Arthur Conan Doyle: Playing with Fire

Reception of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional output has been unbalanced by the huge success of the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels. Mike Ashley, editor of this selection of Doyle’s stories of the uncanny and incredible, notes that Doyle’s horror and supernatural stories outnumber his Holmes stories. Playing with Fire brings together his best stories, as well as the essay “Stranger Than Fiction” (1915), in which Doyle addresses his experiences in spiritualism and inexplicable (or highly improbable coincidence). He spent a night in a haunted house and was awoken by a fearful hammering coming from inside the house. He found no person or other cause was found; the doors and windows were bolted and locked.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was a devoted reader and teller of strange tales. The morbid and uncanny often intrude into the Holmes stories and sometimes form the basis of them. “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” and “The Adventure of the Yellow Face” both play on the reader’s innate repulsion towards the unnatural. Doyle’s first submission to a professional story magazine (at the age of 18 or 19) was a horror story to Blackwood’s. They declined; the manuscript was discovered and published in 2000. He was published soon after that initial rejection. During his years as a medical student he published stories occasionally, along with some medical papers. In addition to his detective stories and weird tales, Doyle wrote historical novels and science-fiction stories.  

Doyle’s attachment to rationality, science and logic warred with his fixation – even obsession – with the macabre and supernatural. Fascinated by telepathy and parapsychology, Doyle was in contact with the Society for Psychical Research during the late 1880s and joined the organisation in 1893. He exposed hoaxes, as well as considering some experiences potentially authentic. Doyle treated seriously the quest to communicate with souls and spirits, considering such activity as an extension of science rather than a contradiction of it. This took on a painfully personal aspect when Doyle’s son died during service in the Great War. He was caught out by the 1920 Cottingley Fairies hoax, which damaged his credibility. The editor notes, “Doyle’s ability to convince himself of what others saw as fakery was the same ability with which he could create living and breathing characters in his fiction, and powerful and memorable imagery.”

“The Captain of the ‘Polestar’” (1883) is inspired Doyle’s voyage on board a Scottish whaler in the Arctic. His narrator writes a diary of a whaler steaming ever deeper into the ice floes, commanded by a captain blind with ambition that seems irrational. They risk being frozen in and their ship being crushed to matchwood by the power of the ice. The captain seems gripped by madness, while the crew see visions of a ghostly apparition on the sea ice. The narrator is a man of science, sceptical, attempting to ward off his disquiet with rationalisation. It is powerfully atmospheric tale, that should have been longer. As is common with Doyle, he tended to end his stories before the mystery was wrung out of them.  

“The Winning Shot” (1883) is a tale about a mysterious Swedish sailor whom a couple meet on Dartmoor. The sailor is invited to stay in the family home and he develops an infatuation with the female narrator. When he is rejected he wreaks his revenge. “John Barrington Cowles” (1884) is about a beautiful femme fatale who destroys the men who fall in love with her. Her powers may come from the Orient, though the exact connection is left for readers to infer. Other stories are “De Profundis”, “The Parasite”, “The Story of the Brown Hand”, “Playing with Fire”, “The Leather Funnel”, “The Terror of Blue John Gap”, “How it Happened”, “The Horror of the Heights” and “The Bully of Brocas Court”, which deal with ghosts, visions, mesmerism, spirit communication, monsters and mental imbalance.

Most could be called stories of mystery or the weird, a few (especially “The Leather Funnel” and “The Terror of Blue John Gap”) fall into the category of the horror story. The stories have the characteristic brisk pacing, broad well-judged vocabulary and crime story format of the author’s Sherlock Holmes tales. As was a common trope, many of the stories are framed as diary extracts or dialogues between fictional characters. Although some work better than others – the aerial dogfight with a gelatinous monster is as fun as it is silly – all are diverting and worth becoming reacquainted with. All the stories have been collected in different volumes; seeing them together in one volume themed on the supernatural is very welcome. They work very well as a group, building a feeling of unease. It is an ideal companion for long winter nights.  

The only fault in this book is a notice apologising for any offence taken by readers upset by racial stereotyping or outmoded idioms. “We acknowledge therefore that some elements in the stories selected for reprinting may continue to make uncomfortable reading for some of our audience.” This is unnecessary. The publishing arm of a national library should not be apologising for reproducing the work of classic authors loved and respected by generations of readers.     

Arthur Conan Doyle, Playing with Fire: The Weird Tales of Arthur Conan Doyle, The British Library, 2021, hardback, 288pp, £14.99, ISBN  978 0 7123 5425 7

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

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