- Gothic Tales of Conan Doyle
IN HIS INTRODUCTION to this volume, Darryl Jones opens with a bold claim: "Arthur Conan Doyle is the greatest genre writer Britain has ever produced." Quick to note Conan Doyle's status as a "hyper-successful crime writer and a [successful but] somewhat frustrated historical novelist," Jones reminds us as well that Conan Doyle ranks as "a great writer of imperial adventure fiction" whose boxing stories have also made a "distinguished contribution to sporting fiction." As for the gothic, Conan Doyle wrote his tales during the height of the genre's popularity in the periodical press. Returning to the genre time and again throughout his long career, Conan Doyle embraced the gothic with "great enthusiasm," producing a body of work that eventually cemented his reputation as a "major figure" in the field. The thirty-four tales collected here, arranged chronologically 1880–1922, prove Conan Doyle to be a master of the form at his best, and while the tales themselves are admittedly uneven, the full collection does require us to take seriously Jones's claim that no other British writer wrote so well for so long across so many genres.
In many ways, Conan Doyle and the gothic were suited for each other. As Jones notes, "With its characteristic tensions between past and present, rational scientific naturalism and the irrational and supernatural, centre and periphery, the country and the city, the gothic drew together many of Conan Doyle's concerns." As a "major cultural mode for the articulation of uncertainty and anxiety," the gothic provided Conan Doyle with the perfect vehicle to explore questions and express positions that were "unarticulable in official public discourse." Although such uncertainties and anxieties did manifest themselves in his more conventional crime fiction (one thinks of "The Speckled Band" or The Hound of the Baskervilles, which in Jones's felicitous phrase is "perpetually on the verge of turning into a full-blooded Gothic novel"), it was in the gothic that Conan Doyle best expressed the full range of his own, as well as his era's, imaginative preoccupations: "spiritualism, supernaturalism, and the occult; colonial, Egyptomaniac, and yellow peril horrors; medical and surgical horrors; psychological tales of madness, obsession, and murder; tales of precognition and the uncanny." In [End Page 414] this way, then, Conan Doyle's gothic tales are often a window through which we can view the obsessions of both the writer and his age. For instance, in a work such as "The Surgeon of Gaster Fell" (1890), which features an exhausted Birmingham GP who has inexplicably descended into homicidal mania, we witness not only "a grotesque refiguring of Conan Doyle's own family history" but also a larger fear of cultural, economic, and national degeneration. Similarly, in such stories as "Uncle Jeremy's Household" (1883), "The Case of Lady Sannox" (1893), and "The Brown Hand" (1899), Conan Doyle's "assertive public confidence in the civilizing mission of the British Empire" is undermined by a deep anxiety about the "the vengeful or monstrous capabilities and consequences of imperialism," an anxiety clearly expressed in multiple Victorian discourses.
Throughout his superb introduction, Jones examines this rich dialectic between Conan Doyle's own concerns and the concerns of his age, developing a strong case for the centrality of these tales to Conan Doyle's oeuvre. Building on the work of Catherine Wynne, Jones is particularly attentive to Conan Doyle's engagement with the "Irish question" in his gothic tales, revealing threads that connect such disparate stories as "The Winning Shot" (1883) and "The Fiend in the Cooperage" (1897), and then exploring those connections beyond the genre to such works as The Crime of the Congo and The Lost World. Not surprisingly, Jones is quick to note how the gothic tales often intersect with the concerns of "The Canon," connecting the imperial anxieties found in works such as "The Ring of Thoth" (1890) with the colonial horrors of The Sign of Four, and noting the push and pull of the genre's irrationalism with such tales as the explicitly anti...