Fiction Reviews

Arthur Conan Doyle: Gothic Tales

(2016) Arthur Conan Doyle edited by Darryl Jones, Oxford University Press,
£16.99 / US$27.95, hrdbk, lx +549pp, ISBN 978-0-198-73429-1


Although, obviously Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is the author of these tales, the book was edited by Darryl Jones who has taught at various at various colleges and universities over the years including a spell as a visiting professor in Transylvania, perhaps, appropriately enough. He is also the author of Horror: A Thematic History is Fiction and Film and It Came from the 1950s!. He also has previous form with Oxford University Press having edited editions of M. R. James short stories for them as well as a collection of classic horror stories in 2014. Here, he provides an introduction, notes of the text, a select bibliography and chronology of Arthur Conan Doyle, all before the 34 stories that are collected here, and then explanatory notes afterwards.

Doyle, is of course, most famous for being the creator of Sherlock Holmes, an iconic character whose popularity has increased over the years and shows no sign of peaking with the recent Robert Downey films and the TV series Sherlock from the BBC and the series Elementary running in the States, not to forget the numerous novels and short story collections that continue to appear, some with the official sanction of the Conan Doyle estate, many without. Doyle also created Professor Edward Challenger who appeared in his novel The Lost World and three other novels, and is another character that has also lived on in film, TV series and in print long after Doyle’s death in 1930. But Doyle could turn his hand to practically any form of writing and did write ghost stories, horror stories and the odd gothic tale. Obviously, The Hound of the Baskervilles and some of the Holmes short stories have gothic elements, but he was dabbling in the gothic tale years before the Holmes stories were published, in fact, 'The Captain of the Polestar' one of his most famous gothic stories was published in 1883, no doubt influenced by his time as a ship’s doctor on board the 'Mayumba'. It is interesting to note that Doyle died less than 90 years ago, which isn’t that long in the grand scheme of things and some of these stories were published in the 1920s. One of them even takes place on a movie set. In fact, the last story in the collection, 'The Lift' was adapted for television in the 1960s and given the subject matter and strangeness of the characters and situations I wonder if Roald Dahl ever read any of them as they certainly wouldn’t have been out of place on the old Tales of the Unexpected TV series.

Write from what you know is a popular piece of advice given to anyone starting out as a writer and Doyle was a doctor, a ship’s doctor and someone who travelled abroad, and in particular saw the influence – not always good - of the British Empire. Thus we have stories like 'Uncle Jeremy’s Household' involving Thuggee cults and 'The Brown Hand' with the ghost of an Afghan tribesman returning from the grave to reclaim the hand that had been amputated in an attempt to save his life.

Apart from the aforementioned 'The Captain of the Polestar', readers familiar with Doyle’s work will probably have read 'The Horror of the Heights' where a pilot encounters 'air jungles' inhabited by creatures that he barely manages to escape from, but makes the grave mistake of flying back to this strange region to get proof of his discovery – could this story have influenced the creation of the classic Twilight Zone episode 'Nightmare at 20000 Feet'? The episode featuring a pre-Kirk, William Shatner and was given a movie reboot with John Lithgow in the same role in the Twilight Zone film. It certainly has a touch of the Lovecraft about it in the creatures that Doyle has created.

Other stand-out stories are 'The Leather Funnel' where objects have the power to tell the story of events they were involved in, and the leather funnel was involved in a particularly grisly one, and 'Lot 249' featuring a murderous mummy from beyond the grave, and more immortal Egyptian shenanigans take place in 'The Ring of Thoth' in another tale that predates what the movies have down with mummies and Egyptian legends in recent years. Two of the creepiest and most effective tales – 'The Case of Lady Sannox' and 'The Lord of Chateau Noir' – appear one after the other, in a double helping of gory revenge.

Animals, objects, strange people, locked rooms, deadly plots, they are all here to be enjoyed, some of them to be read with the lights on, or read before sundown such is the power of Doyle’s prose all these years later. This is probably the best-produced collection of ghost/horror/gothic tales written by Doyle to date, and maybe ever, only time will tell.

Ian Hunter

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