Tales of Unease

David Stuart Davies explores the dark fiction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 – 1930) was a master storyteller who always had a penchant for including mysterious, frightening and sometimes cruel elements in his fiction. Even in his Sherlock Holmes stories there were some very dark moments, but it was with his fantasy fiction – his tales of unease as this collection refers to them – that he let his bleak and chilling propensities have their full rein. These twilight excursions allowed the author’s vivid mind-set to provide stories which were strange, grotesque and often very frightening. His narratives are almost cinematic in their depiction of unsettling scenes and images which stimulate the reader’s imagination.

The first story in the collection, ‘The Ring of Thoth’ (1890) is particularly fascinating. It initiates the myth of the mummy that lives on after death. In the story, the ancient Egyptian, Sosra, by magical means, has achieved everlasting life. For him it is a curse which has prevented his dying thus allowing him to be reunited with his great love, Atma.  These elements became the essential ingredients in the plot of the 1932 movie The Mummy, which featured a desiccated Boris Karloff in the title role. This Universal production was a great success and spawned numerous mummy pictures by the same studio through the thirties and forties. Hammer Films continued to produce similar sagas in the fifties and sixties. Doyle was never credited with being the inspiration for this horror cycle, but one only has to read this tale to note the startling similarities.

There are a number of excellent ghost stories in this volume and to my mind perhaps the best is ‘Lot 249’ (1894). This has all the style of substance of a tale by M. R. James and yet it was written before James had published any of his ghost stories.  Doyle takes his time to create a growing sense of horror and unreality and, as with James, it is not what he describes that brings a sense of unease but what he does not describe, allowing  the reader’s engaged imagination to enhance the misty images that the writer presents:

‘Smith knew that his neighbour had no dog. He knew, also, that the step, which he had heard upon the stairs, was not the step of an animal. But if it were not, then what could it be?’

On reading this story Rudyard Kipling said that it had given him a nightmare for the first time in years.

One of the most unusual of the stories and one that has become a classic spooky yarn is ‘The Captain of the Polestar’ (1883).  There is a thin thread of autobiography in this tale for in writing it the author was recalling details from his own experiences on a whale-hunting journey to the Arctic in 1880. The experience of seven months at sea in the cold waters of this strange inhospitable part of the world remained a vivid memory all his life. The story is related in a neutral detached fashion that cleverly enhances the creeping horror we experience as events unfold slowly. The beauty of this tale lies in what Doyle referred to as the ‘other-world feeing’ of the setting and the gradual atmospheric build up leading to the inevitable climax – a climax that renders the tale eerily incomplete. The denouement, which has echoes of the climax of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818), is as chilling as its Arctic backdrop.

Some of these stories could be regarded as resting on the borders of horror and science fiction. The author blends both genres to explore new worlds – worlds which lie outside normal human exploration. One such tale is ‘The Horror of the Heights’ (1913), which is tantalisingly presented as an incomplete fragment from a manuscript penned by Joyce-Armstrong. We are taken to the unseen and dangerous world that lies out of sight high in the air. ‘The ‘blood soaked note-book’ tells of strange sky-bound monsters lurking in the clouds at forty-one thousand feet – a height unattainable by any aircraft at the time the story was written. Joyce-Armstrong, whom Doyle calls ‘an aeronaut’, takes his aeroplane to ‘the edge of the earth’s envelope’ to do battle in the aerial ‘jungle’.

There is a monster, too, in ‘The Terror of the Blue John Gap’ (1910) but this time it is a terrestrial beast. This story considers the possibility of an undiscovered creature that lurks beneath the earth. A strange footprint is found in a Roman tunnel where a monstrous being reputedly dwells. Here Doyle is playing with our fear of and fascination for large legendary beasts. The twentieth century is full of accounts of such creatures such as Big Foot, the Abominable Snowman and the Loch Ness Monster.

I mentioned earlier that Doyle could introduce strong elements of cruelty into his stories and certainly this is the case in ‘The Brazilian Cat’ (1908) and more particularly ‘The Case of Lady Sannox’ (1893). It could be said of the latter tale that it is as though the author was pouring all his repressed hatred, frustration and anger at what he regarded as the weakness of human behaviour, wreaking havoc on the lives of his fictional characters as a kind of therapy. The effect is most unsettling.

Despite the fact that all these stories were written over a hundred years ago, they have lost none of their power to create that sense of unease in the reader in a very powerful way. There is always a feeling of uncertainty for both the reader and the central characters. By its very nature his vague apprehension makes us edgy, nervous and filled with a sense of dread. In some of the narratives, Doyle adds a further frisson by not ending our uncertainty. In fact, he prolongs it and extends it beyond the confines of the fiction we have just read. You have been warned.

Image: The Ibis-headed Egyptian God Thoth in a relief portrait at the Temple of Karnak.

Credit: National Geographic Image Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

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