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The Hound of the Baskervilles: Inspirations, Interpretations, and a Literary Analysis


As we all know, Arthur Conan Doyle was the most significant contributor to the detective story genre – what Verne and Wells were to science fiction, or what Tolkein and Lewis were to fantasy. 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).

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.

While much of his best Gothic fiction is overtly supernatural, his most famous contribution to the genre is not: it comes with all the trappings, mood, and atmosphere of a classic ghost story, but its power to horrify lies in the human heart, not the invisible world. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is fittingly otherworldly – set, as it is, in the purgatorial wastes of Dartmoor’s barren tors, its Neolithic ruins, and its gruesome legends – considering the fact that it starred a dead man returned from the grave to walk, like Virgil, as a guide to Watson (a lost sojourner every bit as clueless in Grimpen’s boggy moorlands as Dante was in the Inferno’s spiral pit).

Sherlock Holmes died in December 1893 when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle finally relieved himself of the Great Detective’s popularity in “The Final Problem.” Tired of watching his other work being eclipsed by the public’s appetite for Holmes, Doyle created a previously-unmentioned archrival – the notorious criminal genius, Professor Moriarty – who chased Holmes from England through Europe, up to the slippery precipice of the Reichenbach Falls in Swtizerland, where – like Christ, crucified for the sins of humanity and descending into hell – Holmes sacrificed his life to rid the world of Moriarty. Watson was far from the action, but discovered the Great Detective’s final written words resting under his walking stick, not far from the roaring maw into which the two men disappeared.

Although, as history tells us, Holmes merely faked his death to evade Moriarty’s vengeful henchmen (he utilized the Japanese-inspired martial art of Baritsu to disarm and kill Moriarty, then climbed up the rock wall to escape attention), in Doyle’s mind he was utterly dead. The public mourned, the people were heartbroken, but Doyle was unmoved: Sherlock Holmes had descended into Valhalla, and need be heard of no more. And for a good reason, for although Sherlock Holmes had a vogue during the 1880s and ‘90s, Doyle’s greatest creation would result from the surge of creative energy freed up by killing Holmes: the world-famous literary icon, Brigadier Gerard! … If you have never heard of Brigadier Gerard – a retired French soldier whose cocksure, windy reminiscences from the Napoleonic Wars blended action and comedy into something akin to Cyrano de Bergerac – you are not alone. Although the braggadocious pensioner appeared in seventeen short stories and had a vogue of his own, the public refused to take the bait: they wanted Holmes back.

Doyle was reticent to undo what he had done, but it is somewhat telling that he left himself an escape hatch in case he chose to resurrect the Great Detective: he never provided a body. As readers of stories like “The Noble Bachelor,” “The Norwood Builder,” and “The Man With the Twisted Lip” will vouch, just because a murder is suspected in a Sherlock Holmes story doesn’t mean that one has occurred – especially when a body is missing. Realistically, Doyle may have done this merely for dramatic effect (sort of a “yet he still lives on in our hearts” kind of thing), but his readership noticed that without a corpse, there was always the possibility that Holmes could return, and they hounded Sir Arthur to resurrect the man with the deerstalker.

Throughout the 1890s and first years of the 20th century Conan Doyle toiled on historical romances, horror stories, and Brigadier Gerard tales, and while the Gerard corpus never took off like Holmes, it was true that some of his best work emerged during the hiatus. Some of his most memorable ghost and horror stories were penned during this time period (“The Brown Hand,” “The Brazilian Cat,” “Playing with Fire,” etc.), but they still lacked the atmosphere, drama, and excitement of “The Speckled Band,” “A Scandal in Bohemia,” or “The Red-Headed League.” All-in-all, while the late 1890s saw some notable entries in Doyle’s oeuvre, they weren’t the most impressive (his best ghost stories, for instance, were almost entirely written in the 1880s, and his best novels were yet to be penned), and he seemed to recognize the need to restore Holmes to Baker Street.

Although this would eventually occur in 1904’s “The Empty House” (wherein Holmes dramatically reveals himself to a notably depressed Watson after an eight year absence, using his penchant for melodrama to lure Moriarty’s lieutenant, Colonel Moran, into a trap), Doyle had to test the waters first, so Holmes’ first return from the dead would be set in the past. Scholars think “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is set in the bleak October of 1889, about six months after meeting Irene Adler in “A Scandal in Bohemia” about six months before tangling with Professor Moriarty in “The Final Problem” – a banner year for the canon which would also include the adventures of “The Red-Headed League” and “The Man With the Twisted Lip.”

The idea to restore Holmes to life began to dawn on Doyle in the opening months of the 20th century – a time of turmoil and change that left him desperate to find solid footing. Queen Victoria was dead, the Boer War which he had so ardently defended had left the nation with a sour taste in its mouth, and the cynical decadence of his fellow Irishmen Oscar Wilde and Arthur Clarke had gone from shocking the Late Victorians to mainstream amongst the young Edwardians.

The age of British chivalry exemplified by the idealistic novels of Kipling and Dickens, the idyllic poems of Tennyson, and the stalwart hymns of Elgar were being replaced by the pessimistic novels of Conrad and Hardy, the gloomy poetry of Yeats, and the atonal soundscapes of Holst. Even the once dominant social and moral philosophers of the age – Hegel and the recently dead Nietzsche – were being usurped by relativists and iconoclasts like Marx and the recently published Freud.

The century of progress, hope, and ambition was – as history would later prove – rapidly transforming into one of atrocity, regret, and self-doubt. Doyle, who like Kipling, had long represented the Old Guard of British culture, felt adrift and alone in this brave new world where his value system seemed so passé and unnecessary. He felt, himself, like a ghost watching his old house being resettled by new, unfamiliar tenants with new, unfamiliar lifestyles. As much as he had grown to loathe Holmes, it is possible that as the Victorian sun set and the Edwardian sun rose, Doyle began to miss his creation who had exemplified his ideals of honor, duty, and chivalry – a character who had followed his own rule-defying, Nietzschean code of morality. It may be that he felt himself pass into the same purgatory where he had banished the Great Detective – two shades lost in the fog of oblivion.

What we know for certain is that in December of 1900 – with two weeks left before the 20th century concluded its inaugural year – he mused over the idea in an interview with a magazine: “I have never for an instant regretted the course I took in killing Sherlock. That does not say, however, that because he is dead I should not write about him again if I wanted to, for there is no limit to the number of papers he left behind.” Within a month Victoria would be dead and the transition would be finalized. Six months later, Sherlock Holmes would be back in print on magazine stands across the English-speaking world.

And yet, the idea behind The Hound of the Baskervilles originally had nothing to do with the Great Detective whatsoever. During a holiday in Dartmoor, one of Doyle’s close friends shared some of the area’s more gruesome folklore, including the legend of a massive, black hellhound which haunted the moor at night. One story from the same region includes the motif of the dastardly aristocrat being punished for his libertine lifestyle. Richard Cabell, the squire of Buckfastleigh in Devon, died in 1677 after a life of violent debauchery which included the suspected murder of his wife and the rumored sale of his soul to the Devil. The night that his corpse was interred, a pack of wild, black dogs were seen to come rushing from the moor to his tomb, where they howled all night long. From the day on, his ghost was often spotted riding a black stallion at breakneck speed with the baying pack snapping at his heels.

This was combined with rumors that a mountain cat had been spotted prowling the moor, a host of bone-chilling accounts of escapees from Princetown hiding out in the Neolithic ruins, and several hyperbolic folktales about the mire swallowing men whole (the most famous account has a man picking up a hat from the bog, only to find a man underneath who claims to be sitting on a submerged horse) to form a haunting tale of Gothic intrigue. Doyle recalled one incident where he was sitting inside a Neolithic hut – consumed with dreary thoughts of the cruel passage of time, imagining the generations of prehistoric men who had lived and died in this harsh wilderness – and was abruptly startled by a tourist who was scuffing his shoes against the doorway. In turn, Doyle recalls, he terrified the man by sticking his head out. He was never able to learn what the fellow thought he had seen, but supposed he was mistaken for one of the centuries’ dead Druids.