Category Archives: Supernatural

Campbell, J. R. and Charles Prepolec, Editors. Gaslight Arcanum: Uncanny Tales of Sherlock Holmes. Calgary: Edge SF&F Publishing, 2011.

'Tis the Season

‘Tis the Season

 

When I was a kid, I loved to read ghost stories. I checked the same books out of the library, time and time again. Many times, they were older and worn, or had cartoonish covers, but there were a few with covers so scary that at night, I hid them at the bottom of my book pile, safely contained by the weight of a dozen other, more innocuous books.*

You know, just to be safe.

Gaslight Arcanum is, actually, the third anthology in a series edited by Campbell and Prepolec, its predecessors being Gaslight Grimoire (2008) and Gaslight Grotesque (2010). I hope to review each of them eventually. I chose Arcanum, however, both because it is the most recent, and–unleashing my inner nine year-old–because it has the absolute creepiest cover….

See?

See?

Nor is this (with one exception) a reprint anthology. Nothing wrong with those, but in Arcanum, Campbell and Prepolec have brought together a collection of new stories by very talented and respected writers. Some stories may be familiar to you, as they have since been reprinted elsewhere, but here they mark their débuts. Let’s venture down this dark, dusty hallway and meet them, shall we?**

The editors start out on a high note with Stephen Volk’s “The Comfort of the Seine,” a Sherlock Holmes “origins” story which is juuuusssst plausible enough that some readers may make it a part of their personal head canons. It begins with the “if you’re reading this I must be dead” trope, but then immediately leaps into much more original territory. Here the reader sees Sherlock Holmes as an intense twenty year-old student with scientific leanings, accompanying a group of classmates to Paris to explore that city’s art scene. Despite his relationship to Vernet, the young Sherlock is not all that interested in art, but who doesn’t want to leave his books for Paris? Besides, his friends need him–or rather, his fluency in French. While his classmates roam the galleries, he roams the city, becoming infatuated with a young flower-seller. When she turns up missing–and then dead–he is completely shattered. It takes C. Auguste Dupin to show him the way out of his overwhelming grief.*** And if you’re currently thinking, “well, that sounds predictable,” you would be wrong.  I truly cannot say enough good things about this story–the dark opulence of the author’s style, its characterizations, its evocation of mid 19th-century France, and most particularly Volk’s Dupin, a man who cross-crosses the edges of genius and madness so adroitly that you’ll change your mind about him more than once before the story is over. “Comfort” is not precisely a horror story in the way that its companions are, but it is both suspenseful and sad–and of all of these, I think, the most likely to haunt you when Arcanum goes back to your bookshelf.

Christopher Fowler’s “The Adventure of Lucifer’s Footprints” is a more traditional tale. It’s in Watson’s voice and recounts a strange case the detective and his Boswell investigated in Devon in February of 1888. They’re there at the urgent behest of Lucy Woodham, who with her father, Crimean war hero General Sir Henry Woodham, has recently moved to the family’s run-down ancestral home, Belstowe Grange. Belstowe Downs is an isolated spot, and its villagers swear that Satan himself sends a pack of lost souls to carry off area wrong-doers–sinners such as Woodham’s groom, attacked and killed during a storm, his body found surrounded by hoofprints which seem to have appeared out of nowhere. The solution–at least as Watson sees it–puts a rift between himself and his skeptical friend which he fears will never completely heal. “Footprints” is a very competent tale which uses several favorite Conan Doyle tropes. It’s a little clipped, style-wise, and Holmes and Watson don’t engage in their usual banter. Its main difficulty, however, most likely lies in the fact that it immediately follows Volk’s tour de force. Readers should still find it entertaining.

I will confess to at first being a bit put out with “The Deadly Sin of Sherlock Holmes.” Despite my desire to be less dogmatic about AU stories, there are a very few Canon facts about which I find it difficult to be flexible, and when I saw this adventure is set in May of 1891, well, I was just not having it.† It turns out, however, that author Tom English has a very good reason for placing his story so close to the fatal event at Reichenbach (which, of course, I cannot reveal). “Deadly Sin” is  a creepy tale about a Codex which inspires its readers to murder, and is shot through with witty exchanges between Holmes, Watson, and their clients–a group of monks who’ve travelled to London from Rome. The Canon references fly fast and furious, and in the end, even the Hiatus is accounted for–after a fashion.

William Meikle is the well-known author of hundreds (Really! Hundreds!) of stories in the supernatural and science fiction genres–and he’s a great fan of what is typically known as “pulp.” In “The Color that Came to Chiswick,” he sets Holmes and Watson up against a lethal green substance found in a brewery vat. It’s so hard so say more without spoiling the whole thing, but this particular adventure would probably be Holmes’ own favorite as it involves science–and caustic chemicals.

It did not escape from my refrigerator, I swear!

It did not escape from my refrigerator, I swear!

As I stated above, all but one of the stories in this anthology are original contributions. That exception is “From the Tree of Time,” by Fred Saberhagen, who passed away in 2007. Mr. Saberhagen was a well-known science fiction and fantasy author, and many Sherlockians are well-acquainted with his fondness for teaming the Great Detective with Count Dracula. This is a lively, tightly-written story, in which the Count remembers a time in which he served as Holmes’ own consultant in a blackmail case gone wrong. Like Lady Hilda in “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” the client (whom Dracula chivalrously refuses to name) was a bit “sprightly” before her marriage, and now wishes to hide the evidence. Or maybe the body. If she could find it, that is. The two men in her study are the only ones in the world who can tell her if she stands to lose her marriage–or her freedom. The denouement is both surprising and satisfying, making “Tree” my “second favorite” in the collection.

Fred Saberhagen,  1930-2007

Fred Saberhagen,
1930-2007

Classic nineteenth-century horror makes another appearance in the next story. In “The Adventure of the Empty House,” Holmes tells Watson, “about that chasm. I had no serious difficulty in getting out of it, for the very simple reason that I never was in it.” But what if that weren’t exactly true?  What if he had fallen into the Aare River–and Watson wasn’t the first one on the scene? In  “The Executioner,” Lawrence C. Connolly reveals what really happened at that fatal encounter, and why Holmes need three years to sort himself out afterward. It’s a fascinating story which takes an abrupt, dark turn at the end–and as someone who likes abrupt, dark turns, I enjoyed it greatly. That being said, I didn’t really share Holmes’ doubts in the final paragraphs, but you, as better, more sensitive people, may find yourselves in agreement.

If I were to give a prize for the most horrific story in this collection, Simon Kurt Unsworth’s  “A Country Death” would win the blue ribbon, hands down. Again, it’s difficult to review a short story without giving the whole thing away, and Unsworth works so hard to hide the main facts from you that it feels wrong to provide even the slightest hint. Let’s just say that it is extremely well-written…and so disturbing that–if you wish to enjoy sweet dreams–it should not be the last thing you read before you go to bed.

Many pasticheurs like to explore what cases Sherlock Holmes may have taken on for his brother, The British Government–more familiarly known, of course, as Mycroft. In Kenneth Cockle’s “Sherlock Holmes and the Great Game,” the detective and his Boswell find themselves in Canada, investigating what appears to be a particularly dangerous Russian move in her proxy war with Britain. It’s soon revealed as a maneuver in an actual war–between the true source of Holmes’ powers and another enemy, just as ancient and just as powerful. I actually found the first explanation very clever, but I am still a little conflicted about the origins of the proffered nemesis. Holmes is right–Watson does have his work cut out for him when he goes to lay this one before the public. Perhaps Russians would be a more plausible explanation, after all.

From the Canadian north, Holmes and Watson next travel to the darkest depths of the ocean. In “Sherlock Holmes and the Diving Bell,” by Simon Clark, Holmes summons his erstwhile flatmate with one of his cryptic telegrams: “Watson. Come at once. That which cannot be. Is.”  Or is it?  Between the horrific account of a salvage ship disaster, the weird twin sisters, and our heroes’ claustrophobic trip down to a five year-old tomb, Clark serves up an atmospheric tale with subtle Canon overtones in which Holmes’ deductive ability ultimately proves a double-edged sword.

In “The Greatest Mystery,” Paul Kane commits one of the most common of the venial Sherlockian sins–well, I hope it’s common, as I’ve done it plenty of times myself. At the the story’s conclusion, Watson recalls (fuzzily, it must be said) that, while unraveling the case of the Six Napoleons, his friend mused: “I am just contemplating the one mystery I cannot solve: Death itself.” As happens so many times (to me, at least), Watson has inserted a Granada moment into the Canon. I have to suspect that it was done purposefully, as it is a superb quote and fits the story perfectly. While most “Holmes confronts the supernatural” adventures depict the detective either finding a rational explanation for the spooky doings, or being shaken in his logical boots, not many show him using the spirit realm to his advantage. Here he does just that, as he and Watson seek the mastermind behind a series of seemingly motiveless murder-suicides.

Hint: It wasn't him.

Hint: It wasn’t him.

Tony Kane’s “The House of Blood” is unique in this collection, because it features a 21st century Sherlock Holmes. No, not either of those–this Holmes was still born circa 1854, but (as we know) he’s immortal, and he’s trying to avoid the sometimes oppressive memories of London by traveling the world…and solving crimes.†† In this episode…er, story, he’s found himself in Las Vegas, helping the police investigate a series of murders in which recent casino winners have been found dead–and drained of their blood. Vampires? Or something else? The solution is quite creative, but the best part of this entertaining offering is watching Holmes navigate modern-day Vegas–with his usual competence, and a wry sense of humor.

The final story, Kim Newman’s “The Adventure of the Six Maledictions,” I’d already read, as part of Newman’s own later collection, Moriarty: Hound of the D’Urbervilles.  A complex riff on an actual poem, J. Milton Hayes’ “The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God,” it’s told in Colonel Sebastian Moran’s irresistible–if irreverent–voice. If Volk begins Arcanum with melancholy and (possibly) madness, Newman brings it to a breathtaking end with humor–and Moriarty’s  own special brand of psychopathology. Even if you’ve read it before, don’t skip it–with an author like Kim Newman, there’s always something new to discover. Besides, it’s funny, and once you finish, you won’t have to leave the lights on and waste electricity. The editors are thoughtful like that.

"Not seeing any vampires, Watson."

“Still not seeing any vampires, Watson.”

As we have discussed here before, a good many Sherlockians are not in favor of pitting Holmes against the supernatural. Not even Conan Doyle, who loved a good “creeper” would go that far. Others have no problem watching him face the uncanny in all of its many forms. If that’s you–or if you think you’re ready to take the plunge, I can’t recommend Gaslight Arcanum highly enough. Each story is well-written, respectful of the Canon, and there is enough variety in subject matter and style that you are bound to find several stories you’ll particularly enjoy. Our agency may rest “flat-footed upon the ground,” but it’s ok to stand on your tiptoes every once in awhile.

 

Gaslight Arcanum is available through all online booksellers and may also be found in your local brick-and-mortar shop. 

 

Star Rating: 5 —“This is a wonderful book that gets it right”

As far as canonicity goes, those of you looking for traditional cases narrated by Dr. Watson may not see a horror anthology as Canonical in any way. That being said, with the exception of the Granada quote, which I fully believe was intentional, I could find no evidence of Canonical carelessness.

 

Footnotes:

*Books about horses, for example. Or written by Judy Blume. If Judy Blume had written a book about ghost horses, I would have reached Nirvana.

**You first.

***Well, I say “Dupin.”  You’ll see.

†I may have screeched in the margins a bit.

†† Child of the ’70’s that I am, I totally thought of this:

Cue sad music.

Cue sad music.

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Filed under Anthology (Stories by different authors), AU (Alternative Universe), Five-star reviews, Holmes out of his Element, Pastiche, Supernatural

Greenberg, Martin H., Jon Lellenberg, and Daniel Stashower. Ghosts in Baker Street: New Tales of Sherlock Holmes. NY: Carroll and Graf, 2006.

Holmes is losing patience with all of your vampire nonsense, client.

Ok, we all know it, so let’s repeat it together: “The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.”* If BBC’s Sherlock wants to get in a little canon/crap telly moment, all they have to do is show Sherlock, perched on his chair, yelling at one of those ubiquitous reality ghost-hunting programs–about dust,mirrors, how the bedclothes didn’t move naturally and five reasons why everyone should know that Derek guy is obviously a fake. As several authors in this anthology point out, Sir Arthur had the artistic integrity not to have his most famous character take on his own Spiritualist beliefs in some Dartmoor epiphany. Sherlock Holmes never sought an answer via supernatural methods. Still, the intersection of the set of mystery lovers and the set of ghost story aficionados is a large one, so it’s not surprising that, while Doyle let his detective approach the boundaries of the supernatural realm, there are other writers willing to toss him in completely. The authors and editors of Ghosts in Baker Street do not hesitate.

Anthologies are tricky to review. You want to give the reader a clear idea of what the book contains, but you face three problems. First, short stories are easy to spoil. Second, in a large anthology, you don’t have space (and the reader doesn’t have time) to cover every story in detail. Third, stories can vary widely in quality, leading to the “I bought this for one good song” experience. I thought, therefore, that I’d try grading each story in the book, on the traditional 4-point scale, then averaging the grades to score the book as a whole.***  We’ll see how it goes.

Most stories, happily, fall solidly in the “A” category. These include Gillian Linscott’s “The Adventure of the Late Orang Outang,” in which a pet’s love seems to transcend the grave, and academic rivalries prove deadly.  Those familiar with the legends surrounding King Tut’s tomb will see parallels in “Sherlock Holmes and the Mummy’s Curse,”  (H. Paul Jeffers). In this story, Watson’s old army buddy inadvertently draws the doctor and the detective into investigating whether the members of an Egyptian expedition are dropping dead due to coincidence…or a curse. We revisit a favorite Doyle theme–pacts gone wrong–as well as a phantom hound in Paula Cohen’s “The Adventure of the Dog in the Nighttime.”  Irish literary history provides the backdrop for an atmospheric tale with folkloric accents, Michael Walsh’s “The Coole Park Problem.” How did William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and even Sherlock Holmes come to reach new heights in their careers? Sir Arthur may agree that the fairy-folk were involved…you may reach a different conclusion. Finally, we get a Watson-only story, in a viscerally scary (even disturbing) tale, “Death in the East End.” Colin Bruce reveals a bit of the Watson family’s past, and the doctor himself learns one shouldn’t challenge the spirit world rashly. Each of these stories is told in decent “Watson-voice,” and contains plenty of cherished Doylean elements (breakfasts, stormy nights at 221B, deducing the client, bored Holmes). Some endings have natural explanations, while others are a little less cut-and-dried. You should find all of them enjoyable.

Two stories earn a “B.” Jon L. Breen’s “The Adventure of the Librarian’s Ghost” starts out with a creepy, interesting premise (a ghost predicts national crises by throwing out books and marking passages in blood) but totters with an easily-guessed solution, and a bit of preachiness in the end. “The Adventure of the St. Marylebone Ghoul” (Bill Crider) also has fascinating elements: allusions to the George Edalji case,† the intersection of East and West, prejudice, and nasty discussions of grave-robbing and ghouls. Unfortunately, I didn’t find part of the solution believable. It was a little too convenient, disappointing after a terrific build-up.

One story, and one story only, earned a “C.”  Carolyn Wheat’s  “A Scandal in Drury Lane, Or, the Vampire Trap,” has arguably the most gorgeous beginning in the book: an anonymous reminiscence of the Royal Theatre in Drury Lane which covers Restoration Comedy, the 18th century, and the early Regency, right up to the night of the fire which destroyed it on February 28, 1809. One gets the impression that this time, there may be no natural explanation, that we’re seeing with phantom eyes and hearing a phantom voice. The reader is ready for a haunting tale, and not just a tale of haunts.

Unfortunately, that voice is stilled once we get to 221B (never to be heard again) and the experience is jarring. The premise is interesting: Holmes is called to the Royal Theatre to investigate bad omens which mysteriously appear, and a gray ghost who disappears, both threatening the current production and an actress’ sanity. Are the manifestations man-made, or are they clues to a long-ago murder? The Society of Psychical Research even makes an appearance. In the end, however, I found several avoidable inaccuracies which soured my opinion a bit. The Royal Theatre actually burned on February 24, 1809. Sir Henry Irving could not be, as Watson refers to him, “the late Sir Henry Irving” in 1896, as he didn’t die until 1905. And it was hard for me to believe that Sherlock Holmes, a master of complex disguises who made a particular study of London streets,  was less familiar with the West End Theatre District than his flatmate. In the canon, Watson writes that “The stage lost a fine actor” when his friend took up detecting. Even if one discounts Baring-Gould’s notion that a young Holmes actually joined a theatre troupe, it seems natural to conclude he spent time backstage–and in the seats, enjoying opera and concerts. Finally, I found the explanation a little too elaborate, although you may disagree. These flaws, coupled with the complete atmospheric disconnect between the introduction and the body of the story, made it disappointing.

Ghosts in Baker Street isn’t all chills, however. At the end of the book the editors include three non-fiction essays, all of which deserve “A’s.” Caleb Carr discusses Sherlock Holmes’ relationship to the nascent science of psychology in “Some Analytical Genius, No Doubt.” While Mr. Carr’s thoughts on why Doyle shied away from psychology (related to his troubled father), are interesting, I am not sure I agree. There are people who have a constitutional preference for the “hard sciences.” They want to be able to see, touch, smell, hear, and quantify. The physical world is where they feel most at home. Others don’t mind if things get, in my husband’s words, “squishy.” They gravitate more to the arts, the social sciences and yes, psychology–although I do wonder if Holmes was more comfortable once B.F. Skinner and behaviorism rolled around.†† Still, the article is interesting, and Carr’s final thoughts on the academic trend towards deconstruction and the canon are heartening.

Barbara Roden continues the non-fiction section with “No Ghosts Need Apply?” A noted expert in both Holmes and the English ghost story, Ms. Roden provides a thorough look at the genesis of the “psychic detective” genre. She connects its popularity to both the need for authors hopping on the lucrative detective story bandwagon to “distinguish their creations from the Master in some way,”†††  and to the psychic shock of The Great War, which saw a rise in the popularity of Spiritualism and an interest in the paranormal. We get an overview of names you may remember: Abraham van Helsing, Flaxman Low, John Silence, Thomas Carnacki…and some you may not have heard of: Aylmer Vance, Norton Vyse, and Shiela Crerar, just for a start. Finally, speaking of van Helsing, Loren Estleman, author of the best-selling Sherlock Holmes v. Dracula, talks about his own introduction to the canon, his experience in the Sherlockian fiction world, and makes the salient point that when it comes to the supernatural, “if you win Holmes, you win the reader.”

All in all, Ghosts in Baker Street is a solid collection of traditional stories, with enough scares for the ghost story lover and enough logic for the armchair detective. The prior stories would be worth the price of admission. There are, however, two more pieces, and I don’t think it’s exaggerating to call them spectacular. The first is a brief story by Daniel Stashower. Told from the viewpoint of HOUN’s escaped Notting Hill murderer, “Selden” is a tale of a bright young man, loyal to the Baskerville family, who goes to war in South Africa. Seriously injured, he encounters a kindly physician–an eye specialist–who consoles the soldiers with his belief that “our fallen comrades were not really dead…but only transferred to another place.”‡ Selden doesn’t follow them, however; he goes home, a morphine addict who commits a savage crime to obtain the drugs his body craves. The rest of his story is familiar to those who have read HOUN. Stashower, however, adds one dark, breathtaking twist, allowing the little boy who clutched his sister’s hand to find honor and redemption in the end.

Finally, Loren Estleman demonstrates just what he means by “winning Holmes” in his story, “The Devil and Sherlock Holmes.” When a patient at St. Porphyry’s Hospital (specializing in the mentally ill) claims to be Satan, and terrible things start happening, Watson (who has been consulting there) asks his friend to look into the matter. Holmes is naturally skeptical, and challenges the man, “John Smith,” to prove his claims, particularly that of leaving the world and taking them all with him at midnight, Walpurgisnacht.‡‡ There’s something odd about the man. A strange affect, a palpable sense of menace. He knows thing about them he should  not. He oozes through the page. There is nothing I love more than a Satanic smackdown, and Holmes is no cinema priest who’s lost his faith. He may not have had any faith to begin with. But when he’s taken to the pinnacle of the temple, he knows exactly what to do.‡‡‡  In these stories, both Estleman and Stashower take on the typical supernatural pastiche form and transcend it.

Well, let’s average our grades, shall we?  With a total of 48, dividing by 13 stories, we get 3.69, or 3.7, a high B and a respectable score for any anthology. For those of you who like a little dark frisson in your detective story, Ghosts in Baker Street delivers.

Ghosts in Baker Street is, unfortunately, currently out of print, although several of the stories have been reprinted elsewhere by now, and may be familiar to some. You can find a used copy of Ghosts online fairly easily. Check Amazon, Barnes & Noble, ABE and even eBay to find the book at a reasonable price.

Star Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5  “Well worth your time and money.”

Footnotes:

*”The Sussex Vampire”

**Imagines Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock doing this. Imagines it in detail for a very, very long time….

***Yes, it is report card time at our house. How did you guess?

† This is a case in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle actually did a little detecting of his own. See http://www.siracd.com/life_case1.shtml for more detail.

†† “Was.” See what I did there?

†††Ghosts in Baker Street, p.202

‡ Ghosts in Baker Street, p. 140. Can you guess who that might be? I have to admit that it took me a little bit of time to adjust my mental chronology of HOUN from Baring-Gould’s date of 1888 to sometime between 1901 and its publication in 1903 (I like the idea of Holmes investigating the Ripper murders while Watson is in Dartmoor). However, some chronological experts go with the later date, so the scene with ACD is plausible.

‡‡A springtime equivalent of Halloween. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walpurgis_Night

‡‡‡ A reference to Luke 4:9.  Obviously I am not equating Christ and Sherlock Holmes. But Smith’s appeal to his intellect and his pride in the story constitute a very real temptation.

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Filed under Anthology (Stories by different authors), AU (Alternative Universe), Daniel Stashower, Four-star reviews, Jon Lellenberg, Martin Greenberg, Supernatural

Revill, Joe. A Case of Witchcraft. London: MX, 2011

Note: This review is for the first edition of A Case of Witchcraft. The publisher has since come out with  a new version, with some corrections and content additions. Those I am aware of do not affect my overall opinion of the book, but I do think readers will appreciate them, so try to get the second edition when you can. For more information on what was changed or added, see Mr. Revill’s blog at this link: http://acaseofwitchcraft.wordpress.com/2012/06/13/a-new-and-slightly-improved-version-of-the-novel/

Cunningsburgh, in the Shetland Isles. Possibly a model for “Cunningsborough”?

Sherlock Holmes doesn’t believe in ghosts. Or vampires. Or giant demon hounds. But that certainly doesn’t stop him from taking cases from people who do. So it is that when Emily Tollemache appears at 221B one rainy October afternoon to tell him she’s afraid her father is in danger of becoming a human sacrifice at the hands of a witch-cult in the Northern Islands of Scotland, he doesn’t dismiss her out of hand. The Reverend Tollemache, a folklore scholar who has already published a book about werewolves, had travelled there, intent on tracking down the origins of a Norse variation of the “Cinderella” story–a rather darker version, involving witches–when he disappeared. He’s in good health, and quite sane, she tells Holmes and Watson, so when he wrote that he suspected some villagers knew more than they were saying, she believed him. His housekeeper discovered him missing the morning before, and Miss Tollemache has found the local police suspiciously unhelpful. They believe he’s just fallen into the sea–it’s been known to happen–and dismiss her worries about witches out of hand.

Holmes, on the other hand, doesn’t think that foul play–at the hands of a cult, or otherwise–can be ruled out–and at four days ’til Halloween, time is of the essence. He’ll be taking on this case alone; Watson is laid up after having that jezail bullet removed from his leg. Perhaps, Holmes reasons, this is for the best. He’ll either be facing the personification of pure evil, in which case it’s anyone’s guess as to whether he’ll come back in a casket…or he’ll look ridiculous wasting time on a “case” where the elderly victim accidentally doddered off a ledge. He may not have help should it be the former, but he also won’t have witnesses if it proves the latter. He packs Watson’s revolver with a stack of books on witchcraft and catches the night train to Edinburgh.*

He doesn’t remain alone for long, however. The next day, his “private” compartment (he tried to ensure it by bribing the guard) is invaded by a foppish young man who fortunately falls asleep almost immediately, giving Holmes the chance to conduct his research for a few hours in peace. When his companion awakens, he learns that, oddly enough, his fellow traveller also has an interest in the occult. In fact, the young Aleister Crowley claims to practice High Magic, and is on his way to a home he’s recently purchased in Scotland, to spend six months on a demanding, purifying ritual he hopes will enable to transcend the physical and perform miracles. He’s not in a hurry, however, and after a long discussion over fancy Turkish cigarettes, offers to accompany Holmes as a sort of magic consultant. Holmes hesitates a little. He feels disloyal to Watson, for one, and he’s loathe to subject the young man to danger, for another.  He wonders how coincidental this meeting actually was. In the end, however, he decides that two are safer than one, and is confident in his ability to rid himself of Crowley, should that prove necessary.

Aleister Crowley. Not John Watson. But he does have the “3 Continents” thing going for him.

Once they arrive on Trowley and proceed to the isolated village of Cunningsborough, Holmes and Crowley find the situation every bit as intriguing as Miss Tollemache described. It’s obvious that the old scholar believed he had found evidence of a surviving witch cult, and that he believed it would challenge, if not completely change, current scholarship on the matter. It seems equally obvious that he made contact with someone who promised to tell him much, much more, and that he was excited by the prospect. Holmes has to wonder, whether or not this enthusiasm led him into a trap.

As the detective and his assistant begin to look for evidence, however, they find themselves dismissed, if not blocked outright. Footprints are confusing. Documents have conveniently been destroyed. People greet their questions with reactions varying from silence to threats. Most, it seems, don’t believe there are witches on Trowley, and definitely don’t want that old reputation stirred up again–or so they say. The investigators get a different response, Holmes realizes, when they talk to women, such as the flirtatious girl at the chip shop, and the beautiful, freethinking school mistress, Louisa Reid. There is something strange, and something dangerous, going on in Cunningsborough,  but only Tollemache knows whether they are one and the same….

One of the reasons Sherlock Holmes  has captivated the public imagination for so long is that we know just enough–but not too much–about him. As beloved as Kay Scarpetta or Harry Bosch may be to their fans, they’re not all that intriguing. We like them because we know them. When it comes to Holmes and Watson, however, what we don’t  know inspires fascination, and captivates all sorts of fans. After all, when you have strong characters who, at the same time, care to reveal little of their pasts and inner workings, you’re free to imagine what you will. My Holmes isn’t, exactly, your Holmes. When it comes to 221B, we see what we need to see and, many times, we’re looking into a mirror.

This is what makes pastiche and Sherlockian fiction so varied and so interesting. It’s also why some people don’t want to read it, ever. It can be uncomfortable to see your character in someone else’s revealing light.

A Case of Witchcraft is, in essence, two books. The shortest book tells the story of what happened to the Reverend Tollemache, and how Holmes and Crowley fight to save another from the same fate. Revill tells it well, with plenty of detective work (Blotters!  Footprints! Secret societies!), false leads, and a suspenseful, disturbing conclusion. You may think, at a certain point in the book, that “there’s nothing to see here,” but you couldn’t be more wrong.

The bulk of the book, however, is a series of conversations. Sometimes they’re about folklore, sometimes they’re about politics or philosophy or youthful mores, but what they’re really about is Sherlock Holmes. Like most Victorian gentlemen, the Great Detective is not forthcoming when it comes to his personal views on sex or religion, or his experience of the same, which is why we often feel compelled to discuss them. Revill’s Holmes, however, is in a confessional mood. Perhaps it’s the freedom afforded by being far away from London, among people he will most likely never see again. Perhaps it’s the hashish–there seems to be a lot of it up North. I suspect, really, that some of it comes from his exhilaration at being with two people, at least, whose thinking isn’t bound by strict convention. Occasionally when an author pairs Holmes up with someone other than Watson, the latter is disparaged, either overtly or implicitly. Revill doesn’t do this. Instead, we see that Holmes–normally on the antisocial side, unlike his clubbable friend–really enjoys getting to discuss his research and thoughts with receptive and non-judgmental listeners. 

“Women were like that, he found: even female clients, like Miss Tollemache,generally dressed in their smartest clothes when they called on him.” (p.176-77)

At this point, I do feel obligated to alert readers that A Case of Witchcraft, while not explicit, and not outside my review guidelines, does broach some adult subject matter in an honest (but not graphic) fashion. Some of you may find this offensive, and others may find it a bit uncomfortable, so be warned that this is not a book for everyone.

I’ll admit that my view of Holmes on both controversial topics is much more traditional. I  tend to go with the “lapsed Catholic” view, or to place him with other men of science of the time, such as Charles Peirce, who believed that if science and religion were not immediately reconciled, it was only because we didn’t yet know enough of one or the other.** As to the other, well, I think it’s pretty clear that I have no problem with Holmes and romance, if it’s done well.  That being said, I enjoyed reading Joe Revill’s very well-reasoned portrayal of a different Holmesian perspective. It’s a common line of thought, not off-base for a progressive thinker in 1899, and I found it intellectually challenging.

The lengthy conversations in this “shadow book” can take away from the larger plot, however. The fact that they’re often couched in larger discussions of ancient (mostly Norse) folklore mean that the reader often finds herself reading several pages of digressions. I didn’t mind this much; in fact, it reawakened my interest in folklore and made me pull a book out of the TBR pile.*** Mr. Revill knows his stuff, and integrates it well. There are no “As you know, Bob” moments, and Holmes would need to know or at least review a lot of this information to do his job; it’s part of the tedium of detective work. The fact that he finds it interesting jibes well with what we know of his all-encompassing curiosity and his interest in ancient Britain.† Still, some readers may find these portions a distraction.†† I was more frustrated, myself, by occasional sinister portents  that ultimately went nowhere, as well as by the fact that, as concerned as Emily Tollemache was  about her father, she did not accompany Holmes to actually find him.

If you’re looking for a straight Watson-written pastiche that sounds like something Doyle sold to The Strand,  then I will say that A Case of Witchcraft is not the book for you. But if you enjoy adventures in which the most adventurous aspect is the foray into its protagonist’s mind, then you’ll want it on your bookshelf.

A Case of Witchcraft: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available directly from MX Publishing, and your usual online booksellers, both in paper and e-book format. It is now in its second editon. You can find Joe Revill’s very interesting blog at http://acaseofwitchcraft.wordpress.com.

Star Rating: 4 out of 5 “Well worth your time and money.”

So…do you have any thoughts on Holmes and religion? Or Holmes and sex, for that matter? Leave a comment below; first commenter receives a copy of the 2nd edition of A Case of Witchcraft. I will say that the comments should focus only on those topics as they pertain to Holmesian subjects, and should not be explicit, profane, or insulting. There are plenty of online forums to discuss personal views on religion and/or mores; this isn’t one of them and comments will not be approved if they are contentious or disrespectful.

*He also discusses some final matters with Watson in an interesting, perhaps revealing, paragraph.

**I find it indicative of just how real  Holmes and Watson are to devotees that they care so much about their religious views, particularly if they are religious themselves. I don’t think Sherlockians need to have Holmes validate their beliefs; rather I have the sneaking suspicion that they’re concerned about his eternal destination.

***Albion’s Seed, for example. Had it for years, hadn’t even cracked the binding; that thing is a door-stopper.

†See “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” (DEVI) for an example of what Holmes does in his off-hours. Also see the blog post below for the real reason Holmes was tempted to go to the, um, meeting to which Miss Reid invites him. It’s wonderfully in character.

††Mr. Revill acknowledges this. In the second edition, he helps the reader along with a change in chapter titles. Read about it here: http://acaseofwitchcraft.wordpress.com/2012/06/13/a-new-and-slightly-improved-version-of-the-novel/.

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Filed under Four-star reviews, Holmes and Drugs, Holmes and Religion, Holmes and Sex, Joe Revill, MX Publishing, Real Historical Personages, Supernatural

King, John R. The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls. NewYork: Forge, 2008

As promised, here is the second review of King’s book, brought to you by Jaime Mahoney. If you’ve never read her erudite and wide-ranging blog, Better Holmes & Gardens, you’ve been missing out! Find her at: http://betterholmesandgardens.blogspot.com/

It’s hard to see the powder burns on this chart. But they’re there. Oh, yes, they’re there.

I pulled my left hand away and began walking, a tingle of dread moving up my spine. “I know who I am.  Who are you, Silence?  Read your own palm.”

Silence matched me stride for stride. “I have been. Of course I have. There are many scars there for so thin a hand. The palm has tobacco burns, the sort that would come from embers falling from a pipe, and acid burns from mixing caustic chemicals. The back of the hand has black powder scars from firing a gun, and here—do you see these?” He rolled back his sleeve and showed me the purple depression of veins leading from his inner elbow.

“Opium.”

“More likely, cocaine. These are recent scars” (75-6).

I am originally from Southwestern Pennsylvania – you know, farm country. The kind of place where the first day of hunting season is a mandatory day off from school, where you yield to passing tractors, and where my mother was actually able to have milk delivered (complete with a delivery person in a white uniform) until I was in college. No one in my neighborhood locked their doors, I learned to ride a horse before I learned to drive a car, and you can feel free to fill in the rest of the stereotype however you see fit. You’d probably be right.

I am also the daughter of an immigrant. My father came to the United States when he was 25-years-old, complete with his own set of European values – and distinctly European tastes. I can guarantee that I was the only child in my fifth grade class that had ever eaten goose liver pâté (or had eaten goose at all, come to that – in fairness, I still have never eaten venison). My sister and I were the only children in our neighborhood that knew how to pronounce Camembert correctly (our father was into cheese before cheese was cool). And I know was I was the only 10-year-old who went to see a German opera for her birthday (and this was a few years before I learned how “introspective” German music can be).

So, I’m used to having strange tastes. I’m used to liking things that no one else likes.

And so, several years ago when I finished reading The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls, by John R. King (also known as J. Robert King) I fully expected to be one of a very exclusive minority that enjoyed this book. I anticipated it. I did not, however, expect to feel like the only person on the planet that enjoyed this book. And now, several years and one rather pleading (I see in hindsight) book review later, I find that this is still the case. If King’s book only has a fan club of one, then I’m the one attending the meetings, and I serve a superb Scotch.

Look, I get it. I can see and observe when the mood strikes me. There’s a lot about King’s novel that should surely leave a very sour taste in any Sherlockian’s mouth, especially a traditional one. Thomas Carnacki – who’s that and why is he narrating? A lengthy interruption from the main narrative in the form of a memoir? No, thanks. Perhaps the worst offense of all, Professor Moriarty as a sympathetic and – dare I even say it? – romantic hero (at least for a short while)? Check, please. And demons? Here, I poured you a scotch. Drink up.

Holmes will get it for you. It’s from Watson’s special stash.

But for those who read Sherlockian pastiche not just for a traditional mystery, but for a character study, for insight to the mind and manner of the Great Detective, then this novel has so much to recommend. For what is Sherlock Holmes without his great mind?  Is he even Sherlock Holmes at all? King’s amnesiac-Holmes is his interpretation of the man laid bare, with all his structure and building-blocks exposed. And there are very believable and realistic glimpses of why Holmes is as he is. A Detective without his memory is in many ways very much like himself, as the passage quoted above indicates.  But he is also in some ways very childlike, unable to ascertain how he accomplishes certain things.  At times he seems equally confused and terrified by his abilities, and at others, amused by them.  He seems disproportionately trusting, more dependent on others, and more aware of his physical needs than he would be with his memory intact (in fact, when Silence/Holmes expresses hunger and a desire for food, it is almost shocking, disorienting, and removed me from the story more than any demon ever could).

Most importantly, the entirety of King’s plot hinges on and revolves around—not just Holmes’s memory, but his mind. That is what is at stake. As Moriarty says:

“Yes.  That is the problem.  This brain of yours.  Empty.  It’s not what I paid for.  It’s the attic without the treasure… It’s as if the library of Alexandria had burned!  […]  It did burn, my friend.  That library, with all the wisdom of the ancient world—that goddamned library is gone.  Gone!  And your goddamned mind is gone, too.  All that you knew, all that you were—gone, except this pathetic, festering hunk of meat… (117).

A Sherlock Holmes who is not aware of himself is ultimately not Sherlock Holmes at all, but who he becomes during that time is not that far removed from the Great Detective that readers know. Holmes/Silence is constantly reaching out, consciously and unconsciously, and trying to reassemble himself. And the pieces that he reaches for first, and that fall into place earliest, provide the most startling insight into his personality.  As Holmes’s mind comes back to him in bits and pieces over the course of the story, it is as if the framework of his character is reasserting itself, snapping into place and fitting itself together. The characteristics that make him most uniquely Sherlock Holmes are what fall into place first—his deductive abilities, his imperious nature, and, of course, even his friendship with Dr. Watson:

“And there is a listener beside me.  He is a stocky man with an intelligent face and sensitive eyes…I look upon this slumping figure, who takes in my violin playing as a drunkard takes in gin, and I see greatness in him.  Greatness and friendship” (90).

This is all King’s interpretation, of course, but The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls is an excellent read for anyone who has ever chased the answer to the ever elusive question of Holmes’s essential nature.  Stripped of nearly everything that distinctly characterizes him, Harold Silence/Sherlock Holmes makes for an interesting personality study, but barring that and underneath it all, Sherlock Holmes is still, even when Thomas Carnacki has to remind him (and he does have to remind him), a great man.

Would you still like a Scotch?

The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls  is available from Amazon in hardback and Kindle editions, and from Barnes and Noble, for the Nook only. You can also find it at Powell’s and from ABE Books.

Star Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5: “(Less) Flawed, but worth a look.”

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Filed under Better Holmes and Gardens, Guest Reviewer, Holmes out of his Element, Jaime Mahoney, John R King, Moriarty, Reichenbach, Supernatural

King, John R. The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls. New York: Forge, 2008.

Special Note: I initially planned to review this book in May, to coincide with the anniversary of Reichenbach, but Life intervened. This is all to your benefit, however, because in the interim, I had a lengthy conversation about it with Jamie Mahoney, better known as Better Holmes and Gardens’  “Goddess in Sepia.”  As it turns out, we have very different opinions of it. So today, you get mine, and tomorrow–a completely different perspective. After all, it’s always good to have more data!

Amazing how adding one little letter can make this sooooo much more interesting!

When someone sets out to write a book, he faces an instant set of choices, beyond the elementary* questions of character, setting, and plot. Should the book be told in past or present tense? Who should tell the story? How many points of view should it contain, and should they be limited or omniscient? First, third, or even second person? Some writers make these choices consciously, with a view towards achieving certain effects. Others let them occur organically which, when it’s right is a beautiful experience, and when it’s wrong, is a very complicated problem to fix. Either way, these initial choices determine the story’s structure, and if you’ve tried to write anything longer than…well, heck, even a grocery list has structure. It’s important.

Writing a Sherlock Holmes story? Even more structural decisions await.  Will you hand it over to Watson and let him produce a straight, Doylean pastiche, or choose another point of view, thereby allowing yourself a wider range of creative freedom, and avoiding the inevitable “Watson voice” criticism? Will you explain how the story came about–curiously, even authors who haven’t found another copy of “The Adventure of James Phillimore” feel the need to explain their book’s provenance.** Will the story unfold as it happens, or as a memoir? Will it hew strictly to canon, or will you give yourself room to play, say, with sex or vampires?***  Each choice is crucial, guiding  your readers’ expectations, and defining the latitude they will give you in terms of character details and canon fidelity. Just as well-designed foundation and framing will allow a building to stand for centuries, a judiciously chosen story structure will support nearly anything you want to do.

The question of structure ends up being paramount in today’s selection, one of the more unusual books I’ve read this year. It differs immediately from most Holmes books in that it’s not narrated by any canon character, but by Thomas Carnacki. Now I’m sure most of you know who Mr. Carnacki was, but on the off chance…

After an image search, let me just say that Holmes was able to attract much better illustrators.

Thomas Carnacki, whose adventures were chronicled by William Hope Hodgson, was a detective who specialized in scientific exploration of the supernatural. Long before Jay, Grant, everybody, and their grandmothers ventured into asylums and attics hunting ghosts with EMF detectors and digital voice recorders, Carnacki sought to help his clients determine whether or not their night-bumpings were caused by humans, or portals to Hell.† When King introduces us, however, his evening ghost story soirées are far in the future. He graduated from Cambridge in 1890 and has spent the ensuing year doing the 19th-century equivalent of backpacking around Europe, being, as he calls it, “a student of the world” (the world, at present, being Switzerland). Without a father’s bank account to draw from, however, he is now “living by my wits,” and while he probably would have approached that very pretty girl with the enticing bustle anyway, the fact that she’s carrying a basket full of food makes her even more interesting. Showing a remarkable lack of judgement, Anna Schmidt invites this strange, shabby young man with a scraggly VanDyke to accompany her for a picnic at a local attraction. You know, Reichenbach Falls. On May 4th. 1891.

To jog your memory.

So, is the coincidence-hater in you screaming right now? Well, just relax. It is, of course, a set-up. Even a bit of a double-cross, between a man who believes he’s going to kill his mortal enemy, and the daughter who believes she can save her father from his inner demons. Instead, Anna Schmidt (Moriarty, actually) and Thomas Carnacki end up rescuing someone else. They’re not really sure who he is. He can’t help them with that question, either, so they end up calling him by the name on the tailor’s label in his clothing. Harold Silence.†† It will do for now.

Obviously, when you’ve just been battling for your life, have fallen over a cliff into the water, hit your head (and everything else) and can’t remember who you are, you’d like a few days to regroup. Unfortunately, there isn’t time. There won’t be any time at all until Chapter 33, and then the three of them only get half an hour. If you like non-stop action, King has written your book. Within minutes of the get-out-of-wet-clothes and small deductions scene, our heroes are being pursued, a relentless ordeal that begins with a carriage chase and continues until they cram, in some impossible fashion, into a single sleeping berth on a train to Paris. The intervening chapters include, in no particular order:

  • Fights
  • Avalanches
  • Almost falling into a crevasse
  • Almost getting smashed by ice
  • Being tortured in an asylum
  • Hiding in a crematorium furnace
  • Poisonings
  • Near strangulation
  • More fights
  • Gunplay
  • Electrocutions

And that, dear readers, is just the first third of the book.  Once Silence and Co. get to Paris, for the final third, more chases, stabbings, punctured lungs, stabbings, exorcisms and dismemberment await.

Yes, I said “exorcisms.” Obviously, when Thomas Carnacki is involved, one must expect the supernatural–in this case, possession–so if this is not a trope you enjoy, it’s all right to move along.  I admit, when I did my initial “flip-through,” I was less than thrilled.†††† After I read the Carnacki stories and followed the entire plot through, however, I could play along to some degree. When I told my husband about this bit, he found it interesting, so I’m guessing it depends on the reader. In the end, the supernatural element meshes fairly well with the rest of the story, is appropriately chilling, and makes nicely subtle references to aspects of Carnacki’s future, his use of electricity and pentacles in particular.

Mr. King does several things well in this book, in fact. Most of his characters are three-dimensional and interesting. The dialogue is realistic. With one exception, the plot moves quickly. Although I have a hard time visualizing action sequences, those of you who don’t will have plenty to work with. As the story  is for the most part extra-canonical, there weren’t a lot of references to check, and those few were accurate. He even gets in a nice little canonical joke, so if you think you see a major error, wait for it….‡ King has a nice prose style, and occasionally you even get real gems, such as this passage, which occurs as Harold Silence and his rescuers take refuge in a shepherd’s barrow and he tells them that in the morning, they will part company “‘as if none of this ever happened'” :

The irony of these words strikes me. My whole life never happened. I’ve lived only these last hours, all of it at the verge of death.‡‡

Here is another favorite, describing “Silence’s” thoughts as he begins to realize that he’s actually Sherlock Holmes, but with only a vague understanding of what that might mean:

How strange I am, to care about these things. Ashes and the composition of soil and the variations in bootblack… While other men filled their minds with planetary declinations and the properties of comets, I do idiot auguries in ash.‡‡‡

He’s just as insightful and poetic in the opening pages of the second third of the book, in which he describes Moriarty’s development, although certain events mean he eventually gets to avoid exploring its more complex aspects. King’s best moments come when he stops rushing his characters around and actually looks at them for a minute. When that happens, we realize, for instance, the significance of one of Silence’s seeming out-of-character moments, when he demands that Carnacki let go of him and self-sacrificingly fall into a crevasse. This is not Sherlock Holmes, who only days ago told his nemesis he was willing to give all to achieve the greater good. It is, however, Sherlock Holmes stripped down to only the most basic of human instincts. What’s even better is that King doesn’t  spell this out for us. He assumes we’re smart enough to grasp it on our own.

Mutually assured destruction? Not a problem.

In the best of all possible worlds, my review would end here. Remember all of the blathering at the beginning about structure, however? There was a point to that. The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls  suffers from structural problems.

First, King takes the well-worn path of establishing some sort of provenance for this story. Instead of coming from the ruins of Cox & Co., it’s a memoir, which Hodgson, Carnacki’s biographer, encouraged him to record and send to Dr. Watson in 1911. Why 1911? Carnacki’s stories first began appearing in 1910, so perhaps that played a part in setting the date. Holmes is retired, of course, but still has some very active times ahead of him. It seems odd that Carnacki, in his note to Watson, doesn’t allude to this in some fashion. It’s almost as if he thinks Holmes has died.

Oh well, that’s petty. The real problem lies in the fact that, while Carnacki starts telling the story in first person, as one would expect in a memoir, by Chapter 2 we’re  in Silence’s head. In Chapter 8, we venture into Anna’s point of view. This is fine. You know, in a novel that doesn’t purport to be a man’s memoirs. As gifted as Carnacki is, he’s not a mind-reader, and he simply cannot be in these people’s heads–one for a reason that will be clear by the end of the book, and the other because that person would never permit it. Notice that, in the canon, Watson is always Watson. If he goes to bed and misses things, he misses them. If he’s out in Dartmoor, he has no idea what’s going on in London. Never does he take on another’s voice or thoughts. When an author chooses a point of view, he is obligated to take on its restrictions. An editor would have done Shadow a world of good if she had taken out Carnacki’s prefatory note. Of course, then we would still have to contend with the odd fact that some sections of the story are told in present tense, and others in past, with no discernable (at least to me) narrative or artistic reason for the switches. These changes occur on a chapter-by-chapter basis, so they’re not so obvious as to be disconcerting, but they are curious.

If you’ve noticed, I’ve thus far avoided discussing the second third of the book. This is because it is Shadow’s  most problematic section. Somehow, some way, Thomas Carnacki got hold of Moriarty’s unpublished memoirs (which, like most fictional memoirs, read rather more like a novel). With no explanation as to how this occurred, he simply inserts them in the middle. Are they interesting? Yes. Do they contribute to the larger plot? Yes. But while King is at pains to provide a provenance for the book as a whole, he doesn’t think we need to know exactly where these pages came from. The result is a very clumsy, lengthy digression. One could argue that it’s actually intended as an homage to Doyle, who frequently allows Watson to interrupt his own narrative flow with long letters, reminiscences, and trips to Utah. I would counter that while this is probably the case, such editorial indulgences didn’t help Watson, and they’re less acceptable in the 21st century. To compound the crime, at the very end, we’re led to believe that these memoirs have somehow become a long origins story Anna’s been telling Carnacki and Silence as they take the overnight train to Paris. Father’s memoir or daughter’s memories? Can’t be both. Choose.

Whichever they are, they’re King’s attempt to explain why Moriarty ends up at the Falls. In the beginning, he’s no criminal genius, just a brilliant man trying to find a place in the world he experiences like no one else.§  He can, in fact, sense when a life has reached its turning point, and resolves to use this ability for good. In his first attempt at doing so, he rescues a beautiful prostitute, Susanna, who turns out to be a fellow mathematical genius and becomes his wife. Unfortunately, she is also a Mary Sue. Don’t get me wrong–I really loved her idea of applying mathematics to the sociology of crime (her university thesis). But I had a horrible time accepting that somehow she would be permitted to pursue studies at Cambridge’s Jesus College–which didn’t admit women, much less pregnant ones until the late 1970’s–no matter who her husband was. Nor did I think Cambridge would allow her to teach afterwards. Anna’s zippy riverbank birth, which occurs as the result of a deductive experiment, was also ludicrous. I know, I know, I’m quibbling over small things like historical fact when this is a book which contains an exorcism machine, but such casual, convenient manipulations can damage an otherwise interesting plot point.

This leads us back to the main narrative, and a larger, more damaging example of the very same flaw. I could spell it out for you, but I think it would be more interesting to let you find it instead, in this climactic moment of a scene between Silence and Carnacki. They’re looking at Silence’s track marks:

“Opium”

“More likely, cocaine. These are recent scars. If I were an opium addict, I would not be able to think clearly now that I have been without the stuff for two days. No, I must be addicted to a less-invasive poison.”

“But a poison, all the same.”

“True enough.”

“So, then, who is Harold Silence?” I pressed. “A cocaine addict–perhaps a drug dealer, whose hands are burned with whatever caustic chemicals he uses to prepare his wares, whose hands are burned from the guns he has shot to defend his criminal empire?”

“Perhaps,” Silence said quietly.

“Perhaps? What other explanation could there be for these scars?”

Silence took awhile to respond. “The evidence tells what I have done, but not why I have done it. I’ve shot cocaine in my veins–but why? An addict? A drug lord? I’ve shot guns–but why? To oppose the law, or to uphold it?”

I laughed grimly. “The cocaine-addicted crime fighter–yes. A very plausible explanation. And I suppose this madman trying to kill you is a criminal you have brought to justice rather than a rival drug lord–or even a police officer trying to bring you in.”§§

I’ll give you a minute.

When I was a student teacher, one of my classes was remedial government for seniors. I would wager that with one exception, none of these really enjoyable but slightly disengaged kids could find the Netherlands on a map. But every last single one of them knew that pot was legal there. If I could locate them all today, they would tell me instantly what is wrong with this passage. You could drink it from a bottle. You could put it in your hair. You could give it to your child. You could buy it over the pharmacy counter and shoot it up in private when the gears of your mind threatened to overwhelm you. All of this I verified online and in a book about London crime in about ten minutes, seven of which were redundant. Thus, what could have been a powerful scene  crumbles because author and editor chose the punchline over historical fact. The difference between this and demons? I don’t see King as creating an alternate universe (AU) here, in which cocaine is illegal; there’s been no set-up for this, or for AU at all. Instead, we have our real world, in which supernatural elements are exposed. Just inserting a ghost in a story, for example, doesn’t mean that cars can fly. If you want the latter, you have to introduce it in a rational way. Just as Susanna went to Jesus College because the author thought it would be cool, regardless of whether or not it was possible, cocaine is suddenly illegal in the 1890’s because the irony was irresistible.

The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls is a like a do-it-yourself bookshelf from a big box store displaying your collection of first editions. It looks nice on the box. That veneer could be oak if you squint. That screw went in, even if the holes didn’t match up. An edge is peeling, but if you turn it to the wall…. Yes, it leans a little, but just put the heavy books on the bottom. John R. King’s look at Holmes post-Fall has so many good points: action, characterization, dialogue, insight, originality, some beautiful writing and–if it’s your thing–spookiness. But he’s arranged these treasures on a structure that can’t hold them or display them properly. So go on and examine them, but it’s best not to look around too closely.

The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls  is available in hardcover and on the Kindle from Amazon, and on the Nook (only) from Barnes and Noble. You can also find it new or used from Powell’s, and used from ABE Books.

Star Rating: 3 out of 5  “Flawed but worth a look”

Footnotes:

*Haha, look it’s that word!

**Seriously, does any other group feel so compelled, or is it just us?

***Or sex with vampires? This has happened. And not just in fanfiction.

† In preparation for this review, I actually read his stories. They are really fairly decent, and divided equally between natural and supernatural explanations. In general, they are very atmospheric, and have a creepy-as-heck setup, while the impact of the denouement varies. You can find them all here: http://www.forgottenfutures.com/game/ff4/carnacki.htm

††No, you silly people, it’s not “Calvin Klein.”  “Silence,” by the way, probably is a nod to John Silence, Algernon Blackwood’s 1908 detective.

††††Understatement of the Year

‡Yes, I felt stupid.

‡‡ King, p. 55

‡‡‡ King, p. 247

§I don’t want to give you more block quotes, but the passages in which King describes this are insightful and contain some evocative writing.

§§ King, p.76.

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Filed under Crossovers, Holmes out of his Element, John R King, Moriarty, Reichenbach, Supernatural, The Final Problem, Three-star reviews

Roden, Barbara. The Thames Horror. Ashcroft, B.C.:Calabash Press, 2011

Bees, Boring? Perish the Thought!

If Sherlock Holmes ever gets bored with his bee hives out there on the Sussex Downs and decides to pick up one of the many new adventures in which “he” is featured (let’s not flatter ourselves; he probably won’t), chances are, he won’t recognize himself.  After all, since the very first pastiche appeared (J. M. Barrie’s in 1893), Holmes and (sometimes) Watson have been to Mars, Moscow, and Minnesota. They’ve battled vampires, Cthulhu, and the Phantom of the Opera, and in one exploit even encountered a Time Lord.  The good doctor may have “an experience of women that extends over many nations and three separate continents,”* but when all is tabulated, his friend may have him beat.  After so many adventures exotic, chaotic or erotic, even the easily bored Detective probably yearns for the familiar. His many fans are no different. Fortunately, BSI member Barbara Roden’s short story collection, The Thames Horror, contains four stories sure to appeal to fans of both the traditional and the outré, all told in an impeccable Watson voice.

Dr. John Watson: Often Imitated, Never Duplicated

Of course, Watson never hesitates to include a little supernatural frisson when the story warranted, even if his friend is a scoffer. Ms. Roden does the same, beginning with the gorgeously titled “The Things That Shall Come Upon Them.” We begin, as we often do, with Holmes going through his pile of newspapers and sharing his discoveries with his friend. He observes, with a mixture of vanity and irritation that, since Watson began chronicling his adventures for the public, a plethora of similar detectives, all followed by their own faithful Boswells, have appeared. There’s Max Carrados, Martin Hewitt (whose “doings..appear with almost monotonous regularity”) and myriad others, including the fantastically named Flaxman Low, who specializes in cases “beyond the understanding of mere mortals.”** Holmes must have gotten used to the spiritualist talk of Watson’s agent, Arthur Conan Doyle, because he admits that Low may not be “quite the charlatan he might seem.” A good thing, too, because when Holmes and Watson board the train to investigate some disturbing incidents at Lufford Abbey, they find themselves sharing a compartment–and a case–with Low himself. It seems that while Holmes’ client, Mrs. Fitzgerald, believes these events have a natural explanation, her husband is not so sure.  To their credit, the two detectives don’t waste time arguing over whose approach is best. They investigate together, and let the results speak for themselves. Is Lufford Abbey haunted by a spirit conjured by the late black magic expert, Julian Karswell, or simply a little more open to treasure hunters than it should be? In the end, everyone finds the results satisfactory. See if you agree.

The supernatural thread continues with the remarkable “Of the Origin of the Hound of the Baskervilles.” You may believe that, with all of the film and print versions of HOUN available, there is nothing more to be said on the matter of the vicious glowing dog and its owner’s schemes. You would be wrong, just as Holmes was, every time he told Watson he had no talent for dissimulation. For it seems that, all this time, what we thought we knew about the Hound was only illusion, and in his final days, Watson is driven to explain what really happened. What follows turns everything you thought you knew about the Baskerville curse on its head, and even if you get the twist early on, you’re still in for a rich, atmospheric tale that has to be the truth.

After all that running about on the moors, you might be in the mood for something calmer.  Ms. Roden supplies this  Holmesian equivalent of chamomile tea in “The Adventure of the Suspect Servant.” Here, she presents one of those tantalizing cases which never made it to print–the little matter Holmes handled for Mrs. Cecil Forrester.*** A cautionary tale of vice’s unintended consequence, it gives Holmes the opportunity to exercise both his deductive skills and his compassion.

The final story, “The Thames Horror,” is my favorite. Derived from actual unsolved cases of the period, it takes Holmes and Watson into the dirty London underbelly they’re used to, and far darker recesses of human nature they’ve yet to encounter. In June of 1889,  Scotland Yard Inspector Alex MacDonald prevails upon Sherlock Holmes to help him discover who has been dropping brown paper packages† containing surgically mutilated body parts into the Thames. Fortunately for the Yard, this killer is neither as public or prolific as Jack the Ripper, who terrorized the city the previous autumn. He seems to be content with one victim per year, so London has been spared the panic and unrest that surrounded those crimes. That could end as soon as some clever journalist connects the dots, however, so a quick solution is essential. Using both traditional methods and the new profiling theories put forth by Police Surgeon Dr. Thomas Bond, Holmes and his comrades track the killer to his deceptively quiet office. I’ll go no further, for fear of spoilers, but if you enjoy shocking moments, you won’t be disappointed.

No matter how you like your Holmes, The Thames Horror has what you’re craving. Ms. Roden seamlessly combines pastiche and canon detail, and her Holmes and Watson remain in character throughout. Those of you who avoid pastiche for fear of the unexpected goofy moment or emotional outburst need not worry. The one exception may be Watson’s retelling of HOUN, but it could be argued that Holmes is eminently reasonable throughout, and typically fearless. It’s the situation itself which is shocking and irrational. Each story has its own atmosphere. “The Things That Shall Come Upon Them” is a creepy puzzle with some moments of dry humor, while “Baskerville” is almost unrelievedly tense. “The Adventure of the Suspect Servant” provides a change of pace; it’s a charming domestic piece which ends with everything right in the world. “The Thames Horror” combines accurate historical and forensic detail with the action, urgency, and melancholy that, for me, marks a truly wonderful pastiche.

Another common complaint of readers who stick strictly to canon is that “no one can tell a Holmes story like Watson.” And that’s true. I would argue that there are writers who can do just as well using their own voices, but I realize that most of you won’t believe me. Unfortunately, Watson seems to be busy enough that he’s left writing behind, and many books purporting to be from his pen patently are not. Ms. Roden, however, has a marvelous “Watson voice,” avoiding all the clutter that frequently crops up when someone tries to imitate 19th century writing. Although she avoids the popular “provenance” story, one has to believe that the author pulled these tales directly from the tin dispatch box.

Many people think it must be easy to write pastiche. After all, someone’s already done the hard part for you; they’ve created the characters, done the world-building, even found an appealing style.  All you have to do is throw in a plot they haven’t thought of (and in Conan Doyle’s case, he’s done a lot of that footwork as well). But it isn’t that simple. Writing pastiche is a bit like walking through someone else’s house blindfolded; it’s awfully easy to stub your toe and break something valuable. With The Thames Horror, Barbara Roden successfully navigates 221B Baker Street, with a five-star result.

The first three stories in The Thames Horror have all previously appeared in other anthologies, while “The Thames Horror is original to this collection.  The book is available as an e-book only. You can purchase it for Kindle on Amazon, or in electronic format (suitable for your Nook or Kobo) directly from the publisher, Calabash Press (ash-tree.bc.ca/calabash).

Star Rating: 5 out of 5 “This is a wonderful book that gets it right.”

Footnotes:

*From “The Sign of Four.” It seems reasonable to assume from the canon that Watson had at least two wives, possibly three. One researcher, Brad Keefauver, claims to have found evidence of six!

**Created by Hesketh V. Hesketh-Prichard (1876-1922), a friend of Conan Doyle’s, Flaxman Low is  the world’s first psychic detective.

*** Mary Morstan served as the Forresters’ governess, and it’s probable Watson held back on this one to protect the privacy of his wife’s friend and former employer.

†Tied up with string, and also mohair boot laces and Venetian blind cord.

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Filed under Barbara Roden, Calabash Press, Collection (Stories by the same author), Crossovers, Five-star reviews, Holmes out of his Element, Supernatural, Traditional

The Lyme Regis Horror, Part 2

My last review was devoted to Ruffle’s novella, “Sherlock Holmes and the Lyme Regis Horror.” However, his book contains plenty more. Let’s have a look, shall we?

Sherlock Holmes asleep/paget

Watson must be talking about cricket again….

Watson is to cricket as George Will is to baseball. For him, the sport is the embodiment of everything that is good about the British Empire: “honour, an inherent sense of duty and fair play,” as he declares in “Horror.” So when famed Australian batsman Victor Trumper shows up at 221B, asking Holmes to look into a kidnapping threat, he’s both shocked and eager to help. “The Trumper Affiar” (previously published as an e-pub on Amazon) is a solid story, written along more traditional lines than “Horror.” Ruffle provides accurate historical details, both in the setting and characters (actual cricket players), and his end notes are a nice touch for history aficionados. Holmes and Watson are also nicely in character and we’re treated to some nice running jokes as Watson continually bores the Great Detective (and occasionally the reader) with lengthy explications of cricket matches, and Holmes finds that the doctor’s novelistic touches have given him some unexpected anonymity. The story is not as atmospheric as “Horror,” but Ruffle performs a very nice sleight-of-hand in concealing the villain, the denouement is darker for its realism, and the ending is quite poignant.

Victor Trumper, safe and sound

Ruffle takes us back to the supernatural in “The Mystery of Loch Ness” and “The Runes Affair.”  In the former, a gruesome death forces the reader to apply Holmes’ famous maxim, “that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” In “The Runes Affair,” three highly nervous paranormal researchers ask Holmes to help them fend off what seems to be an evil author’s attempt to exact vengeance for poor reviews and rejection slips through supernatural means. Holmes and Watson take on the case to assuage the mens’ fears and meet with unexpected results; one has to wonder whether they might have been manipulated into unwittingly carrying out revenge themselves.

Other stories have a supernatural bent as well. Set in more modern times (the 1930’s and the recent past, respectively), “Forever 1895” and “A Lyme Ghost Story” suggest that Holmes dislikes partiers and inappropriate over night guests, but has a soft spot for pastiche writers. “Timeless in Lyme” is not about phantoms…at least from one perspective.  In each of these pieces, Ruffle mixes past and present with the deft touch essential for a satisfying ghost tale.

Christmas is another favorite topic. In “Christmas at Baker Street,” Holmes explains to Watson the very best reasons for refusing a knighthood. He exposes even more of his heart in the incredibly charming “Henrietta’s Problem,” giving credence to Jeremy Brett’s view that “Holmes loved children.” My personal favorite in this collection, however, is “Christmas with Holmes,” which has an aging Holmes and Watson spending the holiday together in Sussex in 1916.  The end scene is beautiful and while I realized, upon a third reading, that it could have a darker interpretation, I’ll go with my first, sad-but-fitting one. Ruffle ends the book with a lovely poem dedicated to his son, Duncan.

So, my final conclusion? Sherlock Holmes and the Lyme Regis Horror is a well-written collection with “the charm of variety,” deserving of a place on your bookshelf or in your e-reader. I look forward to reading more of Ruffle’s work.

Sherlock Holmes and The Lyme Regis Horror is available from major online booksellers, and is offered on Kindle. “The Trumper Affair” is available as a solo work on Kindle as well. You can also buy the book directly from MX Publishing, or from independent bookstores such as Poisoned Pen.

Star Rating: 4 out of 5

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Filed under Collection (Stories by the same author), David Ruffle, Four-star reviews, Holidays, Supernatural, Traditional, Uncategorized