It’s nearly impossible for a Sherlockian to remember that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote anything other than the Sherlock Holmes stories. Some of us may know The Lost World, but mainly for the suspicion that Lord John Roxton was really Sherlock Holmes in disguise. The really knowledgeable may know of The White Company and Brigadier Gerard and some have actually read those novels, but what very few can appreciate is the sheer quantity and diversity of what Conan Doyle wrote.
That’s why A Study in Terror: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Revolutionary Stories of Fear and the Supernatural is so enjoyable. These nine stories (one is a novella) are a good reminder that Doyle dared to tread where his Great Detective would not. Ghosts can apply in these stories, along with witches, sky beings and dwellers under the earth.
I’d read a few of these stories long ago in collections of stories that had appeared in the Strand Magazine, but frankly I’d forgotten Doyles’ excursions into the supernatural. In my mind, I’d equated his supernatural leanings with fairies and ectoplasm and automatic writing and not the sort of Lovecraftian horror present in these stories.
H.P. Lovecraft, of course, is what one is most reminded of in these stories. All the stories but one are written as journal entries and one story is the account of a dead man. These stories are the equivalent of the modern-day found footage in movies like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity and they read like dispatches from the grave. The narrators are sober-minded men who dally with the unknown at their peril and it’s interesting that a man who espoused and championed spiritualism should choose to write such stories. These are all cautionary tales and certainly don’t paint a rosy picture of the spirit realm.
Then again, a good story is a good story and it’s important to remember that Doyle wrote an amazing amount. He had to, of course, for he had given up his medical practice in 1891 and lived by his pen. Nevertheless, many of these stories were written after he’d already become famous and I think it’s obvious he wrote these simply because he enjoyed it.
The first story, The Horror of the Heights, is far more of a speculative/science fiction tale, very much in keeping with The Lost World and is my favorite. It’s set in what for Doyle would have been the future—the 1920s—and it’s the journal of an aviator who flew too close to the sun and discovered the rarefied air at 41,000 feet is not devoid of life but in fact is a teeming jungle.
Accompanying the story is The Oceans Of The Sky: Aviation And The Horror Of The Heights, an essay by Chuck Davis that examines how prescient Doyle was about the future of aviation. He generally gets good marks and shows he was aware of current-day technology and predicts some advances. I enjoyed the essay with some caveats. The essay has too many links to wikipedia. Please know that I love wikipedia and use it constantly, but always as a springboard. I also felt speculation about the biology of aerial monsters unnecessary, but that’s because, despite loving science fiction and supernatural stories, I’m a committed skeptic about the unseen world, and I don’t think the same can be said for the contributors to this anthology.
I really enjoyed the essay Revisions Of History: Arthur Conan Doyle And The Mary Celeste Mystery by editor Derrick Berlanger. One of the stories included in this anthology is J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement, Doyle’s fictionalized account of what happened to the Mary Celeste, the most famous maritime mystery of all time. Doyle’s story was so influential it overshadowed the real events, to the point most people aware of the mystery believe Doyle’s fictional account to be the real story. The essay is a sober-minded but enjoyable examination of how truth becomes fiction.
The final essay, Towards The Horizon: Christopher Penczak And The Paranormal World Of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is an interview between Brian Belanger and Mr. Penczak, credited as an award-winning author of over twenty books, the co-founder of the nonprofit organization The Temple of Witchcraft, and the co-owner of Copper Cauldron Publishing; a teacher of shamanism, tarot, Reiki, herbalism, astrology and Qabalah. When I read this, my eyes rolled so much my cat was playing with them on the floor.
The interview explores the state of spiritualism today, which is appropriate in an age when far fewer people claim to be religious but many more claim to be spiritual. I would have appreciated a more scholarly approach to the topic, but I enjoyed reading the essay all the same, but perhaps with more humor than intended.
The one story in the collection that does make one think Doyle had a pennies per word calculation in mind when he wrote it is the novella The Parasite. It’s a dark tale of possession and again makes one wonder why such an advocate of the spirit world would write such a story. The story frankly goes on way too long but it, like most of the stories in this collection, has a saving grace.
Doyle, when you come right down to it, was an optimist. An H.P. Lovecraft story often ended with the narrator waiting for the rats to finish him off or Cthulhu to take him to another dimension, but Doyle’s British bull dog spirit rarely allowed that pessimistic of an ending. And that makes this anthology so enjoyable. Doyle gives us a glimpse of a darker world but in the end, we survive and even though we didn’t always like what we glimpsed, we’re intrigued enough to want to read more. And curiously enough, the full title of this anthology is A Study in Terror: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Revolutionary Stories of Fear and the Supernatural—Vol. 1. (Editor Berlanger has confirmed there is another volume in the works.)
Despite a few trifling quibbles, I can heartily recommend this anthology to anyone who thinks ghosts can apply.