In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle revisits Conan Doyle’s best tales of terror
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had the rare and peculiar ability to make fiction seem real. When he killed off his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, in 1893, many of his devoted readers donned black armbands as a sign of mourning. He got letters from real people asking if he could pass their requests on to the great sleuth, in the hope that he might take up their real-life case. Many people have heard the mysterious story of the Marie Celeste, the ship which was found abandoned with everything perfectly preserved. In truth, there was no Marie Celeste: the actual ship was the Mary Celeste, which was found abandoned but was severely waterlogged. Its one boat was also missing, providing a clue as to how the ship’s crew had not-so-mysteriously disappeared. But it was the fictional version of events – with the story of the pristine ship – that took hold of the public imagination. And this version was the product of one man: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Doyle created this modern myth, taking his inspiration from the real discovery of the Mary Celeste, in an early foray into fiction, the 1884 tale ‘J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement’, which resembles those short tales by Edgar Allan Poe which, although works of fiction, were mistaken for news reports by many readers. (‘The Balloon Hoax’ springs to mind.) And what makes Conan Doyle such a popular author to this day is that, whilst he was by no means a ‘realist’ writer in our traditional understanding of that term, he had an uncanny ability to tap into readers’ imaginations and create characters and situations which we want to be real, even though we know they reside only in the world of fiction. This is as true of his Gothic stories as the Sherlock Holmes tales, even though most of us are pretty glad that mummies don’t really come to life.
That Conan Doyle wrote a number of Gothic tales need not surprise us. As Darryl Jones points out in his informative introduction to this new edition, Gothic Tales (Oxford World’s Classics), although Conan Doyle only ‘came out’ as a spiritualist in 1918, his interest in the occult and the spiritual can be seen throughout his literary career. And this interest, along with Doyle’s canny sense of the literary marketplace and what readers wanted, undoubtedly inspired him in the writing of his supernatural fiction. In the Sherlock Holmes canon, whether it’s ‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire’ or The Hound of the Baskervilles, any suggestion of an otherworldly phenomenon must ultimately be exposed by the great sleuth as having a scientific foundation. But in his Gothic tales, Conan Doyle could embrace the undecidability of the numinous, and explore the idea that something lurks behind the veil and beyond the ‘known’.
I can remember reading ‘The Brazilian Cat’ the first time around and being conscious of a creeping sense of unease as Doyle patiently and expertly built the suspense. This story is narrated by a man who, short of money and out of options, visits his wealthy cousin in the hope of obtaining a small allowance from him. His beaming host shows him the big black cat he keeps in the grounds of his estate, and, rereading the story now, I can see that it was obvious that the narrator is going to end up in the cage with the animal, fighting for his life. But the fact that I knew it was coming didn’t detract from the sense of fear and panic that Doyle instilled in the minute details of the scene. After all, we know the narrator survives because he’s narrating the story; but it’s how he gets out of it that interests us and keeps us reading.
All of the classics among Conan Doyle’s Gothic tales are here: ‘The Ring of Thoth’, in which an Egyptologist gets locked inside a museum and meets a 3,500-year-old Egyptian priest; ‘Lot No. 249’, which also focuses on a student of Egyptian history and features a mummy; and ‘The Case of Lady Sannox’, perhaps Conan Doyle’s finest single horror story because it offers a real insight into the strange and perverse, and frequently all too dark, motivations of the human psyche. There are also many less well-known stories, some of which are less obviously ‘Gothic’ and of variable quality, but Conan Doyle was never less than readable. (I even have a soft spot for his 1920s Professor Challenger The Land of Mist, which is not included here but available in the complete Professor Challenger stories, about the spirit world; written off by many as unreadable, I still found myself gripped, despite the improbability of the story, because Conan Doyle is such a master storyteller.)
Gothic Tales (Oxford World’s Classics) is a book that fans of Conan Doyle’s other work will likely find enjoyable: Sherlock Holmes it may not be, but the strongest of the tales included in the volume show how versatile Conan Doyle’s talents were in the realm of popular fiction.
Discover more forgotten literary curiosities with our Secret Library archive.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.