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THE BEST SUPERNATURAL TALES OF Arthur Conan Doyle
By E. F. BLEILER
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1979 E. F. Bleiler
All rights reserved.
ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE AND HIS SUPERNATURAL FICTION
ABOUT the life of Arthur Conan Doyle there is little need to say much, since most readers know something about him. Born in Edinburgh in 1859 into the gifted and influential Irish Doyle family, he took degrees in medicine at Edinburgh University, hoping eventually to specialize in ophthalmology. He was not successful as a practitioner, however, and was forced to various expediencies to make a living. He acted as an assistant to a strange medical charlatan in Plymouth, and served as a ship's doctor on a freighter up and down the coast of West Africa, where he contracted a tropical fever. (In his student days, between his M.B. and M.D., he had previously held the same position on a whaler, where he doubled as apprentice harpooner.) Doyle wrote when medical practice was slack, which meant very often, and bombarded the periodicals with fiction.
Doyle's first published story, "The Mystery of Sasassa Valley" (Chambers's Journal, 1879) was a fantasy based on the fluorescence of diamonds. This was followed by a succession of isolated stories, culminating in "A Study in Scarlet" (Beeton's Christmas Annual #29, 1887), for which he received a total payment of £25. This was the first Sherlock Holmes story. By 1891, however, Doyle finally realized that he was a writer and not a physician; as Hesketh Pearson put it, "He perceived that it was silly to finance himself as an ophthalmologist, whom no one wanted to consult out of earnings as a writer whom everyone wanted to read." The impetus to success was double: the appearance of The White Company in book form and the explosion of popularity when The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes appeared serially in 1891 in The Strand Magazine.
Doyle soon became the most popular writer in England. For Doyle and for Doyle alone was the print run of The Strand Magazine increased when a new story appeared. Today we think of Doyle primarily as the foremost writer of detective stories since Poe, but he was also preëminent in historical fiction, science fiction, adventure and sports stories, topical stories, historical works and journalism. In his own opinion, with which I concur, his best work was the fascinating novel of events in the 13th-century Europe of the Black Prince, The White Company.
Doyle also moved much in public life and had opinions, often worth listening to, on many contemporary matters, including military science, in which he was a generation ahead of his day. A staunch supporter of the Establishment in most things, he received a knighthood for his work as an apologist for the British side in the Boer War. In World War I he was semi-official chronicler of the British Army. A remarkably generous man, sincerely moved by abuses of power, he also devoted much time to correcting two judicial injustices, the famous Slater and Edalji cases.
In later life, around 1915–6, Doyle became converted to Spiritualism, and most of his activity thereafter was concerned with missionary work. He travelled and lectured, wrote pamphlets and books, and considered himself bound to defend every aspect of his creed against all comers. In his old age his gullibility was pathetic. He died in 1930.
Doyle wrote only fourteen supernatural short stories and four supernatural novels, three of which are short. This is not a large production, especially when one compares it with his writings in other areas. He wrote some sixty stories about Sherlock Holmes and sixteen about Brigadier Gerard of the Napoleonic Army, while his literary corpus comes to more than four hundred works, not counting individual poems and minor journalism.
Yet these few stories reflect his inner personality and interests, just as his sports stories reflect his bouncing athleticism. While his earlier supernatural stories were journalistic, they did not fall into the easy path of the conventional Victorian ghost story, but introduced ideas that he had picked up during his serious reading. His later stories, on the other hand, were often frankly propaganda for the Spiritualist cause.
Doyle left an enormous mass of personal documents, letters, diaries and reading notes (since he apparently was unable to throw such things away), and these reveal that his final conversion to Spiritualism during World War I was not a trauma on the road to Damascus, but a logical development within one channel of his oddly segmented, compartmentalized mind.
After receiving his baccalaureate in medicine Doyle found himself an agnostic. This situation caused great consternation and resentment in his larger family, the Doyles of national importance, since they were all religious to the point of fanaticism. A complete estrangement was the result. But his agnosticism and materialism were only temporary positions, for Doyle, like many others who have been unable to accept traditional religion, soon was unwittingly undertaking a quest for a new Something to take the place of the former absolutism. Strange though it may seem to us today, it was quite possible in the late 19th century to work into a new religious position through the sciences.
When Doyle was a young man science was seriously investigating the phenomena of the supersensual world. On the historical-clinical side, the Society for Psychical Research and the American Society for Psychical Research were conducting investigations into anecdotes of survival and clairvoyance, while the scientists Wallace, Brewster and Crookes came out in support of mediumistic phenomena.
At this time D. D. Home, the Scottish-American medium, probably the most skilled practitioner of all time, since he was never caught out, was dazzling St. Petersburg and London society with remarkable feats, including daylight levitations. On one famous occasion, it is claimed, Home floated out a window of Ashley House, Buckingham Gate, London, and into another, in the presence of witnesses. William Crookes, the renowned chemist and physicist, investigated Home in his laboratory, and reported that Home could play an accordion fastened under a table while his hands were secured above. Home, it is also reported, could increase or decrease his height at will, and could vary his weight.
Even more spectacular, however, was the case of Katie King. Crookes undertook a laboratory investigation of the medium Florence King, who specialized in materializations. Out of her cabinet, as Crookes reported, there stepped a flesh and blood girl, one Katie King; she was revealed to be a materialization from the spirit world of a West Indian girl who had been dead for two hundred years. Crookes took her photograph and embraced her, stroking her skin, to be sure she was real, as she was. (About a year later a young lady named Eliza White failed to convince the faithful—including Doyle, years later—that she had played the part of Katie King.)
As can be seen, psychical events were exciting in the 1870's and 1880's, far more so than today, where the best that can be done is slide razor blades under a plastic pyramid or bend spoons.
Doyle watched all this attentively. While living at Portsmouth in the 1880's (as reported by John Dickson Carr in his Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) he avidly followed psychical research. In 1887 he read more than seventy books dealing with the topic, and in the same year he attended seances and kept detailed notes of what had occurred at each. At an early date Doyle came to the conclusion that Spiritualistic phenomena were genuine—the levitations of tables, the raps, the horn blowing, the messages from the dead—but he was baffled that such trivialities could be associated with a topic so important as survival, and refused to accept the total Spiritualist position. He was caught, to paraphrase Paul, between "Greeks seeking science and Jews demanding miracles." Eventually he came to the position that one need not demand significant evidence; evidence of any sort was sufficient. (It is not appropriate here to tell about the embarrassments of his old age, since his supernatural fiction is mostly from his youth.)
Against this background it is disappointing that Doyle, while in his prime as a writer, say 1890–1905, did not devote more of his abundant energy to supernatural fiction.
Most of the stories in this collection originated in ideas that can be traced without too much difficulty either in Doyle's life or in the cultural atmosphere of the day. The earlier stories show an apt journalistic versatility that was able to seize on concepts that were already fairly familiar and channel them into new stories.
"The American's Tale" (London Society, 1880), Doyle's second published story, is probably based on the wonderful man-eating plant of Madagascar. This was a traveller's tale familiar to Victorian readers and often retold in popular articles about natural wonders, true or otherwise. Based largely upon an account by William Ellis in his Three Trips to Madagascar, it tells of a gigantic plant (perhaps a unique specimen) that grew in a secret jungle glade. From a curiously shaped trunk, long, tentacle-like leaves swirled and trailed onto the ground surrounding it. Should an animal or human be unwary enough to tread on one, he would be whipped aloft into the heart of the plant and eaten, much as a fly is eaten by the Venus fly-trap. According to the legend, the natives used it for human sacrifices. (Unfortunately, the plant has never been found!) Doyle's approach to this, as he would have frankly admitted, was colored by the popularity of Bret Harte in Great Britain.
More personal to Doyle is the pellucid horror of "The Captain of the Polestar" Temple Bar, 1883), with the darkless brilliance of endless day and the horrors of night. It obviously draws on Doyle's experiences in the whaler Hope, even to the personalities of the Scottish crew members, who are recorded in Doyle's papers. As for the ghost that pursues and lures, is there perhaps an echo of Frankenstein?
"The Silver Hatchet" (London Society, 1883) and "The Leather Funnel" (McClure's Magazine, 1900) share an idea that probably emerged from Doyle's serious reading in the literature of Spiritualism. This was psychometry, or the concept that inanimate objects may retain a certain latent memory, as it were, which can be re-experienced by suitable sensitive persons. Many a medium during Doyle's youth pressed old rags, stones or artifacts against his or her forehead, hoping to emerge with a vision of the past. I remember one American volume of psychometric readings from the 1860's in which a medium constructed a Carboniferous forest from a lump of coal and after handling a meteorite fragment described a wonderful utopia on another planet. Doyle turned this concept around into thriller situations, much as he did with the contagious magic implicit in "The Brown Hand" (The Strand Magazine, 1899).
Doyle's other reading may have provided the ideas for two stories. Vice Versa by Doyle's friend F. Anstey was very popular in the early 1880's. It was a humorous novel about a personality exchange between a Victorian schoolboy and his domineering heavy father, caused by an ill-considered wish made on a magical stone. In "The Great Keinplatz Experiment" (Belgravia, 1885) the exchange of personalities is caused by hypnosis, which was very much in the air at the time, what with Bramwell's experiments with medical hypnosis in India. Similarly "John Barrington Cowles" (Cassell's Saturday Journal, 1886) is derivative from Oliver Wendell Holmes's Elsie Venner. Doyle admired Holmes greatly, and many years later he headed a delegation to lay a wreath on Holmes's grave.
"J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement," which appeared in the January 1884 issue of the prestigious Cornhill Magazine, is in a class by itself as a fantasy of history. Like Arthur Machen's "Angels of Mons" or Meinhold's Amber Witch, it is one of the few pieces of fiction that have been taken seriously as fact and have been hotly refuted or defended by persons who should have known better.
This story, which appeared anonymously, was based on the historical incident of the Mary Celeste, one of the great mysteries of the sea. In December, 1872, a brig under full sail was seen working its way erratically through the seas about 250 miles west of Portugal. It did not respond to signals, and when boarded revealed a strange situation: the ship was derelict, unmanned; perfectly sound in all respects; cargo untouched. Yet it bore evidence of having been abandoned in the greatest of haste. The sails were set, personal effects (including jewelry) were still on board the ship, food was exposed in the galley, and the log, in the last entry, placed the ship almost 900 miles farther west, about ten days earlier. What had happened to the crew, the captain, his wife and baby daughter? Today, one might invoke an Azorean Triangle in explanation, but the 19th century had no such explanation. The mystery remains unsolved today, although there have been many reasonable and unreasonable attempts at solutions.
While most of Doyle's readers probably had enough sense to recognize that Mr. J. Habakuk Jephson was a Yankee of literature and that his adventures on board the Marie Celeste (Doyle's spelling) were unlikely, Mr. Solly Flood, Her Majesty's Advocate-General and Proctor at Gibraltar, who had handled the salvage of the Mary Celeste, sent public telegrams denouncing the story as untrue. He followed this with an official report to the Admiralty proclaiming Jephson to be a hoaxer. Needless to say, the press, when details emerged, was delighted, as was Dr. Doyle.
Less likely to be taken for current events are Doyle's two Egyptological stories, "The Ring of Thoth" (The Cornhill Magazine, 1890) and "Lot No. 249" (Harpers Magazine, 1892). Both good thrillers, they show the intense interest in ancient Egypt that arose during the last part of the 19th century after the findings of the Egypt Exploration Society. It is interesting to compare Doyle's low-keyed development of the mummy theme with the sensationalism of E. and H. Heron's "Story of Baelbrow" (Pearson's Magazine, 1898), where occult detective Flaxman Low encounters a similar entity.
"Playing with Fire" (The Strand Magazine, 1900) might have some autobiographical interest if it could be taken as marking a stage in Doyle's religious development. The narrator makes points that Doyle would have accepted: that there may be fraud in the occult, that there are genuine phenomena, that the explanations are not wholly satisfactory. Readers who are interested in a story more sophisticated in idea, if more primitive in telling, might compare Doyle's story with Charles Williams's novel The Place of the Lion, where the Archetypes, through a similar breaking of bonds, flash loose.
Not until late in his career, when he was 60, did Doyle write a conventional ghost story with Victorian values. This is "The Bully of Brocas Court" (The Strand Magazine, 1921), in which the ghost is a traditional personal fragment of a dead person, earthbound until its crimes are expiated. But it must be noted that the background of the story is very unusual, since the Bully is tied in with Doyle's earlier Regency sporting stories, like Rodney Stone, rather than with conventional settings. Not surprisingly, since it strikes a sports note that Doyle delighted in, it is one of Doyle's best stories.
There is little that can be said of the remaining stories in this collection. The "Los Amigos Fiasco" (The Idler Magazine, 1892) is an amusing fantasy in the mode of Bret Harte. "Selecting a Ghost" (London Society, 1883), also known as "The Secret of Goresthorpe Grange," and "A Literary Mosaic" (The Boy's Own Paper, 1886), also known as "Cyprian Overbeck Wells," are pleasant tours de force, notable only in that they are not as dull as most comparable stories.
Excerpted from THE BEST SUPERNATURAL TALES OF Arthur Conan Doyle by E. F. BLEILER. Copyright © 1979 E. F. Bleiler. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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