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The Curious Incident of the Hound in the Night-Time

Thoughts on The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

‘You ain’t nothing but a hound-dog, cryin’ all the time…’

Elvis Presley, Hound Dog, recorded 1956, written by Lieber & Stoller

As with so much in life, Elvis cuts straight to the point.

My first thought upon sitting down to review this Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, serialized 1901-1902, was not of Watson, Holmes, Sir Henry or any other human character in the book, but in fact of the Hound.

The titular dog (which I personally picture as some sort of oversized mastiff gone mad) is a truly fantastic gothic literary device, serving as the ‘ravenous beast’ that terrorizes the people of the rural area of Dartmoor which surrounds Baskerville Hall. In the same way that myths of a hideous and hungry monster living in a nearby forest might have circulated through villages and campfires ‘back in the day’ (so to speak), this hound is the figurehead on which all the horror of the novel is centered. Take, for example, the most oft quoted sentence and climax of the first ‘act’ of the novel, uttered by Dr Mortimer:

“Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”

All this drama- and just for footprints! The presence of the animal itself is not necessary, even, to stir unease within a reader. This suggestion of, and then focus on a figure of horror, especially when also featured in the title of the work (‘The Monk’, ‘Dracula’ etc), is a standard and effective feature of Gothic storytelling. In fact, it is almost an authorial standard recipe for increasing the fear factor of your ‘beast’- introduce the possibility of a supernatural threat, strengthen the evidence for its existence, then produce it at a suitably theatrical peak for maximum horror. However, rarely is it done in such a short space, with such good effect, without their actually being a supernatural component to the threat- the mark of quality writing, I feel.

The backdrop effect of the almost medieval setting of the Hall is remarkable in itself. Set in isolation, with few servants, and all the creepy horror paraphernalia weather and location can produce for atmosphere (including fogs, mists, swamps, deep dark nights, significant amount of moon presence/absence, and of course the chilling baying of the hound on the hunt…) these important items increase the ‘dread’ factor of the story, and support the heroic qualities of Watson and Holmes in tackling the mystery. The chills and sense of creeping threat gained from the inclusion of these in the work cannot be undervalued, especially when the threat of the hound is most strongly present in the story, boosting the urgency and driving the plot, as the mystery must be solved before Sir Henry is literally killed by the unknown.

My favourite passage from the book, in fact, begins when a dark and foggy evening descends across Dartmoor. While Holmes and Watson stake out Merripit House, Sir Henry leaves a friendly dinner, not aware that while he walks, the vile character Stapleton has unleashed the hound! What a great moment of transformation from normality to gothic horror…

Imagine- you’re stumbling, slightly tipsy, home across the dark fields at night, warm and cosy from dinner. Finally you’ve had a night off from thinking about murder, and time to relax! It’s a misty night, and you just bumble along, full of food and warm thoughts. Perhaps you have a small lamp or torchlight to see where to put your feet (watching out for the quicksand, you see), but it barely shines a meter ahead of you. Then, startling, in the distance (or is it closer?) a mournful howl… Creeping fear of the predator sets in. It’s baying at the moon, demanding blood, and then- only then- does the cold dark creep in across the miles of empty moorland and surround you, along with the knowledge that wherever it is, it’s coming for you…

Eeek!

You’ll have to read the story for yourself to find out what happens and feel the truly spine-tingling aspects of this book…

Perhaps my only criticism would be that the mystery is too easily solved, shortening the suspense earlier than necessary. However, this is after all a mystery novel of the Great Detective, and not in fact, an Ann Radcliffe gothic novel, and so perhaps better suited to those who like a touch of horror with their mystery, rather than vice versa. However, it is worth noting also that this is one of the stories which shows Conan-Doyle’s interest in the supernatural, and as such may be a reflection of his interest in (and eventual adoption of) Spiritualism, which is recorded significantly in another novel called ‘The Land of Mist’ which I thoroughly recommend to anyone who enjoys a good ghost story.

All in all, having re-read and enjoyed this book, I can definitively confirm that Holmes and Watson are far braver than I. Call me overly imaginative, but I would most certainly not walk the moors at night….

The Hound of the Baskervilles – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

thbask

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 Stars (3.5 / 5)

Spooky Read: Hound of the Baskervilles

hound of the baskervilles

What better way to celebrate Halloween than to discuss the classic tale of a monstrous beast roaming the moors, terrorising all in its path, eating people (and, I expect, the odd sheep)? *

Because we were all rather pathetic at the start of October, we we will also talk about The Importance Of Being Blithe. Because it is important to be blithe. And bonny.

When: Tuesday 29th October, 18:30
Where: The Jam Factory

* the management takes no responsibility for nightmares caused by reading of Sherlock’s** adventures on Dartmoor.

** the management will not hold it against you if you decide to picture Benedict Cumberbatch in the role. Or Robert Downey Jr. if that’s what’s floats your boat. We are all human, after all.