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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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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.

Originally the story was meant to be overtly supernatural – a classic ghost story in the vein of his “Lot No. 249” or “The Captain of the Polestar” – featuring a man crossing the Atlantic to assume the inheritance of his ancestral hall… family ghosts and all. What caused him to see the Great Detective’s spectral silhouette towering from Fox Tor is uncertain, but perhaps he was depressed by the curse’s almost certain dominance: what could vanquish an evil which had been inherited for centuries upon centuries – a darkness which had crawled out of the slimy bogs as surely as humanity’s own amphibious ancestors? Combine this with Victoria’s death, the Boer War’s mixed legacy, the looming threat of global war, his own literary struggles, his wife’s slow death by consumption, his guilt-ridden love affair with a young woman, his burgeoning interest in the occult, and the start of a new century off to a rocky start and there is plenty that could tempt Doyle to seek out a symbol of unshakable virtue to illuminate all these towering shadows. And what better force for Holmes – the ultimate icon of logic and order – to face down than a demon dog sallying forth from the very gates of hell, sowing chaos and superstition with every step of its gigantic paws.

Dogs have regularly featured in Holmes’ adventures – both as heroes and as villains. In The Sign of Four, the sleuth-hound Toby is a valuable ally, in “Silver Blaze,” “the dog in the nighttime” provided an invaluable clue, and in “The Copper Beeches,” a ravenous mastiff – a predecessor of the Baskerville monster – is shot dead by Watson to prevent it from tearing a man’s throat out. Dogs are often used to symbolize the best in humanity, but – when wild and vicious – can represent our very worst: brutality, impulsivity, irrationality. In short, the antithesis of Holmes just rationality. A dog driven to frenzy – whether rabid, abused, or feral – has no mercy or patience or conscience. It tears and devours with the insatiable appetite of death itself, and fails to be reasoned with or bribed. As we will later see, this is exactly the spirit Doyle needed to breath into the character of Stapleton who is himself an atavistic freak of civilization – a feral mutant. Stapleton’s vestigial evil is an inherited, animal trait which failed to be evolved out of by centuries of social progress (having stowed away – undetected and undiluted – from the Great Rebellion, through the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the Victorian Era, and the Golden Nineties), and – like all dogs-gone-bad – he represents a perversion of civilization.

Demon hounds are fixtures of Nordic folklore – from the fire-eyed dogs of Germany’s Wild Huntsman to Scandinavia’s ravenous Fenrir – and Britain is no different. But they are most commonly reported in Britain, where Celtic and Saxon mythology combined to breed a unique bogey: the Black Dog. Black Dogs take their appearance from German superstitions about the Wild Hunstman’s spectral pack, and their behavior and significance from fixtures of Celtic folklore such as the Banshee, Washing Woman, Caoineag, Kelpie, and Baobahn Sith spirits, whose appearances herald impending catastrophe. Black Dogs are often described as being comparable in size to an adolescent calf (that is, some eight feet long and some three feet tall) with ghostly, glowing eyes and blue hellfire crackling around their mouths. Some, like the famous Black Shuck of Norfolk, are said to have a single eye like cyclops, and are generally said to portend the viewer’s imminent death (or a personal or financial disaster). One 1901 treatise on Norfolk folklore describes Black Shuck in the following terms:

He takes the form of a huge black dog, and prowls along dark lanes and lonesome field footpaths, where, although his howling makes the hearer's blood run cold, his footfalls make no sound. You may know him at once, should you see him, by his fiery eye; he has but one, and that, like the Cyclops', is in the middle of his head. But such an encounter might bring you the worst of luck: it is even said that to meet him is to be warned that your death will occur before the end of the year. So you will do well to shut your eyes if you hear him howling; shut them even if you are uncertain whether it is the dog fiend or the voice of the wind you hear. Should you never set eyes on our Norfolk Snarleyow you may perhaps doubt his existence, and, like other learned folks, tell us that his story is nothing but the old Scandinavian myth of the black hound of Odin, brought to us by the Vikings who long ago settled down on the Norfolk coast.

Like the hellish pack rushing at Richard Cabell’s heels or the Yeth Hound – another Dartmoor ghost dog, this one headless – many British parishes have their own local specter with its own flavor of folklore, origin story, motives, and behavior. In all incidents, however, they tend to represent a link between Britain’s past and present – an atavistic artifact of its brutal history.

Throughout his career, Holmes had served as a secular saint sent to mollify Britain’s historical sins and soothe the bruises of national shame. In “The Musgrave Ritual,” he helps to apply a balm to the centuries’ old wounds of the English Civil War; in The Sign of Four – as in “The Crooked Man” – he addresses the horrors of the Indian Mutiny; in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” “The Resident Patient,” “The Abbey Grange,” and “The Gloria Scott” he confronts the Australian colony’s legacy of greed and crime, and in “The Naval Treaty,” “The Second Stain,” and “The Bruce Partington Plans,” he wrestles with Europe’s imperial rivalries and the variety of cold wars, proxy wars, and colonial atrocities caused by the infamous tangle of alliances. The Hound of the Baskervilles’ moral leitmotif is civilization’s age-old mistreatment of women – a collective sin which Doyle suggests has been sublimated from melodramatic kidnap and rape in the premodern era into no-less evil (though much more tolerated) patterns of domestic abuse and sexual objectification in the young 20th century. Holmes would be the very man to address these concerns, but the problem persisted: Holmes was dead, and although a flashback episode certainly seemed the first obvious step before a total resurrection.

But how would he reappear? Raised from the dead? Restored to Baker Street? Pounding the gas lit cobbles of the Capital surrounded by rattling hansoms and the cocophony of “four million human beings all jostling each other within the space of a few square miles”? No. Instead, we see his lank silhouette balancing on the peak of a craggy tor, blackened against the face of a full moon. Doyle conservatively chose to experiment with this return: not yet jumping fulling into the water of reversing his decision, but quietly dipping in a toe – testing the public’s reaction by digging up a story from before the Reichenbach incident.

Holmes isn’t even involved in the majority of the story – appearing in the few opening chapters before sending Watson alone as a scout and returning in the final act to clear away the mystery’s murk. To many readers it was as if Holmes had stepped out of Purgatory like Hamlet’s father, before receding back into the mists. This rekindles the question of just what is it that makes The Hound of the Baskervilles so immortal and compelling, considering the low profile that its lead presents? What sets it apart from so many of Holmes’ adventures seems to be the persistent sense that he is losing control of the situation – that evil is winning… Holmes himself seems to be won over to the idea several times, becoming unusually metaphysical at times: his last words before fading into the mists for the duration of the novel’s second act are a strange warning to “bear in mind” the 18th century manuscript’s warning to “avoid the moor in those hours of darkness when the powers of evil are exalted.” We are left to wonder whether Holmes says these words with a reassuring, ironic grin or a wondering, furrowed browed.

What is certain, however, is that Holmes does not rule out the existence of evil itself (ghost dogs are another matter), and takes the legend much more seriously than he will later take the threat of ghouls in “The Sussex Vampire” (“But are we to give serious attention to such things? This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.”) As Holmes fades into the distance behind the train carrying Watson, Sir Henry, and Mortimer into the heart of Neolithic Dartmoor – its vestigial landscape a broader metaphor for humanity’s barbaric origins, which still repose, dormant but alive, in every human hindbrain – so too fades the security which his presence brings. Suddenly phantom hounds, supernatural curses, and metaphysical terrors seem tenfold likelier. Without Holmes, we fully sense the fragility of reality: what is true, what is factual, and what is believable suddenly become relative to perception – and the house of cards of sanity comes tumbling down at the first breath of imagination.

Doyle transports Watson – bereft of his guide and mentor – into a hellish allegory of humanity’s most imposing ogres: firstly, the specters of death and injustice (Mortimer and the Barrymores mourn the needlessly violent death of their big-hearted benefactor, just as the readers are conscious of Holmes’ own looming death at Reichenbach, pre-resurrection), and second, the vestigial animalism of human evil which centuries of progress have failed (as illustrated by Stapleton’s physical and moral mirroring of his forebearer) to extinguish. Dartmoor’s dreary moonscape of monoliths, bogs, burial grounds, and booby traps serves – as Dante’s Inferno served him – as a metaphysical landscape of humanity’s moral and anthropological origins – and the results are not encouraging. Holmesian scholar Frayling – in his introduction to Penguin Classics’ edition of the novel – delves into the moral symbolism of pitting Holmes the Logician against the primeaval swamps of Devon:

Conan Doyle may well have read A Book of Dartmoor… its descriptions of the “fog, dense as cotton wool”, the quaking bogs and Neolithic stone huts, escaped convicts stumbling around the moor and legends dating from the time of the great Rebellion, closely resemble the equivalents in the novel, as does the overall atmosphere of a primeaval wilderness, a never-land of mist, legend and antiquity… [He] made Dartmoor – a place of mystery instead of industry – the key symbol of The Hound of the Baskervilles, to the extent that P. D. James has justly called [it] “this atavistic study of violence and evil in the mists of Dartmoor.” The moor becomes in the process less a map reference than a nightmare which has defeated the successive attempts of human beings – prehistoric people or modern tin-miners – to civilize and tame it.

Likewise, Baskerville Hall, and all that it represents – an “old race”, a title and a coat of arms, a family home with servants, a go-ahead modernizing young heir who has spent most of his life up to now “in the States and in Canada” and who can perhaps provide a future for the poor, benighted countryside – must at all costs be saved (as Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher could not) from sinking into the tarn. And England – “how stands England?” [quoting Doyle’s plaintive words written after Queen Victoria’s death] If contemporary life itself has become, as Dr Watson writes, “like that great Grimpen Mire … into which one may sink with no guide to point the track”, all the more reason to hope against hope that the civilized rationality of the great detective, the secular priest, will be able to bring salvation and stop the rot: a masterful central figure to influence the whole course of events, at the start of a new century.

W. H. Auden … argued that the classic detective story involved explaining away some ancestral blemish, and reestablishing the fragile figures of society. P. D. James has added that [Hound] remains one of the finest examples of the form precisely because it pits “the Great Detective, combining as he does a dominant intellect … and the heroic virtues of triumphant individualism” against the atavism and threat of the moor.

And the great “ancestral blemish” that Doyle seems to be most preoccupied could not be more obvious. Throughout the novel one group of people seem to be uniquely targeted by various generations of cads and con-men: women. As Frayling notes:

There is an uncharacteristic, almost gloating, emphasis on brutality to women throughout The Hound: Hugo Baskerville’s “wild, profane, and godless” cruelty to the yeoman’s daughter …; Mrs Laura Lyons’s life of “incessant persecution from a husband whom I abhor” and habit of putting her trust in men who abuse her; Mrs Barrymore’s exploitation by her brother, and, above all, Stapleton’s sadistic treatment of Beryl, who ends up with “the clear red weal of a whip-lash across her neck .. and her arms all mottled with bruises.”

Stapleton’s misogyny has been seamlessly passed on from Sir Roger’s thuggish violence, and while Holmes is successful in saving Sir Henry, he fails to capture Stapleton, who is sucked back into the bog from whence he evolved, returned to the primeval slime that gave birth to his soul. Sir Henry’s survival isn’t even entirely victorious: although he is entrusted to Mortimer, his return to Baskerville Hall is not assured, and he has suffered the shattering of his body, his mind, his heart, and his faith in man- (and woman-) kind. Will the progressive-spirited scion of the New World return to clean out the ghosts of Baskerville Hall, or has the family curse succeeded in chasing out yet another do-gooder interloper? Like the House of Usher, Hill House, the Overlook Hotel, the House of Seven Gables, or Castle Dracula, Baskerville Hall seems to represent a cancerous canker polluting the soul of humanity, resistant to treatment, and fatal to its host – or any who would attempt to solve the problem of its existence.

As H. P. Lovecraft would happily agree, it takes a cleansing fire to successfully put down a family curse (cf. “The Picture in the House,” “The Rats in the Walls”) – whether by lightning, dynamite, or arson – and even Poe’s House of Usher was felled by an architectural flaw and King’s Overlook Hotel by a boiler explosion. But at the end of Doyle’s novel, the Hall still stands – silent and dreary, peering out through the fog over the moor with its vacant, eye-like windows – untouched by yet another century’s passing. So perhaps this isn’t the happy ending that we so often take it for. Stapleton isn’t the true villain – it is the Curse of the Baskervilles that truly haunts the novel, billowing up from the Grimpen Mire like a poisonous miasma, and with Stapleton’s death nothing is accomplished – unless Sir Henry dies childless (and provided that Beryl isn’t pregnant), the Curse could always rise back up in another generation.

The Baskervilles, after all, are a metaphor for humanity itself: highborn, well-endowed with blessings of status among a chaotic nature, but fatally linked to its original sin and to its basic animalism – an animalism that may seem to go dormant every other generation or so, but which – like one of Stapleton’s butterflies emerging from its funereal chrysalis with flaming, red wings – will always rise again.

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