Weird Tales and Horror in the Sherlockian Canon

Philip A. Shreffler

Philip A. Shreffler

We are all familiar with these words from ‘The Devil’s Foot,’ words that as easily could have been written by H. P. Lovecraft as by John H. Watson.

Without doubt, this passage describing the effects of the devil’s-foot root represents the sort of horror story that would have found itself very much at home in the pages of Weird Tales, the publication in which Lovecraft and so many other authors of terrifying tales saw their work in print.

The question, however, that concerns us is to what degree the recorded adventures of Sherlock Holmes may be seen to represent the horror genre (not to mention the unpublished cases with their giant rats, Gila monsters, red leeches, remarkable worms, and disappearing ghost ships). The answer lies partially in one’s definition of horror.

When I was young, I owned an anthology of horror stories with an introduction, as best I can recall, by Boris Karloff. In it, Karloff distinguished between terror and horror: Terror, he argued, comprises a momentary shock — akin to the cheap trick of a horror film’s hero bumping into hanging chains, with an appropriate deafening jingle on the soundtrack, when one expects the “advent” of some genuine “lurker upon the threshold” — or, at best, the sudden, frightening apparition that sends galvanic shock through the limbs.

Horror, on the other hand, Karloff described as a sort of settled revulsion, possibly a nauseating influence, but certainly the sinking of the heart and the sickening of the soul with which Poe acquaints us in “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

With the exception, for example, of Walpole’s dragging a fairly benign ghost or two across the stage in his fiction, the gothic novels of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries became progressively adept — in their best incarnations — at awakening within us a leaden depression resulting from our awareness of human depravity.

We may reasonably assume that when Holmes says to Watson, “Why not tell them of the Cornish horror,” he means it, not only in terms of the immediate terrors of the devil’s foot drug but of the horrors experienced during the investigation of the crime.

Furthermore, even in “The Copper Beeches,” a tale that is not patently a horror story, Holmes still comments on the terrible “sin” that lurks undetected in isolated country homesteads — by which he may refer to anything from child abuse to murder.

“They always fill me with a certain horror,” he avers, surely alluding not simply to the startling but to the genuinely horrific.

In considering canonical tales as horror stories, it is important also to note that before the great horror films of the 1930s and the revival of horror fiction and film that began in earnest in the 1970s and is with us still in the twenty-first-century, it was during the nineteenth-century and the earliest decades of the twentieth that the horror story became commercially viable.

The successes of Frankenstein, Varney the Vampire, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula, The Invisible Man, and others spawned the publication of hundreds of horror stories of various sorts, including such appearances in the Strand side by side with Sherlock Holmes — some even written by Arthur Conan Doyle (for example, “The Silver Mirror,” “How It Happened,” and “The Horror of the Heights”).

Beyond question, a substantial number of the Holmes adventures may be classified as horror stories. But in the skilful hands of Watson (and on occasion even of Holmes himself), these works may be said to have gone out of their way to embrace the gruesome, the grisly, or the gothic.

Perhaps the reason was indeed commercial. Alternatively, perhaps it was simply because, in his tireless search for the outré, Sherlock Holmes was attracted to cases that, whether he knew it or not at their outset, would be calculated to chill a reader’s blood.

It is ironic to note that, largely because of film, we have come to associate fog with Sherlock Holmes. Even Vincent Starrett writes of the “ghostly gas lamps” that “fail at twenty feet” as archetypal of the Holmes mise en scène.

Nevertheless, only nine of sixty Holmes stories feature fog, while something more than twenty of them — fully one-third of the Canon — may be described in some sense as horror stories. Maybe those ghostly gas lamps ought to be ghastly gas lamps.

For many readers and viewers of film, the horror story, almost by definition, seems to embrace the supernatural, even though Poe, for example, in stories like “The Pit and the Pendulum,” demonstrated that this is not always the case.

Nevertheless, a number of canonical adventures suggest or include elements of classic supernatural horror, and we shall examine them in due course. However, it is wise to be aware of the astonishing horror that exists in the world of Sherlock Holmes quite independent of any supernaturalism at all.

The image of Captain Peter Carey pinned to his cabin wall “like a beetle on a card” seems antiseptic enough until added to it are the floor and walls of the cabin awash in blood and appearing “like a slaughter-house” and the truly flesh creeping “droning like a harmonium” [emphasis added] of “flies and bluebottles.”

In ‘Black Peter’ we do not have wait until burial for the Conqueror Worm; the flies and bluebottles are already on the scene. And while the words here are those of Inspector Stanley Hopkins, it is Watson who chooses to report them.

In fact, considering that much of the Canon was written and published in an age that valued delicacy and manners, publicly, at any rate, it is surprising how much of it is simply gruesome, repulsive, and horrifying.

This occurs from the very beginning: The description of Enoch J. Drebber’s body, contorted in a “writhing, unnatural posture,” the expression on its twisted, ape-like face one of hatred and horror, caused Watson to note that “I have seen death in many forms, but never has it appeared to me in a more fearsome aspect than in that dark, grimy apartment.”

And yet, in Holmes’s very next recorded case, within the upper chambers of the bizarre and melancholy Pondicherry Lodge and under the cold, blue light of the moon, exactly as in a Hawthornean romance, Watson describes Bartholomew Sholto’s death-mask features as “set… in a horrible smile, a fixed and unnatural grin… more jarring to the nerves than any scowl or contortion.”

This is the risus sardonicus caused by tetanus of the facial muscles, and it was considered a horrific enough image to have been used, mutatis mutandis, in Conrad Veidt’s 1927 silent film ‘The Man Who Laughs’.

Of course, the madman’s shrieking laughter is far worse than the faces of the dead contorted by fear, hatred or, for that matter, tetanus. Poe knew this when he described it in ‘The Haunted Palace’: “A hideous throng rush out forever/ And laugh — but smile no more.”

To find it in the Canon we need look no further than ‘The Devil’s Foot,’ in which Owen and George Tregennis, “an expression of the utmost horror” on their faces, are found “laughing, shouting, and singing, the senses stricken clean out of them.”

They are last seen being carried away to Helston, when Watson catches a glimpse, through the carriage window, of a “horribly contorted, grinning face glaring out at us.”

And lest we consider these aberrations, we have but to consider the discovery of Blessington’s body in ‘The Resident Patient’: “As he dangled from the hook [Blessington’s flabbiness] was exaggerated and intensified until he was scarcely human in his appearance. The neck was drawn out like a plucked chicken’s, making the rest of him seem more obese and unnatural by the contrast. He was clad only in his long night-dress, and his swollen ankles and ungainly feet protruded starkly from beneath it.”

The swollen ankles, of course, are from the livid blood that settles to the lowest portion of the body after death. The Sherlockian Canon is not for the squeamish.

Of the four stories to which we have just alluded, only ‘The Devil’s Foot’ involves even intimations of the supernatural. Yet elements of horror, as we have noted, even in cases that do not seem to fall within the definition of a classic horror story, seem to be as much the canonical rule as the exception.

Critics often point to the sentence, “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” as among the most chilling in the Holmes adventures, and one surely agrees. But for all its fame, the statement is probably no more truly horrifying than this one from ‘The Blanched Soldier’: “You are in the Leper Hospital, and you have slept in a leper’s bed.” Kipling, at his grittiest, could not have said it better.

Not to draw this out, let us simply remark on the adventures that most prominently feature such gore. There is the engineer’s severed thumb lying on a window sill; brains were blown all over a ship’s cabin in ‘The Gloria Scott’; Charles Augustus Milverton into whose dead face a woman’s heel is ground; Sir Eustace Brackenstall in “the Abbey Grange,” whose brains have spattered his wife’s clothing; a corpse in The Valley of Fear whose face is shattered by blasts from two shotgun barrels; severed ears in a cardboard box; the dreadful weals left on a corpse by the Lion’s Mane; the pathetic mutilation of a woman’s face in ‘The Veiled Lodger’; the arguably justified mutilation of a man’s face by hissing vitriol in ‘The Illustrious Client’; and not one but two stories involving murder and attempted murder in gas chambers in ‘The Retired Colourman’ and ‘The Greek Interpreter’ (it’s little wonder that William Gillette incorporated the Stepney gas chamber into his 1899 stage play Sherlock Holmes).

The classic horror story, unlike the Canon’s more realistic cases, can be described as incorporating elements of Gothic Romanticism, a term actually comprising two parts.

Gothicism (often dated from Walpole’s 1764 ‘Castle of Otranto’) made use of many of the trappings of the Middle Ages, including dark castles, secret passages, haunted forests, stormy nights, gloom, and, almost always, ultimately revealed crime or sin.

Romanticism was a loosely knit and loosely defined literary movement that occurred in the late eighteenth-century and extended into the mid-nineteenth. Its name having been derived from the medieval Romances, romanticism emphasized the power of the imagination and the value of emotional and subjective experience of the world over the objective empiricism that had preceded it in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries.

Frankenstein of 1818 is a solid example of a romantic gothic work, while Dracula, published in 1897, is a novel in which the Gothicism that surrounds the Count is at odds with modern forces of the confederation that does battle with him.

In this sense, Dracula has more in common with the Sherlockian Canon than one might at first imagine. The six characters who band together to defeat the King Vampire are products of what Stoker is at pains to insist is a capitalized, industrialized, democratized, and therefore mature world, while Dracula represents an egocentric, feudal world whose time, like Dracula’s own, is past.

Dracula, according to the Dutch Professor Van Helsing, “be not of man-stature as to brain [sic],” by which he means that Dracula’s thinking reflects the childlike “id,” the “child-brain” Van Helsing calls it, and that is why Dracula can be defeated.

Sherlock Holmes too, with his logical positivism, celebration of science and ratiocination, and egalitarian commitment to law, represents everything that the dark denizen of Dracula’s gothic world does not.

But Sherlock Holmes actually goes Professor Van Helsing one better. While he, too, is able to defeat an id-creature like Grimesby Roylott by the exercise of mature intellect, he rejects utterly the world of gothic romance. He irritably berates Watson for his “little fairy-tales” (‘The Empty House’) and charges the doctor with “tinge[ing]” his accounts of the cases “with romanticism” (‘The Sign of the Four’) — even when one such account involves the abject terror of a poisonous serpent slithering down a bell-pull toward its unconscious victim, an image so famous that ‘The Speckled Band’ is probably the most anthologized Holmes story. So much, as far as Holmes is concerned, for romanticism.

As for Gothicism, in ‘The Sussex Vampire,’ he solemnly intones the credo that “The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.” And yet, again and again in the Canon, ghosts — the ghosts of gothic romanticism — do apply, insistently.

One is undoubtedly tempted, as we have noted, to consider ‘The Sign of the Four’ as gothic romance, and so we may.

Mary Morstan’s friend, Mrs. Cecil Forrester, declares of the case, “It is a romance!… An injured lady, half a million in treasure, a black cannibal, and a wooden-legged ruffian. They take the place of the conventional dragon or wicked earl.” “And two knights-errant to the rescue,” adds Mary Morstan.

However, though this novel may be among the very best in the Canon and is quite certainly romantic in tone as presented by Watson, it is not in the classic sense a horror story.

The adventure that indisputably is, however, is ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ — a confection of horror that, in its own way, seems to some degree to inform the elements of horror in other canonical tales.

Though Holmes’s detective powers are evident from the first in his analysis of Dr. Mortimer’s stick, as the tale progresses the supernaturalism seems to grow. We are confronted by the Baskerville family legend that derives from a relatively recent though sufficiently antiquarian past, a legend concerning enough sin and supernatural retribution that it would be perfectly comfortable in the pages of an eighteenth-century gothic romance.

Though it has been debated in just what part of England the story of the black hound originated, there definitely was (and may still be) a persistent legend in Devon that a supernatural black hound appeared frequently between Torrington and Copplestone.

These tales were collected in 1956 by Barbara Carbonell with reference to apparitions in the 1920s and ’30s.2 J. Wentworth Day remarks that the “Black Dog of Essex [Black Shuck] is one with the Ghostly Hound of Dartmoor who haunts the moor and hunts terrified humans to their death in the quaking bogs.”

Indeed, for much of The Hound of the Baskervilles, it scarcely matters that the Hound shall ultimately be revealed as a creature of flesh and blood.

The narrative is left in the hands of the romantic Watson, who operates in a vacuum left by Holmes’s absence — a vacuum filled with swirling moorland fogs, flashing lights among the night-time crags, and a mysterious silhouette upon a tor etched against a full autumnal moon.

In this context, the Hound of the Baskervilles becomes as real to us as the various Black Hounds that have long existed in British oral tradition.

However, like Moby Dick whose presence pervades Melville’s massive novel but is actually seen rarely — and only clearly at the book’s climax— when the Baskerville hound emerges, its life on the canonical stage occupies a scant few paragraphs.

We hear its baying across Dartmoor’s forlorn landscape, but it is that landscape itself — the setting — that functions to instil fear.

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