Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Classic Ghost Story Writers: Arthur Conan Doyle

Towards the end of his life, the vogue of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was still such that it made good commercial sense to collect his works in convenient omnibus form. First of all (of course) came Sherlock Holmes, with one volume (1928) for the five volumes of short stories and another (1929) for the four novels.

Next came the collected short stories (1929), then two volumes of 'historical romances' (1931 & 1932). Long after that, in the 1950s, came the Professor Challenger stories (The Lost World and its successors) and even an omnibus of Napoleonic Stories (though the latter overlaps considerably with the second volume of historical romances) - seven books in all, then, containing 16 novels and at least 11 volumes of short stories.

Arthur Conan Doyle: The Sherlock Holmes Short Stories (1928)

Sherlock Holmes was a rationalist, concerned only with what could be scientifically proven and deduced from the evidence. His creator was anything but. I've written elsewhere (here and here) about Charles Sturridge's wonderful film Fairy Tale (1997), which retells the strange story of the Cottingley Fairies.

Peter O'Toole does an excellent job of impersonating the distinctly credulous but still (paradoxically) occasionally astute Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It becomes clear in the course of the action that it was the loss of his son Kingsley in the First World War - he died of influenza caught at the front two weeks before the armistice - that compels Doyle to continue his quest for communication beyond the veil.

This monstrous pall of loss hanging over the whole western world does explain, to some extent, the post-war growth of interest in spiritualism. The hitherto widely respected physicist Sir Oliver Lodge's book Raymond, or Life and Death (1916), about the séances he held to contact his own dead son, had an immense influence over other grieving parents, and Doyle gradually became their spokesman and standard-bearer.

Arthur Conan Doyle: The Land of Mist (1925-26)

Even the hard-headed Professor Challenger, the dinosaur hunter of The Lost World (1912), was pressed into service as a psychic investigator in Doyle's late novel The Land of Mist (1926). Sherlock Holmes must be said to have had a narrow escape in not being conscripted similarly - even in The Hound of Baskervilles, where all the spectral appearances turn out to have a distinctly rational explanation.

Arthur Conan Doyle: "The Story of the Brown Hand" (1899)

It's not really those stories I want to discuss here, though. It's the ones collected in those two sections of The Conan Doyle Stories entitled "Tales of Terror & Mystery" and "Tales of Twilight & the Unseen." These include such frequently anthologised classics as "The Brown Hand" and "The Brazilian Cat."

Arthur Conan Doyle: "The Story of the Brazilian Cat" (1898)

A great many of the others are equally memorable, though. For the most part they predate the period of his full-fledged involvement with Spiritualism, but it was already plain that he already had a strong affinity with the supernatural and mystical. Two stories that made a particular impression on me when I first read them as a boy were "The Terror of Blue John Gap" and "The Leather Funnel."

Arthur Conan Doyle: "The Terror of Blue John Gap" (1910)

The first of these is somewhat reminiscent of H. P. Lovecraft's early story "The Beast in the Cave," written in 1904 (though not published until 1918). The fourteen-year-old Lovecraft could certainly not yet match the storytelling prowess of the immensely experienced Conan Doyle, but a comparison of the stories does offer some interesting reflections on what two different writers can do with not dissimilar material.

Arthur Conan Doyle: "The Leather Funnel" (1902)

"The Leather Funnel," by contrast, with its interest in psychometry and the sadistic excesses of the Inquisition, has an atmosphere of sadistic sexuality quite alien to Lovecraft but clearly quite attractive to Doyle.

[NB: It's worth stressing here the availability of these and other works by Doyle on the wonderfully comprehensive Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia website. You can find there both the texts and contemporary illustrations for all of the stories mentioned in this post.]

Arthur Conan Doyle: "Lot No. 249" (1892)

What else? There's a wonderfully vivid Egyptian-mummy-coming-to-life story in "Lot No. 249" - which predates by a decade Bram Stoker's classic Jewel of Seven Stars (1903). Nor did Doyle avoid conventional 'occultism' in his earlier stories. There's also a striking account of a séance going terribly wrong in "Playing with Fire," and a nice piece of automatic writing in "How It Happened" (1913).

Need I go on? Doyle is, I think, at his best as a ghost story writer when he can combine aspects of his fascination with historical detail with nasty doings in the present. This is certainly the case in "The Leather Funnel," and also in "The New Catacomb" (1898), a neat variation on Poe's "Cask of Amontillado."

Not all of his work in this genre is included in the 1200 pages of The Conan Doyle Stories, however. A useful round-up of his unknown and uncollected pieces is provided by the late Richard Lancelyn Green's excellent The Unknown Conan Doyle: Uncollected Stories.

Uncollected Stories. Ed. John Michael Gibson & Richard Lancelyn Green (1982)

If it's Doyle's occultism that really interests you, though, you could do worse than try to find the recent (2013) Hesperus Press volume On the Unexplained, a selection from his late collection The Edge of the Unknown.

Arthur Conan Doyle: The Edge of the Unknown (1930)

Arthur Conan Doyle (1914)

Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle


  1. The Complete Sherlock Holmes Long Stories. 1929. London: John Murray, 1949.
    1. A Study in Scarlet (1887)
    2. The Sign of the Four (1890)
    3. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)
    4. The Valley of Fear (1915)

  2. The Conan Doyle Historical Romances. Volume 1 of 2. London: John Murray, 1931.
    1. Micah Clarke (1889)
    2. The White Company (1891)
    3. The Refugees (1893)
    4. Sir Nigel (1906)

  3. The Mystery of Cloomber (1889)

  4. The Firm of Girdlestone (1890)

  5. Mysteries and Adventures (1890) [short stories]

  6. The Captain of the Polestar and Other Tales. 1890. London & New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1893. [short stories]

  7. The Doings of Raffles Haw (1891)

  8. The Complete Sherlock Holmes Short Stories. 1928. London: John Murray, 1949.
    1. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
    2. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894)
    3. The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905)
    4. His Last Bow (1917)
    5. The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927)

  9. The Complete Napoleonic Stories. London: John Murray, 1956.
    1. The Great Shadow (1892)
    2. The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard (1896)
    3. Uncle Bernac (1897)
    4. The Adventures of Gerard (1903)

  10. The Gully of Bluemansdyke (1893) [short stories]

  11. The Parasite (1894)

  12. Round the Red Lamp: Being Facts and Fancies of Medical Life (1894) [short stories]

  13. The Stark Munro Letters (1895)

  14. The Conan Doyle Historical Romances. Volume 2 of 2. London: John Murray, 1932.
    1. The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard (1896)
    2. Rodney Stone (1896)
    3. Uncle Bernac (1897)
    4. The Adventures of Gerard (1903)

  15. The Original Illustrated Arthur Conan Doyle. Castle Books. Secausus, New Jersey: Book Sales, Inc., 1980.
    1. The Tragedy of the Korosko (1898)

  16. A Duet, with an Occasional Chorus (1899)

  17. The Green Flag and Other Stories of War and Sport (1900) [short stories]

  18. Round the Fire Stories (1908) [short stories]

  19. The Last Galley (1911) [short stories]

  20. The Complete Professor Challenger Stories. 1952. London: John Murray, 1963.
    1. The Lost World (1912)
    2. The Poison Belt (1913)
    3. The Land of Mist (1926)
    4. "The Disintegration Machine" (1928)
    5. "When the World Screamed" (1929)

  21. Danger! and Other Stories (1918) [short stories]

  22. Three of Them (1923) [short stories]

  23. The Conan Doyle Stories. 1929. London: John Murray, 1951.
    1. Tales of the Ring & the Camp
    2. Tales of Pirates & Blue Water
    3. Tales of Terror & Mystery
    4. Tales of Twilight & the Unseen
    5. Tales of Adventure & Medical Life
    6. Tales of Long Ago

  24. The Maracot Deep. 1929. London: John Murray, 1961.

  25. The Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Four Novels and the Fifty-Six Short Stories Complete, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Ed. William S. Baring-Gould. 2 vols. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1967.

  26. The Unknown Conan Doyle: Uncollected Stories. Ed. John Michael Gibson and Richard Lancelyn Green. 1982. London: Secker & Warburg, 1983.

  27. The Uncollected Sherlock Holmes. Ed. Richard Lancelyn Green. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.

  28. A Study in Scarlet: Based on the Story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A Sherlock Holmes Murder Mystery. 1887. Webb & Bower (Publishers) Limited. 1983. London: Peerage Books, 1985.

  29. The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: After Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Ed. Richard Lancelyn Green. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.

  30. The Original Illustrated 'Strand' Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Facsimile Edition. 1989. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd., 1990.

  31. The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. Vol. 1: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes & The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Ed. Leslie S. Klinger. New York & London: W. W. Norton, 2005.

  32. The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. Vol. 2: The Return of Sherlock Holmes, His Last Bow & The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. Ed. Leslie S. Klinger. New York & London: W. W. Norton, 2005.

  33. The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. Vol. 3: A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles & The Valley of Fear. Ed. Leslie S. Klinger. New York & London: W. W. Norton, 2006.

  34. Poetry:

  35. Songs of Action (1898)

  36. Songs of the Road (1911)

  37. The Guards Came Through, and Other Poems (1919)

  38. The Poems: Collected Edition. 1922. London: John Murray, 1928.

  39. Non-fiction:

  40. The Great Boer War (1900)

  41. The War in South Africa – Its Cause and Conduct (1902)

  42. Through the Magic Door (1907)

  43. The Crime of the Congo (1909)

  44. The Case of Oscar Slater (1912)

  45. The German War: Some Sidelights and Reflections (1914)

  46. A Visit to Three Fronts (1916)

  47. The British Campaign in France and Flanders. 6 vols (1916–20)

  48. Memories and Adventures (1924)

  49. Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure (2012)

  50. Spiritualism:

  51. The New Revelation (1918)

  52. A Full Report of a Lecture on Spiritualism Delivered by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at the Connaught Hall, Worthing on Friday July 11th 1919 (1919)

  53. The Vital Message (1919)

  54. Our reply to the Cleric: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Lecture in Leicester, October 19th 1919 (1920)

  55. Spiritualism and Rationalism (1920)

  56. Verbatim Report of a Public Debate on 'The Truth of Spiritualism' between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Joseph McCabe (1920)

  57. The Wanderings of a Spiritualist (1921)

  58. The Coming of the Fairies (1922)

  59. The Case for Spirit Photography (1922)

  60. Our American Adventure (1923)

  61. Our Second American Adventure (1924)

  62. The Spiritualist's Reader (1924)

  63. The Early Christian Church and Modern Spiritualism (1925)

  64. Psychic Experiences (1925)

  65. The History of Spiritualism (1926)

  66. Pheneas Speaks (1927)

  67. A Word of Warning (1928)

  68. What Does Spiritualism Actually Teach and Stand For? (1928)

  69. The Roman Catholic Church: A Rejoinder (1929)

  70. An Open Letter to Those of My Generation (1929)

  71. Our African Winter (1929)

  72. The Edge of the Unknown (1930)
    • On the Unexplained. London: Hesperus Press Limited, 2013.

  73. The New Revelation (1997)

  74. Secondary:

  75. Baker, Michael. The Doyle Diary: The Last Great Conan Doyle Mystery. With a Holmesian Investigation into the Strange and Curious Case of Charles Altamont Doyle. London: Book Club Associates, 1978.

  76. Baring-Gould, William S. Sherlock Holmes: A Life of the World’s First Consulting Detective. 1962. London: Panther, 1975.

  77. Carr, John Dickson. The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 1949. London: Pan Books, 1953.

  78. Edwards, Owen Dudley. The Quest for Sherlock Holmes: A Biographical Study of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 1983. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.

  79. Meyer, Nicholas. The Seven Per Cent Solution: Being a Reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D.. 1974. Coronet Books. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1975.

  80. Nordon, Pierre. Conan Doyle. 1964. Trans. Frances Partridge. London: John Murray, 1966.

  81. Pearson, Hesketh. Conan Doyle: His Life and Art. 1943. Guild Books, 224. London: The British Publishers Guild, 1946.

  82. Starrett, Vincent. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. 1960. Introduction by Michael Murphy. New York: Pinnacle Books, 1975.

  83. Tracy, Jack. The Encyclopaedia Sherlockiana or, A Universal Dictionary of the State of Knowledge of Sherlock Holmes and His Biographer, John H. Watson, M.D. 1977. New York: Avon, 1979.

Leslie S. Klinger, ed. The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes (3 vols: 2005-6)


Roger Allen said...

"it was the loss of his son Kingsley in the First World War - he died of influenza caught at the front two weeks before the armistice - that compels Doyle to continue his quest for communication beyond the veil."
It's interesting that Kipling - a much greater artist than Doyle - contemptuously rejected that carrion comfort in "The Road to Endor", but wrote stories that treated war loss much more directly, as he had done before after his first daughter's death.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Yes, I think it would be fair to say that the film rather over-simplifies things in this respect, though. Doyle was already interested in Spiritualism well before the war, though most of his publications in the field date from afterwards.

Though he did denounce the false comfort given by mediums in "The Road to En-dor," it's interesting just how much of Kipling's fiction is concerned with ghosts and the supernatural: "Wireless," "The House-Surgeon," "They" - even "The Brushwood Boy." Certainly neither he nor his wife Carrie ever got over their son's death.