John Pistelli

writer

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hound of the BaskervillesThe Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Today, in honor of Halloween, the Paris Review is running an 1872 epistolary exchange between Bram Stoker and Walt Whitman. Sympathy between the authors of Leaves of Grass and Dracula is not as incongruous as it seems, given certain obvious sociopolitical realities—it makes sense for a budding Irish author to look up to a bard of national freedom, and students of the homoerotic and the onanistic will find much to ponder in Stoker’s letter (“I have read your poems with my door locked late at night and I have read them on the seashore where I could look all round me and see no more sign of human life than the ships out at sea”)—but there is also more of a literary connection than meets the eye.

Stoker affirms Whitman’s values in the letter:

One thought struck me and I pondered over it for several hours—“the weather-beaten vessels entering new ports,” you who wrote the words know them better than I do: and to you who sing of your land of progress the words have a meaning that I can only imagine. But be assured of this Walt Whitman—that a man of less than half your own age, reared a conservative in a conservative country, and who has always heard your name cried down by the great mass of people who mention it, here felt his heart leap towards you across the Atlantic and his soul swelling at the words or rather the thoughts.

But doesn’t he affirm them still more decisively in 1897’s Dracula? This novel’s Victorian heterosexual marriage plot is derailed by the archaic threat of an aristocratic despot who comes out of the mists of the East to menace the metropolis (and who indeed enters the “new port” of modern England on the “weather-beaten”—also vampire-beaten—and eventually shipwrecked Demeter on a journey to the underworld in reverse); but Dracula eventually narrates the defeat of the Old World by a not un-Whitmanian combination of modern science, modern communications, and modernized gender and sexual roles (i.e., the New Woman represented by Mina Harker and the cosmopolitan Männerbund of vampire-hunters evoking Whitman’s homophiliac democracy).

I use the Stoker/Whitman connection to introduce my review of The Hound of the Baskervilles, a 1902 Sherlock Holmes mystery by Stoker’s distant relative, Arthur Conan Doyle, because The Hound‘s narrative is superficially similar to Dracula‘s in its effects. In fact, Doyle goes even further than Stoker in that he not only shows the defeat of the supernatural by the powers of reason and progress but also tells us that these powers can expose the supernatural itself as the criminal imposture and sham that it really is. For Stoker, the old mysteries can be beaten by the typewriter, the telegraph, modern medicine, feminism, and the city; for Doyle, ratiocination proves the mystery never to have been a mystery at all, just the self-serving myth of a justly dying social order.

You probably already know the novel’s story: Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead at his estate on the moors of southwest England. His physician worries that he was frightened to death by a supernatural hound, which has supposedly menaced his family since the seventeenth century, when local lore tells of the spectral canine’s dispatch of the rapist Cavalier Hugo Baskerville (“a most wild, profane, and godless man”) after he traded “his body and soul to the Powers of Evil” so that he could kidnap a young female neighbor. The famous detective Sherlock Holmes and his partner Watson are enlisted to solve the mystery, which brings Watson (our narrator, as is usual with the Holmes stories) from London to the moor to watch over the new heir to the Baskerville estate, Sir Henry, a man reared in North America who plans to modernize his inheritance with electric light and more. Holmes has ostensibly sent Watson to manage the case in his stead, but in the course of time we learn that he has been watching the proceedings from the neolithic huts on the moor; by the novel’s final third he joins the fight to save Sir Henry from whatever menaces him. I will not go into the complicated and red-herring-laden plot (which features an escaped convict, bathetic servants, a Dickensian grotesque obsessed with lawsuits, a scandalous love affair, domestic violence, lepidoptery, and more), but the novel’s upshot is that there is no supernatural hound, only a dog painted with phosphorous by a brilliant but decidedly material criminal intent on having the Baskerville property to himself.

Detective fiction invokes the Gothic only to usurp it here at the turn of the twentieth century; we have nothing to fear but human evil, and this can be contained and controlled by human intelligence (in the person of Holmes) and action (in the person of Watson). Even more than Dracula, with its triumphant modernity, The Hound of the Baskervilles is an anti-horror horror novel.[1]

The rational moral of the story does not prevent the novel from indulging in the atmospheric, however. Watson as narrator is usually only serviceable in his prose, often just conveying informative dialogue in the true anti-aesthetic spirit of genre fiction, but the moor and environs, which include jutting crags and a fatal bog, bring out a strain of lyricism that makes the novel more memorable for its haunted pathos than for its exorcising logos:

The longer one stays here the more does the spirit of the moor sink into one’s soul, its vastness, and also its grim charm. When you are once out upon its bosom you have left all traces of modern England behind you, but on the other hand you are conscious everywhere of the homes and the work of the prehistoric people. On all sides of you as you walk are the houses of these forgotten folk, with their graves and the huge monoliths which are supposed to have marked their temples. As you look at their gray stone huts against the scarred hill-sides you leave your own age behind you, and if you were to see a skin-clad, hairy man crawl out from the low door fitting a flint-tipped arrow on to the string of his bow, you would feel that his presence there was more natural than your own.

And how seriously do we need to take Doyle/Holmes’s thesis against superstition anyway? When I say that detective fiction usurps the Gothic, I am saying that we replace one myth with another (unavoidably, as humanity lives on and by myth). The novel is somewhat overt about this fact. Why else is Holmes hiding out among the shades of neolithic man if not to associate his own quasi-mystical powers (of “deduction,” or so he claims—but as most commentators point out, he works, poet-wise, by flying inductive leaps, like the characteristic fin-de-siècle genius that he is) with the archaic?

Holmes is a kind of white magician[2], dispelling the hound’s dark evil through a primal power of good incarnated in a city detective with a revolver and smoking habit. When Holmes moves in disguise around the moor, like Henry V on the eve of Agincourt or Odysseus on his homecoming to Ithaca, we are in the realm of lordly myth, renovated for serialization and democratic dissemination to the newly literate masses. Holmes is all spirit, Watson all matter, and together they fuse in an alchemical wedding to form the complete man, a new figure for a new age, which I imagine Walt Whitman, had he lived long enough, would have hailed as the fulfillment of his progressive prophecy.
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[1] In his sometimes rather Kinbotean notes to this edition (as if I’m one to talk!), Christopher Frayling observes that Watson’s mixed narration—which includes straightforwardly retrospective narration, epistolary narrative when he writes to Holmes, and excerpts from his diary—is a nod to “the convention of presenting horror stories in the form of collections of documents such as letters, diaries and reports—Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, most recently Dracula” which was “a way of dividing the authorial voice into different registers.” It was also a way of containing the horror—or, more broadly, the unconscious and repressed—with rational discourse. By the time of modernism, the repressed returns via textuality itself—comically, not horrifically, in Ulysses—and horror will pick up the hint by the end of the twentieth century, so that recent horror fiction and film, such as House of Leaves and The Ring, show supernatural evil to be transmitted through the texts that were supposed to contain them.

[2] Though the late-Victorian aesthete’s amorality in which Holmes dabbles may trouble my argument a bit; he allows that he endangers Sir Henry to solve the mystery, caring less for lives than for his successful rearrangement of life patterns known as detection. But his benevolent magic’s having something of the inhuman about it also reinforces my claim for its otherworldliness. Of the racial, rather than occult, connotation of “white,” see my review of The Sign of Four, an imperial romance inside a detective novel.

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2 comments on “Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles

  1. Vett
    2 November 2016

    Probably a question already dissected to death, but:

    How would you explain Doyle’s later belief in spiritualism (or his falling for a children’s hoax like the Cottingley fairies), something that at first glance appears completely at odds with the mindset of his detective?

    • johnpistelli
      2 November 2016

      I don’t really know enough about Doyle’s biography (beyond Wikipedia and intros to the Holmes books I’ve read) to say for sure, but Holmes’s approach, in “deducing” truths about phenomena from logical axioms, has little in common with an empirical trial-and-error method (which, I believe, would reason from particular to general) and suggests a longing on the part of author and audience for metaphysical certainties.

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