Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
Arthur Conan Doyle is world famous for his consulting detective Sherlock Holmes. With the possible exception of Dracula, Holmes is the best remembered character form Victorian literature. The mighty sluth is a paradigm of logic and observation. He is the antithesis of anything supernatural and occult. He himself so famously once said. “This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.” Mr. Holmes materialistic world view is even more interesting considering his creator was an unabashed spiritualist.
Doyle’s life is fraught with controversy. Even his last name is in dispute. I am going to refer to him as Doyle. That is the last name on his baptismal record and the name he was knighted under. Though many think Conan was not his middle name but that he had a compound last name, Conan-Doyle. His second wife did sign her name Jill Conan Doyle, but most people accept his last name was just Doyle.
Holmes debuts in The Study in Scarlet, in 1886. He became an instant phenomena. The good detective only appears in four novels and fifty-six short stories by Doyle but I doubt you can find anyone more influential in literature. Holmes trademark characteristic is rationality and logic. Which conflicts with Doyle’s own beliefs that can safely be called naive.
Now don’t think I am bad mouthing Doyle. I love the dude as a human and a writer, recently I had a chance to see the first pages of handwritten manuscript for Hound of the Baskervilles and the feelings that came over me were near spiritual. As a want to be writer, I can say creating a character, an interesting and intriguing character that doesn’t’ share your own world view and core values, is difficult. And that goes doubly so when your creations views are complete opposite of yours.
Part of the lack of a paranormal inclination in the detective I think can be traced to Holmes date of origin which I have said was 1886. Doyle didn’t become a hard core spiritualist until around the end of The First World War. At that time death seemed to surrounded him. His first wife died in 1906, his son Kingsley died in 1918. During that time frame were millions killed in the Great War, many of Doyle’s close friends and relatives also died. It was perhaps not only normal but also cathartic that he turned to a belief in life after death.
It is well known that Doyle wasn’t Holmes favorite fan. Not only did he try to kill him off, he tried to retire him in the end. Doyle felt that Holmes despite being a cash cow took away from his true legacy historical romances. Sometimes I wonder if part of Doyle’s dispute with his creation was a fundamental difference in the belief of the occult.
It wasn’t like there wasn’t a market during the Pre-Edwardian age for occult detective stories. There were hundreds of them. The most well-known now a days is William Hope Hodgson’s Carnaki the Ghost Finder. Well I guess you could argue Abraham van Hellsing is the most famous, but he is more a scientist than a detective. Some of these super natural sleuths even pre-date Holmes, such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s Dr. Martin Hesselius. The trope of an occult detective went from the Victorian age, with explorer and Doyle’s friend Hesketh Hesketh-Prichard’s (Writing under the name E & H Herron) Flaxman Low, then continued through the pulps with Sax Rohmer’s “dream detective” Morris Klaw and Seaburry Quinn’s Jules de Grandin to today’s crop of occult investigators, such as Harry Dresden, Anita Blake, and Odd Thomas.
But if Holmes had been an occult detective I think he would be as obscure now as Flaxman Low is. Not that there isn’t occult elements in his stories, it is just in the end they have a prosaic answer. The most famous the hound of the Baskervilles, turns out to be a normal dog covered with phosphorus. Sometimes I think Doyle pulls a sly one on us, and sneaks in a bit of the occult. Watson often mentions that there were cases that Holmes could not solve or whose solution was to incredible to reveal at this time. There are sixty-one cases that Watson mention but never explores such as James Phillimore who went back to his house for his umbrella and is never seen again. Or the Cutter Alicia that sailed in to a mist and vanished.
I think that the Phillimore case might be inspired by the Victorian era belief that people could be abducted by ferries. Doyle was the biggest and most famous proponent of the Cottingly Fairies. This was a series of six pictures by two school girls of themselves with fairies. Kind of an early fae selfie. I know no one who looks at those pictures now and doesn’t say it is a photo of a girl surrounded with paper cutouts. In fact it is hard to believe anybody at the time took them seriously. But Doyle and many others really felt they were proof of a fairy world. Doyle had the photos reproduced in one of his books about the paranormal.
In the book the Edge of the Unknown, Doyle wrote an entire chapter that his friend Harry Houdini was not just a stage magician but had actual magical powers. Houdini who never revealed his tricks is rumored to have even shown Doyle how he did some of his prestidigitation, just get him to back down from his Houdini is magical kick. It got so bad that Houdini ended their friendship because Doyle wouldn’t admit that he was wrong.
As for the Alicia I think that it may have been inspired by the infamous case of the Mary Celeste. Although I am basically a skeptic I love strange mysteries, Fortean events, and paranormal stories. The Mary Celeste is an American ship found a drift at sea without its crew. I couldn’t figure out why in conversation I kept calling the Mary Celeste, the Marie Celeste. It turns out it is all Doyle’s fault.
Two years before revealing his great detective to the world, Doyle wrote a fictional version of the Celeste’s story, called J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement where he called the crew-less ship the Marie Celeste. Many details that Doyle made up for his fiction such as the lifeboat’s not being missing as well as the wrong name have been included into accounts of the real ship’s disappearance.
Though Holmes, Doyle’s most popular creation, stayed away from the paranormal, his second most famous character Dr. George Challenger didn’t. Challenger, who is most well-known now for the dinosaur epic The Lost World, differed in many ways from Holmes. They were both genius, Challenger was a master of all sciences, but where Holmes was thoughtful almost sullen, Challenger was a strange mixture of id and intellect. He was strong muscular and hairy reminding people of a Neanderthal. His adventures dealt not only with surviving dinosaurs in South America but also the after-life, strange space eithers that put the world in a coma, and mad scientist making teleporters as a weapons. This was a setting that allowed Doyle to explore not only what we would now call science-fiction/fantasy but also the paranormal. Doyle even wrote some monster stories like such as The Parasite, Lot 249, The Horror of the Heights, and the Terror of Blue John gap, that could fit right in with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu circle stories.
Holmes’ world view is opposed to Doyle’s, but the author never ridicules the creation for it, in fact turning it into one of his strengths makes both Holmes and Doyle far more interesting creatures.