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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

Ruffle, David. Sherlock Holmes and the Lyme Regis Horror. (Expanded 2nd ed.) London: MX Publishing, 2011.

The Harbor and the Cobb

January is a time for new beginnings. This book experienced a rebirth of sorts late last year, going from a well-received self-published story to a revised and expanded edition with the Holmesian publisher, MX, complete with a gorgeous new cover. The first edition cover features a view of the sea at either sunrise or sunset. It’s  pretty, but not exactly evocative of the word “horror” (although, come to think of it, the contrast does bring to mind Holmes’ particular view of beautiful scenery).* The new cover, done in rich browns, looks like the negative of a sepia photograph, and is fittingly ominous without being over-the-top. The lettering is lovely, calling to mind age, sand, and…dust?
The contents, however, are ultimately what matters, and Mr. Ruffle manages to fit quite a bit into 265 pages. So much content, in fact, that in the interest of brevity, I’m dividing this review into two parts:  “The Lyme Regis Horror,” and the other, shorter stories.
“Sherlock Holmes and the Lyme Regis Horror” begins, not surprisingly, with a provenance story. You know how people who are not you are always finding exciting things in their old houses? Instead of mouldy utility bills and smelly polyester, Mr. Ruffle found the literary Holy Grail in the walls of his Lyme Regis home: a Watson manuscript.  Although his attempts to authenticate it remain inconclusive, he’s nice enough to share it with us.
Like most stories Watson thought best to hide in dispatch boxes or walls,  this one has sensational elements. And, like most of his tales, it starts quietly enough, with Watson boring Holmes with cricket, worries about the morocco case, an invitation from an old school friend/teammate and, finally, the doctor convincing his friend to accompany him on a brief holiday to Lyme Regis. Watson, of course, is eager for sea air, good friends, and relaxation. Holmes is tempted by an exhibition on paleontologist and Dean of Westminster, William Buckland; fossil-hunting, and his favorite pet project, using local dialect to connect people in the southern sea-faring regions of Britain to Phoenician traders.**  As they get off the train at Axminster, neither has any idea his world is about to be emotionally and spiritually upended.
Watson is shaken first, when the landlady of their boarding house turns out to be the very image of his late wife, Mary. Beatrice Heidler, widowed by the Boer War, is focused on her teenaged son, Nathaniel, and has never considered  remarriage. The attraction between the two is instant, however. Their courtship is realistically tentative, and we get to see why Watson is such an appealing suitor.***
Holmes, of course, has other interests. Despite his professed enthusiasm for ancient worlds, he must be harboring some fears of ennui, because once Watson’s friend Dr. Jacobs mentions “most curious events,” he’s on it like a pitbull and won’t let go until Jacobs describes them and “omits no detail.” The events (without  details) are these:
  • A mysterious schooner appears during a storm (some believe it brought the storm with it). There’s no evidence of a crew and by the morning it has vanished, leaving behind three boxes of earth. These are later claimed by a Count Orlana, who is staying at Haye Manor. Said manor belongs to Sir Peter Rattenbury, an expert in Eastern Europe, currently away in Italy.
  • The “Black Dog of Lyme” has been seen recently, both in its traditional haunt of Haye Lane, and throughout Lyme Regis.
  • 18 year-old Rose Hannington, patient of another area doctor, has recently died of a wasting illness, possibly an exotic anaemia, yet has been seen, apparently quite solid, in the cemetery and near her family home.
Within 36 hours, Dr. Jacobs calls on our friends to examine a body on the beach, Rose’s cousin Elizabeth takes ill,  and we are off to the races.
Holmes and Watson may not know what’s going on, but by this time, the reader certainly does (if you don’t, consider this a spoiler warning). The only mystery left is whether or not Ruffle can put his own twist on a match-up which has been done countless times in the pastiche universe.
I was dubious, I’ll admit.  And vampires don’t particularly scare me, so I wondered how Ruffle would keep me in the story. The answer lies in his ability to put across the challenge this villain poses to the heroes’ views of the world and the evil it contains. This is not someone to turn over to the police, to send away to Australia, pardon de facto, or deliver to Divine Justice through shipwreck. This is Moriarty redux, with the disturbing difference that they can’t have been the only men in 500 hundred years to have taken him to the ledge.
“The Lyme Regis Horror” begins sedately enough.  Ruffle knows Holmes and Watson very well; canon devotees will find plenty of insider references and familiar-sounding (though not verbatim) phrases. The Watsonian voice is decently done and witty; Ruffle stays in his narrator’s head the entire time. Holmes is mellower than he is often portrayed, particularly when he quickly catches on to Watson’s fascination with Mrs. Heidler; perhaps his experience with Watson’s first (second? twelfth?) marriage has assured him that he will not be displaced. He also seems to know more about Jane Austen than one would suspect of a man who sneers at softer emotions. On another interesting note, Holmes (using his impossible/improbable line of reasoning) is convinced early on that the culprit is supernatural, while the two physicians take some convincing. I never felt, however, that either Holmes or Watson was veering out of character.
One of Ruffle’s great strengths is his ear for dialogue; it rarely rings false, and is often quite funny such as when   Watson informs Mrs. Jacobs that his writing is not for children, or the Inspector advises everyone not to “quibble with small details.”  If a little too much time is spent delineating incidents in local history which don’t relate to the plot, it can be forgiven; Watson does like travel guides.
When it’s time to bring the suspense, Ruffle delivers as well. The atmosphere changes perceptibly when Sarah Jacobs opens the door to the Count. The following confrontation is electrifying, and reminds the reader that Holmes is truly master of the “and the horse you came in on” speech. The feeling of dread continues as Holmes, Watson, and Jacobs ready themselves for battle; they don’t know whether or not they’re coming back, and neither do we. In fact, as they walk towards the manor in dark of early morning, Ruffle’s description is so skillful, the chills are palpable.
Ruffle’s ability as a writer is, finally, evident in his deceptively simple denouement. In it, he takes up a thread I had thought dangling and superfluous, using it to pull the physical and emotional parts of the story together. I won’t divulge any more except to say that, as a writer, I admired the skill with which he accomplished this, and found myself thinking about it all day.
As a writer, reader, and reviewer, I have learned not to disparage self-published work. Sure, Mr. Ruffle is now working with an accepted publisher;  remember, however, he first published “Horror” on his own. It’s a perfect example of how one should never be afraid to take a chance on an unknown. You’ll often be glad you did.
*Holmes famously said, “…the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” (COPP)
**It may sound silly. However, the ancient Greek geographer Strabo mentions that the Phoenicians traded in tin brought from Britain.
***He tells her “the laundry can take care of itself.” Who doesn’t love a man like that?
Sherlock Holmes and the Lyme Regis Horror is available on Amazon and other online bookstores. You can buy it in a Kindle version, but not for Nook.  It can also be purchased directly from MX Publishing, or from independent bookstores, such as The 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, MX Publishing, Supernatural