Tales of Unease by Arthur Conan Doyle

Variety

Conan Doyle packed an amazing variety of activities into one life (1859-1930): doctor, author, sea voyager, played cricket for the MCC, enlisted age 40 to serve in the Boer War, public campaigner against miscarriages of justice, bombarded the Ministry of Defence with technical and strategic innovations during the Boer War and Great War, and devoted his later years and sizable fortune to promoting Spiritualism.

His writing output was similarly prodigious and varied: novels, short stories, articles, essays, reviews, poetry, plays, and in genres like history, detective, horror, melodrama, science fiction. What unites them all is the easy confidence of his style.

I prefer these stories of fantasy and the bizarre to the Holmes ones, because Conan Doyle is less trapped by the iron format of ‘puzzle  – investigation – explanation’ which constricts the detective stories. Doyle’s imagination is set free to roam widely.

The result is short tales of horror, fantasy, of the macabre, alive with vivid descriptions – melodramatic moments – nightmare scenes of the bizarre or grotesque – each one a little twilight zone.

Qualities

They move at great speed. Mises-en-scenes are quickly set up with comprehensive descriptions of places and peoples, and then plunging into the action.

They are very vivid because a) the tales themselves are melodramatic ie designed to purvey extreme moments b) Conan Doyle has a great gift for the telling image. The detail of the undergraduate’s room lined with Egyptological specimens. The colour of the setting sun on the great Northern ice packs. The flicker of the candlelight in the Roman catacomb.

They are uncanny because they begin so solidly in the dull workaday before beginning to blur the boundaries. Because the characters of predominantly stuffy, bluff Edwardian types who would never be suspected of frivolity. What is so Conan Doyle about them is the comfiness of the original settings – the educated class, public school chaps, the world of Edwardian normality, pipe and clubs. So when the impossible occurs, we have already bought into the fictional world; their very bluffness lends credibility when the situation turns bizarre and extraordinary.

For example, the outlandish story of Sosra, the Egyptian who discovered the secret of immortality, is made credible (within the fiction) by the slow, detailed build-up of the character of Vansittart Smith, the mundane but steady Egyptologist, the typically bluff Victorian chap who narrates it. Because he is so reliable and believable, we suspend disbelief for the duration of the brief, fantastical story, which so clearly isn’t.

I’ve seen John Wyndham’s science fiction novels described as ‘cosy catastrophes’. Something similar with Conan Doyle whose prose never loses the calm confidence of a sturdy Victorian gentleman. Almost every story features cigars and a bottle of fine wine in front of a roaring fire: as readers we enjoy two levels of pleasure: the thrill of the often pretty hokey plot (although some of them do rise to a level of genuine hair-raising uncanniness) and the permanent bass note of the reassuring, unimaginative, pre-twentieth century worldview.

It was ten o’clock on a bright spring night, and Abercrombie Smith lay back in his arm-chair, his feet upon the fender, and his briar-root pipe between his lips. In a similar chair, and equally at his ease, there lounged on the other side of the fireplace his old school friend Jephro Hastie. Both men were in flannels, for they had spent their evening upon the river, but apart from their dress no one could look at their hard-cut, alert faces without seeing that they were open-air men – men whose minds and tastes turned naturally to all that was manly and robust.

No matter how grim the ostensible plots, all Conan Doyle’s oeuvre is fundamentally innocent, child-like, deeply comforting and reassuring.

Papers, fragments and accounts

The earliest novels (Defore, 1720s) used the forms of diaries, journals and, of course, letters, so there is nothing new in these short stories, 150 years later, using the same strategy – the tales frequently masquerade as journals, accounts, newspaper reports and so on. But there is something specific to horror stories of this period in using the fragment. Remember that the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886 ie one year before Holmes appears) climaxes with the letter from the doomed Jeckyll.

  • ‘The following account was found among the papers of Dr James Hardcastle.’
  • ‘The Horror of the Heights which includes the manuscript known as the Joyce-Armstrong Fragment’
  • And such is the narrative of Abercrombie Smith as to the singular events which occurred in Old College, Oxford, in the spring of ’84.

A story basing itself on one of these forms has multiple purposes:

  • It adds authority and credibility; it lends the lustre of another (albeit fictional) name to validate the narrative.
  • It allows the text to be short and pithy, as diaries, journals and letters generally are, and to focus only on key moments.
  • It gets right inside the mind of the protagonist without limiting the narrative to a first person account. In other words, it allows the author to combine first person and 3rd person points of view, often itself part of the drama, often revealing the true state of affairs which lies behind all the weird occurrences (as in Jeckyll).
  • Precisely by being fragments, they can often end melodramatically, as in the last entry in Joyce-Armstrong’s until-then sober and careful account, which are words of horror scribbled in pencil and splashed with blood!

The stories

Conan Doyle wrote some 120 short stories, as well as the 56 Holmes stories, and numerous novels, plays and pamphlets. This selection of 15 tales was made by David Stuart Davies, a specialist in this genre and this period, who has compiled a number of similar selections for the bargain Wordsworth imprint.

  • The Ring of Thoth (1890) An Egyptologist in the Louvre stumbles upon a 4,000 year old Egyptian who discovered the secret of eternal life and now is going to end his life in the arms of his mummified love.
  • The Lord of Château Noir (1894) During the Franco-Prussian War a French aristocrat terrorises a Prussian officer in vengeance for his dead son.
  • The New Catacomb (1898) Two archaeologists in Rome, one of them a dashing bounder just returned from a failed elopement with an English girl. His colleague takes him at night to a new catacomb then traps him there; for he had loved the girl he had ‘ruined’.
  • The Case of Lady Sannox (1893) A dashing surgeon is having an affair with a high society lady, is called late at night to operate on the wife of a Turkish merchant; he horribly disfigures the woman, then it is revealed it is his high-born lover and the merchant her husband who has taken a horrific revenge.
  • The Brazilian Cat (1898) the protagonist visits his cousin, Everard King, at his country pile where he has housed his large collection of Brazilian flora and fauna, especially the prize exhibit, a huge black puma. Despite warnings from the collector’s wife, the protagonist allows himself to be locked in to the animal’s cage. He manages to survive and when evil Everard returns in the morning it is he and not the protagonist who is killed. And as a result, the protagonist inherits the land, house and title.
  • The Brown Hand (1899) After a successful career in India a surgeon retires to England where he is haunted by the ghost of an Indian whose hand he promised to keep safe after having to amputate it. the hand was lost in a fire. the ghostly Indian searches for it every night. The protagonist goes to a surgeon in the east End and obtains a hand recently amputated from an Indian sailor and returns with it to the country house where the ghostly Indian finds it, politely bows to the surgeon, and departs for ever. Which is why the protagonist is made the surgeon’s heir.
  • The Horror of the Heights (1913) Brilliant account of Captain Joyce-Armstrong, an airman who flies higher than any man before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters.
  • The Terror of Blue John Gap (1910) Dr John Hardcastle is on a rest cure in Derbyshire, and finds out the hard way that local lore about a monster inhabiting a deep ancient cavern is in fact true.
  • The Captain of the Polestar (1890) ‘Being an extract from the singular journal of John McAlister Ray, student of medicine’. Doctor on the Polestar which travels unwisely far into the northern, Arctic ice fields, supposedly in search of whales, but in fact driven by the haunted captain Nicholas Craigie who is pursuing the phantom of his murdered sweetheart which flees across the ice.
  • How It Happened (1913) Haunting short account of a man who is in an early car crash, recalling the lead-up to it and then, in the final sentences, realising he is dead!
  • Playing with Fire (1900) Account of a séance including an artist who had been painting a unicorn. At the height of the séance the ectoplasm forms a unicorn which goes rampaging through the house!
  • The Leather Funnel (1902) the narrator visits a friend in Paris who suggests objects which have witnessed powerful scenes affect our dreams. As an experiment the narrator sleeps with a battered leather funnel by his bed and has a nightmare of a woman being tried and then beginning a course of water torture. Screaming himself awake, his friend shows the historical documents proving he has witnessed the torture of Marquise de Brinvilliers, a real historical woman, a poisoner and murder!
  • Lot No.249 (1892) At an old Oxford college a fat evil undergraduate has been conducting experiments, bringing a 4,000 year old mummy back to life, and increasingly using it to terrorise his enemies – before a steady young sporting chap steps in and stops it.
  • The Los Amigos Fiasco (1892) A very short light-hearted comic-horror piece about a town which tries to execute a man with electricity by increasing the voltage, but only succeed in giving him superhuman life.
  • The Nightmare Room (1921) By far the most overwritten piece in which a room is all Victorian sumptuous rugs and curtains at one end, completely bare at the other, with a divan upon which  beautiful but immoral woman is lounging. In bursts her husband declaring he knows about her affair with young Douglas; she must choose one of them. In bursts Douglas and the husband produces poison: Let’s play cards for her, old man. All written in the highest pitch of melodrama with everyone gasping or turning white. In the final line the director steps forward and shouts, Cut! It was all a scene from a movie 🙂
Contemporary illustration for Lot No.249

Contemporary illustration for Lot No.249

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