I was perusing Goodreads today and recalled my joining a group called Classics without all the Class. This month they have been reading Sherlock Holmes. I have read a few Sherlock Holmes stories and although interesting enough to read, they weren’t stories I ran out to the nearest bookstore to track down a copy of my own to, well, own.
In fact, as I sat here to begin typing today’s post on classics, I tried to recall if I owned any Sherlock Holmes books. I knew I had at least one but I wasn’t sure which stories were in it. Combing my bookcases, I at last found two books featuring Sherlock Holmes. I found them relegated to my spare bookshelf. By spare bookshelf I mean the one where I pile books up that I will probably never read again.
These books may have been purchased but were more than likely acquired as gifts, donations, unwanted book club offers or giveaways. I won’t get rid of them but I have a tendency to forget I own them. But that is neither here nor there (whatever that phrase really means.)
The point of my spare bookshelf information is I found Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes and Tales of Terror & Mystery. Glancing through the Memoirs I had to think the book could have not been written as it was in my opinion fairly boring. The other book however, was not boring at all. The stories in this book include:
The Horror of Heights
This story opens with the information that some terrible thing has happened to a person and cannot be explained nor written off as a practical joke. The explanation for why this is the case is given aptly as,
“The most macabre and imaginative of plotters would hesitate before linking his morbid fancies with the unquestioned and tragic facts which reinforce the statement. Though the assertions contained in it are amazing and even monstrous, it is none the less forcing itself upon the general intelligence that they are true, and that we must readjust our ideas to the new situation. This world of ours appears to be separated by a slight and precarious margin of safety from a most singular and unexpected danger.”
This is followed by the assertion that the narrator will attempt to give the straight facts of what occurred for the reader to make his/her own determination. What I like about Doyle’s writing style is that although it seems the narrator is offering the facts for the reader to form their own opinion, this is not the case. Doyle writes so that the opinion the reader is to form is given up front.
It is made clear in many of Doyle’s terror/mystery stories that at first the reader will believe the events to be some sort of elaborate practical joke or falsified occurrence. Then there will be an element of the event being caused deliberately by some malicious person and/or animal. Ultimately, the event will be seen as some sort of supernatural, unexplainable occurrence.
In this particular story, the deceased has written a notebook explaining his own cause of death as being due to some horrible creatures in the sky. The narrator presents the facts that the author of the notebook is in fact still missing and presumed dead. The remnants of the deceased’s plane were found in many pieces. The narrator then contributes the deceased’s own words from the notebook,
“This note-book may explain what I am trying to do, and how I lost my life doing it. But no drivel about accidents or mysteries, if YOU please.”
The thing I liked about The Horror of Heights was different than what I like about many of his other stories. The Heights had an odd idea to it and that was what I liked. Other stories like Hound of the Baskervilles (not in this book) and The Terror of Blue John Gap interest me due to their descriptions and overall creepy feel.
The Terror of Blue John Gap
This story begins, as many do, by relaying a message from the deceased,
“It may interest, and perhaps pain you, to know that the incredulity with which you met my story has prevented me from ever opening my mouth upon the subject again. I leave this record after my death, and perhaps strangers may be found to have more confidence in me than my friend.”
After some discussion on whom the person was that the letter was addressed to, a Seaton, the story starts up. A picturesque hillside community is vividly described. You get the idea of hills, fields for grazing of animals, farms, valleys, streams and well you get the idea. It was pretty and scenic.
The reader is slowly led into the mystery by the narrator,
“How absurdly easy it is for a legend to arise in a lonely countryside! I examined him as to the reasons for his weird belief. It seems that from time to time sheep have been missing from the fields, carried bodily away according to Armitage.”
The narrator goes to great length to offer rational explanations to Armitage (the country man) as to how and why the sheep disappeared. They are the usual lot of wandering off, being stolen, being devoured by animals, etc. The country man vehemently denies that these are the true explanation for the disappearance of sheep. After some discussion, Armitage becomes annoyed with the rationality of the narrator and leaves.
So the reader has a definite view of the narrator as an objective, reasonable man who is not in any way superstitious. Doyle is very clear on this definition of the character as it is crucial to making the supernatural aspect of the story plausible. This defining of character is immediately followed by an event which begins the transition of the narrator from non-believer to believer.
“…still standing near the mouth of the cave turning over in my mind the various statements of Armitage and reflecting how readily they could be explained away, when suddenly, from the depth of the tunnel beside me, there issued a most extraordinary sound. How shall I describe it? First of all, it seemed to be a great distance away, far down in the bowels of the earth. Secondly, in spite of this suggestion of distance, it was very loud. Lastly, it was not a boom, nor a crash, such as one would associate with falling water or tumbling rock, but it was a high whine, tremulous and vibrating, almost like the whinnying of a horse. .. I must admit gave a new significance to Armitage’s words.”
After reading these stories and realizing their brilliance, I couldn’t believe I had sent them to the great beyond of my bookcases. What was I thinking? The only possible reason I could come up with as to why I had not truly appreciated the terribly absurd, weird and captivating writing style of Arthur Conan Doyle was the young age at which I had read them.
I was probably first exposed to these books before I had any real understanding of the significance of the writing. I read a lot of books as a kid that I didn’t like at the time. As I grew up and had more experience and less need to tear through a story just to finish the story, I began to appreciate the literature I had hated as a kid.
I became enamored with long, detailed descriptions of odd events such as one finds in H.P. Lovecraft and apparently as I have rediscovered, Arthur Conan Doyle writing. The mastery of terror, suspense and horror is incredibly clear. For me, I like these authors in this genre because unlike many writers, they don’t beat you over the head with the concept of creepiness.
The descriptions are abundant but not in an annoying way. The way the descriptions are worded and used in sequence, they build suspense. There is a sense of anticipation and terror for what comes next not an overkill of the fact that some terrible beast awaits the main character. Doyle and Lovecraft both use this same method to elicit fear and lead the reader where they want them to go.
But enough about comparisons between Lovecraft and Doyle, they are both extraordinary writers. The point of this post was to say and to share something with you. First, Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes is skippable. Second, Tales of Terror & Mystery is a must read. It will no longer be among the piles of books on my spare bookshelf.
Sherlock Holmes is movin on up to a deluxe apartment on my prime bookshelf. He will now be taking his place alongside Lovecraft, Goethe, Hawthorne, Poe and many other classic writers. He will now be top shelf and I will undoubtedly be reading these stories again soon.
*Picture of Robert Downey Jr as Sherlock Holmes from filmreviewonline.com