at 30,000 – 50,000 feet is populated by ethereal jungle-beasts is completely ludicrous, and we now live in a world where we are looking under every rock in the universe to uncover new life without avail. The seas are not peopled by aquatic civilizations, nor is the earth’s core a hollow kingdom of subterraneans, nor are the cities thriving on the moon, nor on Wells’ beloved Mars, nor Lovecraft’s dear Pluto. And yet this story, with its primitive account of cloud beasties has the ring of horror to it. Perhaps it is the setting, in the infancy of aviation, and the daring of its characters who are fledglings in the sky which is the natural domain of geese and meteors and cumuli, but a brave new world for mankind to toddle into, optimistic, ignorant, and vulnerable.
Today we have exhausted so many frontiers that it is perhaps refreshing to enter into a mindset where even the vapor above us has the potential to bring life to unseen leviathans. The seas have been plumbed, Everest surmounted, the earth orbited, the moon trodden, Mars sampled, Pluto photographed, and the Solar System escaped. We have accomplished much in five hundred years of active scientific exploration, but our reward is boredom and cynicism: the loss of wonder and mystery.
Doyle never lost those qualities. To him the fields of England still harbored the fairy folk of ages past, the spirit world bled into that of the living, monsters roamed forgotten plateaus and swam forgotten lakes, and each scientific advance heralded an opportunity to be either astounded or horrified, or both. Both are achieved in this story. Joyce-Armstrong flies to his death aware of the risks in order to prove something that he believed in.
It was perhaps wish fulfilment for Doyle to write of a man who was thought a fool – a romantic who dared to gauge the unseen world around our tiny civilization, and even though his end was a horrendous one, he was after all vindicated, or so he hopes to be, as his last instructions warn against misinterpreting his demise as accidental or mysterious. To Doyle the world was full of mystery, but so much could be seen, he felt, if men would only open their eyes to see and their ears to hear. As misguided as his passions may have been, we cannot fault him for being a hopeless and devoted romantic. His self-assigned epitaph sums up his quixotic character: “Blade Straight, Steel True.”
You can read the original story HERE!
And you can find our annotated and illustrated collection of Doyle's best weird fiction HERE!