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GOTHIC TALES ****
Written by Arthur Conan Doyle. Hardback/Paperback £16.99/£9.99, 592 pages.
Out now from the Oxford University Press.
The fact that Arthur Conan Doyle is a household name nearly a century after his death is a testament to the man's skill as a storyteller. That he remains as well known today is undoubtedly due to his most famous creation Sherlock Holmes, who is as popular today as he has ever been. In recent years alone, we have had the BBC series with its devoted and rabid fanbase of “Cumberbitches”, the Robert Downey Jr. film franchise, the American CBS series Elementary with Jonny Lee Miller and Bill Condon’s interpretation Mr Holmes with Ian McKellen showing the character in his twilight years. These alone have Holmes in four distinct and differing takes showing how adaptable he is to seemingly any period and that his longevity shows no signs of winding down.
Indeed, Holme’s shadow has loomed so large that not even his creator could kill him off. The public outcry after the Reichenbach Falls incident in the story The Final Problem saw to that, much to Doyle’s annoyance. He felt more pride in his other period novels and understandably so as it seems that he is known these days for Holmes alone and not the vast body of work he produced during his life before he died at the age of 71. This nicely presented Oxford University Press edition of Gothic Tales shows that his interests lay not only within the crime genre but that he had a vested interest in the supernatural. Not just in fiction but as an actual part of the everyday world, much to the amusement of the general public at the time. The thirty stories included here, written from 1880 to 1922, highlight his opinions and feelings on these fields. When read chronologically, as presented in this edition, it is fascinating how these interests and views came across in these tales that include such horror staples as vampiric visitors, Arctic ghosts, haunted mirrors and the Mary Celeste.
The introduction and notes, by the book's editor Darryl Jones, helpfully explain the more obscure period details which are scattered throughout the book and where Doyle was at in his life with regards to the wide body of interests that occupied him when he was not writing. The earlier stories protagonists are more often than not young students in boarding houses across the country who find themselves caught up with mysterious women or supernatural events including ancient Egyptian curses or figures. As the book moves on the focus moves on to foreign invaders or lands which sadly highlight the racist overtones not just of the time but through Doyle’s blinkered devotion to British Imperialism and cultural naivety. Africans, African-Americans and Asians are presented as either sinister figures of malice or simple-minded loyal servants to the superior white man. Nowhere is this more apparent than the language used in The Fiend of the Cooperage.
Jones highlights how spiritualism came to dominate Doyle’s life in his day to day activities and this is reflected in these stories as they become more and more supernatural in tone and intent. As his imagery becomes more haunting, dreamlike and as much as an author could in the early days of the twentieth century, the violence comes more and more to the foreground. The Leather Funnel not only employs psychometry but then details a disturbing torture sequence that would not be out of place in a Jess Franco film. The final story, The Lift, is a straight-up suspense story with a religious madman as its villain holding sway over innocents trapped in a lift on the Blackpool Tower. Such madness and random violence were more and more commonplace in the early twentieth century, especially after The Great War and influenza epidemic, both of which affected Doyle personally due to the loss of family members.
While time may have dulled some of the edges and surprises in these stories they are always enjoyable and make for a great read on a cold winters night.
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