Though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is known mostly for his Sherlock Holmes mysteries, in truth, he wrote so much more, covering a great
many genres. He became fully engrossed in the Spiritualist movement during his time, and one of his favorite subjects on which to write concerned the
supernatural. This volume is a collection of fifteen of those stories published by Dover, and they range from very scary to goofy to downright humorous. As I
say over and again, I am very picky about my ghost stories, but this is a set worth reading.
One real issue I have with this particular volume concerns the commentary at the beginning of the book about Conan Doyle's Spiritualism. (He actually travelled around in a missionary capacity to promote his religion.) In the introduction by E.F. Bleiler, he mocks Doyle's beliefs:
In later life, around 1915-16, 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.
This particular volume was compiled in 1979, before the
"Consciousness" movement had permeated the general population as it does now, but nevertheless, shame on Dover for publishing such a stupid comment.
Here is my retort to Bleiler's ignorance. First, I don't know exactly what comprises the "Spiritualist" belief, but I do KNOW that there is a hell of a
lot more going on in the unseen world than in the physical one, and I have known that for almost forty years. The popularity of the long-running TV
show, Ghost Whisperer, for instance, says that my beliefs are shared by a great many people. Consciousness itself comes from being able to
comprehend the world beyond physical reality, and that belief is huge and growing stronger. It is the energy that is changing the world. I regret, Sir Arthur,
that you are not with us in body now—you would fit right in.
Because there are so many stories in this collection, I will just pick a few that represent its diversity. In addition, you may also check out the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Index Page, an ever-growing listing of his vast output reviewed on this site.
The Bully of Brocas Court combines Doyle's love of
sports with a very creepy, spine-tingling ghost story. It is set in the days when boxing was on par with cock-fighting—held in the back-ways out of sight
from the authorities. It so happened that a certain heavy-weight named Farrier-Sergeant seemed to have no competition, until Sir Frederick Milburn
discovers Alf Stevens.
So he goes to fetch him, and as they drive back during the dark of night, they are accosted by a couple thugs blocking the roadway. Soon Alf finds himself involved in an unplanned match, but his opponent seems superhuman, and through his perseverance becomes a threat to Alf's very life. Until, that is, the sudden yelping of a certain white terrier intrudes.
In The Captain of the Polestar, a sea voyage provides the ghostly setting—very typical of the writers of this period. In this one, a whaling ship is anchored in the ever-increasing ice near the North Pole. Supplies are running low, the crew is getting nervous, and the ice is becoming threatening. Still Captain Craigie refuses to raise anchor and be on their way. The narrator, John M'Alister Ray, is keeping a journal, and notes the increasingly odd—perhaps manic behavior of the Captain. Until one day, he jumps ship and runs across the ice—and disappears.
The mysteries of Egypt seemed to be a favorite subject of Victorian writers, and I was reminded of Bram Stoker's The Jewel of Seven Stars as I read Lot No. 249. Here, some students at Oxford are roomed near one really creepy guy who likes to experiment with mummies. And this one gets away and does some damage.
One of the scariest in the collection is John Barrington Cowles. Here a beautiful woman lures men to fall in love with her, and though others can see there is something terribly amiss, it is shortly before the planned marriages that she shows her true identity to her betrothed, thus resulting in their deranged sort of death.
One of the stories that was supposed to be serious made me chuckle. The Silver Hatchet is about a valuable collection of artifacts bequeathed to the University of Buda-Pesth, which contains the above article with a curse on it. When someone touches it, they turn temporarily mad and chop the head of their closest friend. What made me sit up and take notice, was that the original offender was named Max von Erlichingen, who murdered Joanna Bodeck. I couldn't help but hum:
Bang! Bang! Maxwell's silver hammer
Came down upon her head,
Bang! Bang! Maxwell's silver hammer
Made sure that she was dead.
I looked it up, however, and if Paul McCartney had Conan Doyle's story in mind, he didn't let on. Still, the lyrics really fit!
Some of the stories were supposed to be serious, but ended up being a bit silly. However, some were deliberately silly. For instance, In A Literary Mosaic, an author with writer's block who has been obsessively reading the works of the great English masters, falls into a stupor. He is then visited by a whole hoard of them from various centuries, who are sitting around a large table, and who attempt to provide him with a story line.
There are a couple things about Conan Doyle's stories that could have been done better. One is that, in too many cases,
he explains the situation just a little too well, as if the reader doesn't "get it." Leaving a bit more to the imagination would have improved the story.
And the other thing is that he really was not good with writing American accents! Some authors are
so very excellent at language and phonetics. Doyle is not one of them! His slave spoke more like an Indian.
Nevertheless, I still highly recommend Doyle's writings. He is one of the world's great English writers. Before you buy this book, however, check out free eBooks, for instance at Project Gutenberg. The link to his page is on the above mentioned Index Page.
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