Outside Rational Explanation: Sherlock Holmes and the World of the Supernatural

Outside Rational Explanation: Sherlock Holmes and the World of the Supernatural

Greetings, readers. The name “Sherlock Holmes” invariably conjures to mind images of a sharp-faced man in a deerstalker cap, pipe in hand, pursuing criminals through the fog-shrouded streets of Victorian London (Robert Downey Jr.’s scruffy portrayal notwithstanding).  Perhaps Basil Rathbone comes to mind, or maybe you caught the Granada Television series with Jeremy Brett (the definitive portrayal, if you ask this Sherlockian), heck, maybe you think of that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  As the epitome of cold, calculating rationality in an age marked by both an increasing abandonment of superstition and, paradoxically, an increasing rejection of rationality in favor of “Romanticism,” Holmes was perfectly suited to stand firm against the terrors that lurk in the dark.

While many authors have contributed to Holmes’ fight against the horrors of night, we’ll look at the canon tales, from the pen of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, first.

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES

This novel, first published (serialized) in The Strand, 1901-1902, is what springs to most people’s minds when considering the intersection between Sherlock Holmes and horror.  To summarize, Holmes and Watson are called upon by Sir Henry Baskerville, whose father, the philanthropist Sir Charles Baskerville, was seemingly killed by an enormous supernatural hound, long rumored to exist as a curse upon Baskerville Hall and the surrounding lands.  While Holmes is skeptical of the existence of a ghostly dog that kills through sheer intimidation, his interest is nevertheless piqued by Sir Henry’s tale and agrees to accompany Sir Henry to Baskerville Hall in Dartmoor.

Once there he finds a number of seemingly-unrelated mysteries and curious local personalities, and of course the treacherous, mist-shrouded moors themselves, deep bogs ready to suck down the unwary traveler at a moment’s notice.  While he finds a mundane explanation for the existence of the Baskerville Hound, it is nevertheless an explanation grounded in ancient legends, family secrets, and the perverse will to murder an entire family.  Real gothic horror stuff!

Legends of enormous, spectral black dogs are a staple of British folklore, usually said to haunt crossroads and places of execution, and whose presence is often seen as an omen of impending death.  Some of these haunting hounds are so famous as to have been given individual names by the locals they menace — Black Shuck in East Anglia, the Barghest of Yorkshire, the Yeth (or Yelling) Hound of Devon…while primarily a British phenomena, Black Dogs have been seen across Europe and even crossed the Atlantic to appear in Central America.  Folklorists have speculated a relationship between the Black Dogs and canine guardians of the Underworld in European myth, such as the Greek fiend Cerberus.  While I’m something of a skeptic in regards to paranormal phenomena (as a science professor of mine once phrased it, I try to remain accepting of nothing but open to everything), I find the spread of Black Dog sightings and legends to be fascinating.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps the most famous story of Holmes’ exploits, filmed 24 times as of this writing, including in 1939 (starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes), 1968 (starring Peter Cushing as Holmes, and Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville) and 1988 (Jeremy Brett as Holmes).  It’s influence has been wide-spread; I would consider this a precursor to Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass teleplays, with their emphasis on a scientific explanation for supernatural occurrences, and of course one need look no farther than 2002’s THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF and it’s Baskervilles-esque plot against the French Monarchy.

THE ADVENTURE OF THE DEVIL’S FOOT

A particularly harrowing tale penned by Doyle in 1910, Holmes is called upon to solve the mystery of a seemingly-unexplainable terror-stricken death and two accompanying cases of insanity.  The client, a Mr. Mortimer Tregennis, is convinced of the Devil’s complicity in the death of his sister and madness of his brothers.  Categorically rejecting diabolical intervention, Holmes begins his investigation with his usual thorough examination of the room in which the death took place.

Testing a strange ash found in the room almost results in the demise of Holmes and Watson, but proves the vital clue of how the death — murder — and insanities took place.  Dr. Leon Sterndale, a cousin of the Tregennises and prominent explorer, is able to provide Holmes with the why.

THE ADVENTURE OF THE SUSSEX VAMPIRE

Published in 1924, The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire is an example of the later canon stories, written during a period when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was growing increasingly weary of writing Holmes stories, his attention drawn more towards Spiritualism and conducting seances.  While the stories of this period were weaker than the earlier Holmes stories, they were also more experimental — stories narrated by Holmes, rather than Watson, or containing elements of science fiction and horror.

In this macabre tale, Holmes and Watson are approached by a Mr. Robert Ferguson, to whose attention it has come that his Peruvian wife has been observed seemingly drinking blood from tiny puncture wounds in their infant son’s neck.  Understandably distraught and confused, Ferguson seeks Holmes’ advice — after all, she couldn’t really be a vampire, right? What Holmes finds is far more sinister than a bloodsucking ghoul, though resolvable via legal means rather than occult.  Interestingly enough, however, Holmes advises against prosecution, suggesting instead that a year at sea (Churchill’s reference to “rum, sodomy and the lash” comes to mind) would be a more fitting punishment.

Within The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire, Holmes and Watson reference an earlier case, that of “the Giant Rat of Sumatra” which is never elaborated upon within the canon, leading many later Sherlockian authors to pen occult tales detailing the Adventure of The Giant Rat of Sumatra.

Tales by Other Chroniclers

In the years since Sherlock Holmes’ appearance and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s passing, many other authors have penned new adventures of the Great Detective, and there have been more than a few horror pastiches among them.  I cannot claim to have read them all.  Holmes has encountered many of the great nightmares of Victorian literature through these tales, including Dracula, Dr. Jekyll, the Phantom of the Opera, the Martian Invaders, and the hellish nightmares of Cthulhu. These pastiches are of wildly varying quality.

Loren D. Estleman’s 1978 novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes is clever and a case ideally suited to Holmes’ talents of both investigation and disguise, as the Great Detective seeks to understand the curious connection between the brutish and violent Mr. Hyde and meek London medical man, Dr. Jekyll.  Unfortunately, it’s ultimately not all that memorable.  The account of Holmes and Watson during the Martian Invasion chronicled in The War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches is irritatingly disappointing, as Holmes immediately deduces that the Martians would be vulnerable to earthly bacteria, and sits around smugly once proven correct.

Some of the stories in Shadows Over Baker Street, combining elements of Doyle’s detective fiction with H.P. Lovecraft’s tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, are excellent (I’m particularly fond of “The Case of the Wavy Black Dagger”) while others are abysmal (Neil Gaiman’s contribution, “A Study in Emerald,” proving surprisingly disappointing), many of them focusing on Holmes’ retirement to Sussex to become a beekeeper following his career as a consulting detective.

My favorite among the horror pastiches is Sam Siciliano’s 1994 novel Angel of the Opera.  Set during “the Great Hiatus” during which Holmes is presumed dead (here explained as actually being a result of Holmes and Watson having a falling-out), Holmes and his cousin, Dr. Henri Vernier (here filling the Narrator role usually filled by Watson) are called to Paris by Messrs. Moncharmin and Richard, the Managers of the Paris Opera House, to deal with a pesky “Opera Ghost,” seemingly obsessed with soprano Christine Daae.  Holmes finds the Phantom, Erik, to be something of a kindred spirit, and even befriends the strange, skeletal musician.  The encounter between the two men during the Masquerade — Erik as the Red Death, and Holmes disguised as Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame — is one not to be missed.

Most noteworthy in discussing Angel of the Opera is it’s distinct lack of romanticism.  Unlike Andrew Lloyd Webber’s schmoopsy-poo love story, the original Phantom of the Opera is indeed a horror story, which carries over into Siciliano’s novel.  Christine is a naive, borderline-simpleminded young woman; Raoul de Chagny is a shallow, disinterested fop, desirous of Christine solely as a bauble, with no real love for her as a human being; La Carlotta is the proverbial Fat Lady, well past her operatic prime.  The same cynicism carries over into Siciliano’s depiction of Doyle’s characters (of which Vernier is indeed one), with Holmes a borderline-sociopath unwilling to admit that he has emotions, terrified on a subconscious level of women (a notion that, combined with the mention of a “falling out” with Watson, is highly suggestive of a homoerotic relationship between the two men) while Vernier is left dizzy by Holmes’ mental capacities, doing little more than following the Great Detective around like a faithful dog.

Angel of the Opera is currently out of print, but a new paperback edition is scheduled to arrive on shelves March 2011.  I highly recommend it.

***

This has been just a taste of what is out there in terms of supernatural tales of Sherlock Holmes in written form.  To analyze films on top of this would be a whole ‘nother article, which I may attempt at a later date.  If you’re looking for enjoyable reading material, I will always very strongly advocate Doyle’s stories — still accessable more than a hundred years after the character’s initial introduction, and always thrilling.

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Bill Adcock likes long walks off short piers and eating endangered species. In addition to his work for the Blood Sprayer, his writing can also be found at his personal site, Radiation-Scarred Reviews, which he's maintained since 2008. Bill has also contributed, as of this writing, to GRINDHOUSE PURGATORY issues 2 and 3, and CINEMA SEWER issue 27.

2 Responses to “Outside Rational Explanation: Sherlock Holmes and the World of the Supernatural”

  1. I have a nice copy of the Sussex Vampire in comic form that Caliber put out a few years back… I like that story, the truth he uncovers is pretty disturbing. Just got a copy of Hounds from someone giving away books on freecycle… Angel of the opera sounds pretty sweet.

  2. Awesome article yet again, Bill! I’m a huge Holmes fan and read anything with him in it that I can get my hands on. Hound is one of the absolute best… it’s just one of those books you end up reading in just one afternoon.

    Shadows Over Baker Street has to be one of my favorite anthologies EVER; the premise of Holmes and Watson battling tentacled terrors from the cosmos is enough to bring me to my happy place.

    I haven’t heard of Angel of the Opera though; based on your recommendation and my adoration for the Phantom character, it sounds like a match made in heaven. Great to see such a knowledgeable fellow Sherlock fan write up a loving piece on that fantastic sleuth.

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