Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tales of Unease- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

As a child, I knew that when a bunch of well-educated men in old-fashioned dress got together in their 'club' (whatever that was) and started to tell tall tales around a great warm hearth, there were only two ways in which things could pan out- they would inevitable end up (a) somewhere exotic, such as jungle or a desert, or (b) in a haunted house. In either case, an adventure would ensue. Of course, no women would be present during it, for they are troublesome, meddling creatures. Such is what comes of consuming the Right Sort of Literature.

Eventually, I discovered that the particular time and place during which these adventures usually seemed to occur was Britain, about one hundred years ago, and that the reason these educated, civilized men so often wound up in wild countries was that they, in fact, owned them. Ah. And so, as night follows day, as the training-montage-scene must follow the inspirational-speech-scene, my interest in tales of adventure and the supernatural led to an interest in the age of imperialism. But what has all this got to do with the creator of Sherlock Holmes?

Tales of Unease is a collection of Doyle's non-Baker St related stories, and wouldn't you know it, it turns out to be a veritable taproot of the archetypes I mentioned above. These stories are set in a world where upper-class twits (sorry, Brits) discover ghostly goings-on in every drawing-room and college dormitory (Oxford, naturally). I've aired my grievances over Doyle's use of spiritualism in fiction before, but in this collection he gets the balance just right. His characters, though mostly Mary-Sue type author inserts, are not fools and require about as much convincing as you or I would that something supernatural is truly afoot. This adds to the mood Doyle is attempting to create with these stories- the feeling that the world is a much stranger place that we had ever dreamed, and that we are on the brink of some great, if uncomfortable, realization. Of course, most of this will take the form of tables banging in dark rooms during seances, but you can't have everything, right?

One thing you can have though, is mummies. Plenty of 'em. In classic tales such as The Ring of Thoth and Lot 249, Doyle appears to have contributed to the then-growing idea of Egyptian curses and mysticism. These stories in particular appear to have been among the first to introduce the elements of immortality, reincarnation and lost love to the mummy cycle. Lot 249 in particular is one of the most enjoyably creepy shorts in this collection. There's little doubt that these stories influenced most of the ideas regarding Egyptian mysticism that followed, climaxing with the 'real-life' curse of Tutankhamun in 1922, as well as the 1932 Karloff movie.

Special mention must go to The Captain of the Polestar, in which the crew of a whaling ship in the frozen north begin to see strange things out on the ice. Here, Doyle is drawing on his own experiences of being ships' doctor on a whaler, and the resulting images of the endless white desert are indeed haunting. It's a great example of 'less is more'- knowing that whatever is in the readers' imagination is surely more wondrous than whatever he can provide in the narrative, the author plays it subtle with this one.

Special mentions also to The Horror of the Heights, for being the best (and only) damn story ever written about the possibility of giant sky-jellyfish living in our upper atmosphere. 'Aeroplaning' had only been around for less than twenty years when the story was written (1913). Doyle makes it seem almost reasonable-

'A visitor might descend upon this planet a thousand times and never see a tiger. Yet tigers exist, and if he chanced to come down into a jungle, he might be devoured. There are jungles of the upper air, and there are worse things than tigers that inhabit them..."

It's the kind of open-ended 'anything's possible' logic that Charles Fort would be proud of, but it does allow for a thrilling adventure. (This story in particular has always stuck with me, and I used the idea in my comic Laissez-Faire. Click here to read it!)

As for the rest, well they're a mixed bag, including some downright failures (there's something about a prehistoric cave-dwelling bear-creature wandering around South Kensington that just isn't scary). But there are plenty of Victorian-age novelties scattered throughout to tide the jaded reader over. Egyptians are mysterious, Turks are inscrutable and at every turn doughty and fearless (but modest)Englishmen swallow their fear in order to confront the strange mysteries that lie just beyond the veil. Even in the most horrific of circumstances-

'-there lies deep in every man a rooted self-respect which makes it hard for him to turn back from what he has once undertaken.'

In every man? I sure hope so!

Actually, though this kind of bluff claptrap is common among Victorian fictional heroes, Doyle might just actually have meant it. The man did attempt to enlist as a private in the British army during the Boer War (when he was 40) and again during the Great War (when he was 54!). He does seem like a chap who practiced what he preached.

As is well known by fans of genre fiction, Doyle rather hoped that he'd be remembered for stories that did not involve cocaine and violin-playing. Though not famous for it today, he was as good at constructing a genuinely creepy 19th-century ghost story as any more famous names you may care to mention. And of course, there's nary the rustle of a petticoat in the whole thing, as H. R. Haggard might say. At least, not the petticoat of a living woman. Muster up some of that late-Victorian can-do attitude and track down Tales of Unease.

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