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…
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….