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.”
*”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.