A month before Halloween, the members of The Edge of Reading got together to discuss what book we should read for our late October meeting. Something scary, we all agreed…but not too scary, we quickly amended. None of us were especially interested in reading a horror story – we wanted to be mildly spooked, not hiding under the duvet, shrieking at shadows, quaking in our boots petrified.
What were we looking for in a spooky read? We tossed around a few ideas: ‘Dracula’? (Most of us had read it at uni.) ‘Frankenstein’? (Ditto.) Something by Stephen King? (Too scary!) Then someone suggested ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ by Arthur Conan Doyle. As a Sherlock Holmes fan I was instantly on board. ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ is one of the Sherlock Holmes stories that I had always meant to read but hadn’t quite got around to yet. The majority of the group felt similarly, and so with our book chosen, we agreed to meet on the 29th of October.
Choosing the novel for our Halloween read meant that there were a lot of expectations for it to meet. There needed to be:
• A spooky environment – the Baskerville estate and surrounding moorland definitely ticked that box.
• A suspicious death – Sir Charles Baskerville’s death is at the centre of the novel’s plot. Was he just an old man with an overactive imagination and a dodgy heart, or were there other forces at work?
• A manifestation of evil – this comes in the form of the hellhound rumoured to haunt the Baskerville men, punishing them for the terrible deeds that their ancestor Hugo Baskerville committed.
• A mystery – who or what killed Sir Charles Baskerville? Who sent the mysterious note made up of cut-out letters from a newspaper, issuing a cryptic warning to ‘keep away from the moor’? Who stole Henry Baskerville’s new boot? And why did they then replace it, only to steal another, older, boot?
• A protagonist determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, regardless of the risk of personal danger – ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ offers us several of these, in the form of Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watson and even Henry Baskerville himself, determined to uncover the truth about the legend that has tormented his family for years, before it can claim his life too.
Dartmoor seems to be the perfect setting for this book. The moors are painted in such a stark and gloomy way that they almost become a character in their own right. It’s easy to imagine the terror that the locals must feel when the howl of an unknown animal reaches their ears from the depths of the moor. For Watson, this nocturnal trepidation is further compounded by the mysterious sobbing of a woman somewhere on the Baskerville estate. The darkness of the moor at night is so consuming that it is easy to believe that it is host to all manner of horrors (and the addition of an escaped murderer lurking within its depths only adds to this impression).
The plot of the book is intriguing, but for me the main draw is the character of Sherlock Holmes and his interactions with those around him, especially with his friend and colleague Dr Watson. Holmes is the perfect mix of wit and condescension (without the hint of cruelty that is occasionally present in the more recent BBC incarnation of Holmes). He has the capacity to downplay his abilities, and often seems to be of the opinion that others could do what he does if they were just willing to pay closer attention to the details available to them. For instance, Watson accuses Holmes of having eyes in the back of his head when he seems to know what Watson is doing, despite not facing him, and Holmes replies, rather drolly: “I have, at least, a well-polished, silver-plated coffee-pot in front of me.” Holmes does have a lot of faith in his abilities but he is fairly subtle in his lauding of them. After he offers a hypothesis to Watson, Watson concludes ‘You may be right’, and Holmes simply replies: ‘The probability lies in that direction.’
Dr Watson is a brave, clever and resourceful man, but it is obvious how much he craves approval from Holmes. We see this when he writes to Holmes about his concern for having let Henry Baskerville leave the house alone:
“I imagined what my feelings would be if I had to return to you and to confess that some misfortune had occurred through my disregard for your instructions. I assure you my cheeks flushed at the very thought.”
Later when he thinks he has solved part of the puzzle he writes: “Congratulate me, my dear Holmes, and tell me that I have not disappointed you as an agent – that you do not regret the confidence which you showed in me.” Watson obviously feels a great deal of pressure to get things right on this case and his relief is clear and deeply-felt once Holmes arrives to relieve him of his responsibilities.
I had already guessed that the unknown man on the moor was Holmes (I have a feeling I’d heard this somewhere else previously) but the part of the book where Watson discovers the hut on the moor and lies in wait to ambush the mystery man was probably my favourite part of the book. I liked that, for once, Watson managed to surprise Holmes.
Another of my favourite parts of the book was Watson’s interaction with Mr Frankland, who was essentially the Victorian equivalent of an Internet troll, inflicting inexplicable frustration on all those around him. He spends his days suing his neighbours purely for his own amusement whilst contradicting himself comically. He explains the events of his day to Watson – he has established a right of way on his neighbour’s land “within a hundred yards of his own front door” so that he can “teach these magnates that they cannot ride roughshod over the rights of the commoners”. And on the same day, and in the same breath, he explains that he has “closed the wood where the Fernworthy folk used to picnic. These infernal people seem to think that there are no rights of property, and that they can swarm where they like.”
But it isn’t just Mr Frankland, all of the background characters in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ are quite well fleshed out, although the female characters have quite limited roles. This book would fail the Bechdel test , although that is unsurprising given the era in which it was written. Beryl Stapleton is a fairly brave character, in that she attempts to impede Mr Stapleton’s nefarious plans even when he becomes violent towards her, which definitely shows courage. It’s just a shame her attempts to warn the other characters of his plans are quite weak and ineffectual.
Overall, I found ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ very entertaining. Although I wasn’t truly scared, I certainly found the idea of a hellhound very creepy and I can imagine that the supernatural elements of the book would seem even more plausible if I were surrounded by the landscape the characters inhabit. I enjoyed the mysteries being unravelled by Holmes, and I appreciated Watson playing a more prominent role in the story than he often does. I was also left with the abounding impression that, if I should ever visit Dartmoor, I would certainly heed the advice passed down through the Baskerville family and “forbear from crossing the moor in those dark hours when the powers of evil are exalted”.
I’m going to give this (3.5 / 5)