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….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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.
***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: