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
“One of the first targets of an invading army is the art of the defeated. Once cities are secured, army officers of the occupying force seek museums, palaces and cathedrals, intent on retrieving art for the benefit of the victors. However politely done, it is no different from the pillaging of ancient history. Two new books examine the art theft of occupying armies in two different ages.
“The Wedding Feast at Cana was painted by Paolo Veronese in 1563 for the wall of a Benedictine abbey on the Venetian isle of San Maggiore. Situated in the refectory, the picture depicts Christ seated at the centre of a wedding feast; the giant painting (almost 7 metres high by 10 metres wide) teems with brightly robed figures set in an illusionistically rendered architectural setting. On completion, it was recognised as a masterpiece of the Late Renaissance/Mannerist era, with connoisseurs travelling from around Europe to marvel at the painting.
“Cynthia Saltzman’s Napoleon’s Plunder: The Theft of Veronese’s Feast recounts what happened when Napoleon defeated the Austrians and took control of northern Italy in 1796, and how his roving eye turned to art. Portable treasures were to be sold to finance the cost of the war effort; the greatest of the art would be reserved for the Musée Napoléon, the French Republic’s public art museum (sited in the Louvre). Saltzman outlines the extraction of art from not only Italy but Spain, Flanders, Holland, Vienna and Berlin, all intended for Napoleon’s museum….”
Tom Thomson (1877-1917) is considered one of the greatest of Canadian artists. His spectacular landscapes of the New Ontario wilderness – composed with vivid colour, passionate brushwork and startling brevity and energy – are considered not only stylistically ground breaking but have become icons of the glory of the Canadian landscape. Alongside the Group of Seven and Emily Carr, Thomson is beloved by Canadians and enthusiasts of Modernist landscape painting worldwide.
Thomson worked in Toronto as a commercial artist, producing lettering and graphic designs for publication. He had been an enthusiastic artist from childhood but began painting seriously in 1913, travelling to the Algonquin Park to capture the sights en plein air, using oil paint on small boards. In 1914 he exhibited publicly for the first time in an open exhibition, meeting with success. Thomson returned to the park each summer, travelling out into the wilderness using a canoe, taking with him tent, survival equipment and provisions as well as painting supplies. According from companions, he was apparently an experienced and judicious outdoorsman, capable of setting fires, pitching tents, hunting, fishing and defending himself against wolves and bears. Due to his frequent visits and long stays, he was regarded as familiar with the landscape and the locals.
Death on Canoe Lake
Supposedly, on 7 July 1917, Thomson spent the night drinking with friends at Canoe Lake. It is alleged that this ended in a fistfight, with Thomson fighting either Martin Blecher Jr or Shannon Fraser. Fraser owed Thomson money, though (apparently) they were on good terms. Regarding the war, Thomson was pro-Canada and Blecher pro-Germany and there was bad feeling between them. This was an awkward situation, as Thomson was staying at Mowat Lodge (a large guest house), run by the Blechers. However, this scenario was not mentioned in 1917, only in 1970.
On 8 July, Thomson helped Fraser carry a boat, then went fishing alone in his canoe or he departed for a two-week trip (reports vary). That afternoon, at 3:05 p.m., the undamaged canoe was seen floating upturned by Blecher Jr, who did not report it nor consider it significant. Searches were mounted and George Thomson, the artist’s older brother, visited to help. No trace of Thomson was detected; George was due back at his work and departed. On 16 July, Thomson’s body was found floating in Canoe Lake by Dr Goldwyn Howland, a holidaymaker, and his daughter. As the coroner had not arrived by the following day, Howland was deputised to perform an ad hoc examination. Howland and Robinson examined the body and Howland concluded the cause of death was accidental drowning, perhaps caused by a blow which had left a bruise to the right temple and/or forehead (reports vary). A later report noted a short length of fishing line was wound around his left ankle and cut/snapped. (This was possibly from the rod of Howland’s daughter, who it was claimed had snagged the body underwater and causing it to rise. Others suggest the line was Thomson’s own. An obvious alternative is that it was the line that was used to tow the body to the shore or – more sinisterly – used to tether the body underwater.) No post-mortem was conducted. Due to decomposition and the hot weather, it was decided to inter Thomson in the village cemetery, Mowat Cemetery. The coroner, Dr Ranney, arrived but decided not to disinter the body to perform as post-mortem; instead, he took witness statements and recorded a verdict of accidental drowning.
On 18 July an undertaker sent by the Thomson family disinterred the body and placed it in a fresh coffin for removal to the family plot in Leith Presbyterian Church cemetery, Ontario. Although the formalities were not observed and the undertaker had worked hastily, the park warden permitted the removal of the body. Mark Robinson, a park ranger and friend of Thomson, noted that the excavation in the local cemetery was very shallow, which troubled him. On 21 July, in a closed-coffin funeral, Thomson was reburied in Leith, with his family in attendance.
Fraser wrangled with the Thomsons over expenses he incurred regarding the recovery and return of Tom’s body. Gradually, the Thomson family became aware Fraser owed Tom the remainder of an unpaid personal loan. Locals did not consider Fraser trustworthy and Tom had become suspicious of him and his wife snooping on his personal life. Fraser had some of Tom’s possessions from his final trip, which he did not return until February. (They were all mundane items – clothing and cooking utensils – no art or writing.) By early 1918, the Thomsons, protective of their reputation and Tom’s legacy, were content to treat his death as a tragic accident.
By 1931, author Blodwen Davies decided to write an expanded appreciation of Thomson. Unbeknownst to her, rumours of suicide or foul play were circulating. Weather was mild, somewhat rainy. There was doubt that a sober man – particularly a known strong swimmer such as Thomson – would drown in placid inland water such as Canoe Lake. Contradictions became more numerous. The coroner recorded – second hand – that the head wound was on the left temple. Yet Dr Ranney cited Howland as recording the wound on the other temple and bleeding from the right ear. When manipulated, it was determined there was air in the lungs, which ruled out death by drowning. Blecher Jr claimed he did not recognise the upturned canoe, yet all Thomson’s acquaintances knew the canoe, which was painted a distinctive dove-grey (or green). The hasty burial of the body despite the imminent announced arrival of the coroner was highly irregular. There was scepticism that the man who exhumed Thomson’s body could have dug up the body, placed it in a metal coffin, soldered it shut and removed the coffin by lantern light in three or four hours at night. Davies pressed for an examination of the Mowat Cemetery in order to establish that it was Thomson’s body that had been exhumed from the small site which had multiple burials close to each other.
Over the years, more reports emerged, some with perplexing details. One was that the Blechers had retrieved the canoe, which was found floating upright. Robinson’s audio-recorded account, recorded at the end of his life, adds further confusion, as they contradict his earlier statements. It seems that $50 was missing from Thomson’s body – or it was left at his lodgings and disappeared from there. Locals speculated that the affections of Thomson’s close friend or lover Winnifred “Winnie” Trainor (1885-1962) (a local woman) was the subject of rivalry between Thomson and Blecher Jr. However, some close to Thomson (and his family) suggest that Winnie was keener on Thomson than he was on her; Thomson had not mentioned engagement to Winnie to anyone, it seems. There are no reports from people who knew Thomson first hand to contradict this, though second- and third-hand assertions were published much later.
An Unauthorised Exhumation
Without permission, in 1956 a group of men (including William Little) decided to excavate the Mowat cemetery to settle the suspicion that Thomson’s was not the body transferred to Leith. They did find a body, with a skull that had a seeming bullet hole in the left temple. Forensic anthropologists concluded that the shape of the skull and dental characteristics suggested Mongoloid (First Nations/Indian) typology; bones indicated a height of about 5’8” (Thomson was estimated to be 6’0”) and aged 20-30 (Thomson was almost 40), therefore the skeleton was not Thomson’s. One doctor thought that the hole was the result of trepanning, not typical of a gunshot. No bullet was located in the skull, which had no exit wound. It seems impossible to belief that an experienced doctor such as Dr Howland could have missing a bullet wound to the head, especially where the hair would have been short.
The subsequent discussion and William Little’s The Tom Thomson Mystery (1970) foregrounded the suspicion of murder among the general public. Little suggests that he believed that Blecher Jr murdered Thomson by striking him on the head with a paddle by the lakeside. Little’s book – which summarised and published little-known sources – became a key book and powerfully influenced debate. Charles Plewman’s essay and talks in the 1970s suggested that pressure from Winnie regarding marriage had potential driven Thomson to desperation, even to the point of suicide. A still later theory was that Thomson had been killed by accident in the fight of 7 July and that his body was disposed so as to make it appear an accidental death. One of the last survivors of the era, Daphne Crombie, gave interviews in which she says that Fraser’s wife admitted that her that her husband had killed Thomson by accident during the supposed fight of 7 July. Fraser struck Thomson, who had fallen and hit his head on a fire grate, killing him. She had no corroborative evidence to add. By the 1970s, there was a cottage industry of articles, books and television films about Thomson’s death.
Determining the cause of death at a distance, relying on sources that are not full post-mortem examinations, is impossible. Was the bruise to the forehead or temple related to Thomson’s death or was it the result of the reported fight from the previous evening? Was it actually discoloration due to decomposition? Likewise, blood from the ear may be putrefaction fluid leaking from a body that was apparently very swollen and becoming rotten by the time Howland examined it.
In The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact From Fiction, Gregory Klages attempts to patiently unpick the way rumour and legend were added to the Thomson story over the years, with the changing information altering interpretations. Various individual writers became attached to certain theories and sought to defend them over decades, with subsequent books splicing in new snippets of information and paraphrasing information that was already unreliable. Klages rightly dismisses the idea of suicide by voluntary drowning and can see no plausible alternative method of suicide that explains the circumstances. Klages thinks murder is not proven (true), any culprit not identified (also true) and that “we can reasonably and confidently conclude that Tom Thomson was not murdered”[i] – which seems too definitive. With regard to death by murder, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Klages states there is not enough evidence to disbelieve the narrative of Thomson’s body removal from Mowat to Leith.
While Klages can be disparaging of authors, he is at times a little unclear himself. The most contentious point of Klages is “Thomson’s body did not have wounds that suggested trauma or violence.”[ii] Klages attributes the bruise or marking to the temple to post-mortem decomposition and – it seems – the ear blood to decomposition. Yet he also seems to hold out the possibility that these observations indicate the results of an accident. This is unclear. Contusion due to injury due to a fall on a canoe gunwale or rock is still “trauma or violence”, even if it is not deliberate or inflicted by a person. Whether the marks were due to man-inflicted violence, accidental injury or decomposition is indeterminate at this point – though it is possible to assign probabilities to each discrete possibility – and this uncertainty is not compatible with Klages’s definitive dismissal of “trauma or violence” and murder. Klages favours a scenario of Thomson’s canoe hitting a submerged log (common due to the logging industry) and causing Thomson to strike his head on the canoe or log, dying by drowning. There are two problems with this. Firstly, according the Fraser in 1917, the canoe’s two paddles were tied in for portaging. This means that the canoe was not in movement in the water to strike any log. Secondly, drowning is contradicted by the evidence of air in the lungs. Cerebral haemorrhage causing instant death would be feasible, as that would not entail drowning, but it seems that the bruise (if it was a bruise) did not indicate cranial fracture to the examining doctor. Such an injury would have to have taken place while the canoe was stationary. Klages, however, maintains that Thomson’s death was through drowning and not suspicious.
John Little, son of William Little, has written Who Killed Tom Thomson?, published in 2018. Little states up front that he believes the bones found by his father in Mowat Cemetery were Thomson’s. Little introduces new evidence from an elderly local park guide, Ralph Bice, who stated that he had heard that Thomson was a womaniser and a heavy drinker, in fact “a drunken bum”[iii] who “couldn’t paint unless he had a bottle of gin”. According to Bice, Thomson had fallen on his head while drunk and drowned. Yet, these disparaging comments came from an individual who resented Thomson’s celebrity and never spoke to him.
Little accepts some later additions to the Thomson story – the drunken fight, the fishing line around the ankle (not mentioned by Howland, Ranney or Robinson in 1917), Robinson’s immediate opposition to the accident verdict – and presents some rather distant tales of Thomson as a womaniser. That is not to say these aspects are either impossible or unlikely, simply not contemporaneous. Little is correct in assessing the body buried at Mowat as anomalous. The oddity of the body being in what seemed to be Thomson’s original coffin is unexplained. Even a burial just before it becoming covering the empty coffin debris is hard to understand. There were two recorded burials at the period of Thomson’s burial, with a potential third. There was no record of an Indian being buried then. Yet the forensics report defies Little’s belief that the bones were those of the artist. Little does conclusively prove that no member of the Thomson family saw the body after the exhumation. Little outlines an idea that Thomson was shot, pointing out the weaknesses of the shooting theory.
Little asked a pair of retired police detectives to review the evidence. They rule out suicide and accidental death by drowning. They believe the Mowat body to be Thomson and suspect foul play. Little concurs. Short of DNA testing the reinterred Mowat bones or exhuming the Leith body (ruled out by the Thomson family), there is no way to end the debate over the body identities and no way at all to determine a cause of death.
Gregory Klages, The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact From Fiction, Read How You Want, 2017, paperback, 359pp + x, mono illus., £24.99, ISBN 9781525236884
John Little, Who Killed Tom Thomson?, Skyhorse Publishing, 2018, hardback, 409pp + xxxvii, 31 mono illus., C$24.99, ISBN 9781510733381
“In Unsolved! The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers, Craig P Bauer examines a great array of ciphers, taking us from Egyptian sarcophagi to unexplained internet puzzles, via landmark mysteries such as the Zodiac Killer and Somerton Man.
“Ciphers have existed for as long as writing itself. As soon as man began writing, he needed a means to keep his messages secret. Bauer describes examples from Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and Viking Scandinavia. There are cases which will be beyond the ability of virtually all readers even to attempt. And there are instances where ciphers turn out not to be ciphers. On Greek vases, for instance, there seemed to be nonsense inscriptions beside legible words. Greek scholars thought that maybe an illiterate artist was writing nonsense or filling in space, yet when an expert in ancient languages was given these transcriptions, he discovered the Greek nonsense was actually a transliteration of local languages such as Scythian, Circassian and Abkhazian…”
A new hardback edition of Josephine Tey’s 1950 crime classic To Love and Be Wise expands to five the number of her books published by The Folio Society. As in all of the series, the book is illustrated by on the cover, frontispiece and interior by Mark Smith.
The story begins with Inspector Alan Grant encountering Leslie Searle, a handsome American man, at a London party. Searle is in search of Walter Whitmore, a leading radio broadcaster, with whom he had a common friend. Searle turns out to be famed photographer of the California high society. Searle goes to visit Whitmore in his country home in the village of Salcott St Mary, where he will disappear. The recently arrived bohemian residents (including a playwright, bestselling author and ex-ballet dancer) feel at home with the glamorous arrival. While some are enchanted by the house guest, some are disconcerted by his presence. The author brilliantly describes the creeping worm of jealousy that starts to consume Whitmore as his fiancée Liz spends time alone with Searle. He feels slighted, inadequate, completely eclipsed by the brilliant newcomer. He slips into a despondency that fills his every idle thought. Whitmore and Searle decide to collaborate on a travel book and embark on a river journey by canoe – with Whitmore writing the text and Searle photographing the scenery. At that point Searle disappears, an event that implicates a number of people in the village.
The local police suspect death but cannot find a body. Inspector Grant and Detective Williams are sent to investigate Searle’s disappearance during the trip. Does, Whitmore, who the night of Searle’s disappearance had an argument with him before leaving for their campsite alone, have any vital clues or is he concealing something sinister? Can Liz explain some puzzling details? We follow the police as they to untangle the mystery of the man’s disappearance. With Grant’s local friend Marta Hallard, Grant sets out to discover the American’s fate.
The book is a quick read and a satisfying one. Tey’s dry and ironic style is apparent but never obtrusive. Her wit is light rather than cutting: a crowd as “asparagus-packed”; a character delivers a talk entitled “What Earthworms do for England”. The mystery is balanced by realism and one warms to the characters. Her story is laced with psychological subtlety and sensitivity to interpersonal relations. She presents characters evolving and reacting believably. It is easy to see why Tey is still admired by prominent crime writers today.
The book meets The Folio Society’s high production standards with a pictorial buckram cloth cover and a black paper-covered card slipcase. The paper stock is good quality and the illustrations are on different stock, one sided. This book would make an ideal gift for a fan of crime fiction.
Mark Smith’s illustrations feature silhouettes and simplified forms interspersed by telling details. Areas of flat colour with speckle, over layering of forms, limited palette range and absence of volumetric modelling all suggest characters and situations without making concessions to verisimilitude. He rightly decides not to make detailed depictions of central characters. The style of Smith’s illustrations is crisp, stylised, often taking a cinematically dramatic viewpoint. They are entirely in keeping with the period and are a perfect match for the tone, imagery and content of Tey’s novel. Let’s hope that there are more Tey books illustrated by Smith on the way. Buyers may well be tempted to expand their purchase to the rest of the set.
Josephine Tey, Mark Smith (illus.), To Love and Be Wise, The Folio Society, 2019, 248pp, frontispiece + 6 col. illus., cloth hardback in slipcase, £34.95. The Folio Society edition of Josephine Tey’s To Love and Be Wise, illustrated by Mark Smith, is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com
“On 9 July 1975, a tiny dark-yellow yacht (less than 13-foot long) was towed from the bay of Chatham harbour, Massachusetts towards open sea. At the tiller of this yacht was a lean Dutchman named Bas Jan Ader whose intention was to sail singlehanded across the Atlantic Ocean in time to attend an exhibition of his art to be held in his native country. He called his venture an artistic act, entitled In Search of the Miraculous. From the stern of the towboat, Ader’s wife photographed the pilot looking impassively forward past the towboat to the watery immenseness ahead. Ader cast off the towline and sailed eastward until he was a speck on the horizon below an overcast sky. He was never seen again.
“The story of Bastiaan Johan Christiaan ‘Bas Jan’ Ader (1942-1975?) seems almost too good to be true. A conceptual artist who erased himself in an act of brilliant nihilism; a heroic individualist who turned his back on the commercialism of an art world within which he was unable to integrate; a troubled man facing personal and professional crises who threw himself into a fatalistic quest, allowing nature to determine his destiny. He seems like the creation of an inventive novelist or an artistic hoax dreamt up in a Hoxton studio, yet his story is true. Two new books examine the artist’s disappearance and artistic legacy….”
Read the full article on Spiked 1 September 2017 online here:
“Anyone who picked up a new copy of the New Republic from his or her local newsstand on the morning of 18 July 1955 could have opened it to read an article called ‘How to be happy: installment 1053’. What they couldn’t have guessed is that the author would, in all probability, choose to extinguish his life mere hours later. With a flourish sour, sardonic and elegant, the author would disappear. His name was Weldon Kees.
“Kees had the knack of being in the right place at the wrong time. As a writer-artist, Kees had been in all the best cultural hotspots of the period. He was in New York in 1943-48 during the early Abstract Expressionist boom, but left before the market took off. He had also been in artists’ haven Provincetown, but had sold relatively little work. In 1950, he arrived in San Francisco. Somehow he had managed to be in these places and failed to make critical breakthroughs. He (and his wife Ann) had quit places without getting the most out of them. He seemed to have turned missing opportunities into his greatest art form.
“Admired for his talents as a poet, storywriter, critic, musician, composer, painter, film-maker and photographer, Kees never broke through in any one field despite his talent…”
“Until now, the way of testing whether or not someone had good biographical knowledge of Vincent Van Gogh was to ask them about the famous ear-cutting incident. The answer ‘he cut off his ear’ informed you the speaker had only a hazy comprehension, whereas the knowledgeable person replied ‘in actuality, Van Gogh cut off only part of his ear’. Now new information suggests that Van Gogh did indeed cut off his whole left ear. On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness, a new exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (closes 25 September), accompanied by an excellent catalogue, attempts to get as close as possible to the truth about Van Gogh’s physical and mental illnesses.
“The confusion about the ear incident sprang up during Van Gogh’s lifetime. On the 23 December 1888, Van Gogh was living with Paul Gauguin at the Yellow House in Arles. Gauguin announced his intention to leave Arles after persistent rows with Van Gogh. Deeply anxious and depressed, Van Gogh slashed his ear with a razor. He presented the ear wrapped in newspaper to a prostitute at a local brothel. The next day police discovered Van Gogh unconscious in his house surrounded by blood…”
“It starts out like a horror movie. Deep in the mid-winter of 1958/59, a low-ranking army officer in a remote region of the USSR receives a phone call informing him that a group of hikers has failed to return from an expedition. He is asked to lead a search. His team arrives by helicopter on the exposed slopes of Otorten Mountain (Dead Mountain) and eventually discover a tent partially covered in snow. It is empty. Apart from a rip in the side of the tent, nothing looks disturbed or unusual. Most of the group’s clothing and all of its outdoor gear is there. In that barren environment, with the nearest dwelling miles away, what reason could the hikers have had to leave the protection and warmth of their shelter? The searchers discern tracks of nine people going away from the tent and none returning. They follow the tracks and soon find the first bodies.
“The missing group of hikers were university students from Sverdlovsk, central Russia. Hiking and skiing was a popular recreation in mid-century USSR, enjoyed by members of all professions and both sexes on an equal basis. In January 1959, a team of seven men and two women, all aged between 20 and 24, set out on an ambitious trek in the sparsely populated Ural Mountains. They were led by an experienced hiker and skier, Igor Dyatlov. All had experience of climbing, hiking and snow travel. The team members knew each other well and had previously undertaken expeditions together. They were well equipped and planned their route in advance.
“When they arrived in the region, they met an older hiker who asked to tag along. He was an army veteran who had planned to ski in the area and had found he could not coordinate with his own group. The students agreed to let him join them. Just before the final leg of the expedition, Yuri Yudin had to withdraw due to a painful attack of rheumatism. He decided to return and said goodbye to his nine companions. Yudin was the only member of the party to survive…”