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Horror Fiction 102: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle


In Horror Fiction 101, gothic literature was the main focus; haunted castles, far-away lands, powerful landscapes, and heroines running from evil villains. The Castle of Otranto marked the beginning of the genre, and Ann Radcliffe created a whole legacy. As time passed, literature changed. The haunted house remains, but with some alterations and additions, and the hunter’s domain to pursue its victim grows now that it is no longer confined to the four walls of a house. The boundaries between the rational and the supernatural are blurred; evil becomes attractive and impossible to escape, and the hunter and the prey seek each other. Victorian horror dawns.

Horror Fiction 102 will deal with Victorian horror and it will be divided into six different chapters:

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle first appeared in The Strand Magazine, running from August 1901 to April 1902, as the third novel featuring Sherlock Holmes. Its previous instalment was a short story called The Final Problem, where the famous detective falls to his death with his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty. The readers were enraged with the loss of Mr. Holmes and the author decided to write one more novel set before those tragic events. However, the immediate and phenomenal success of this third novel persuaded Conan Doyle to permanently revive the detective (Buzwell, 2014). The Hound of the Baskervilles is arguably the most famous story of Sherlock Holmes, and therefore one of the most famous detective stories of all time. In addition, and most relevant for this horror fiction series, this novel represents the merging of two different genres: detective stories and gothic tales. Following the line set by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula and The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Hound of the Baskervilles fits perfectly into Victorian horror, with a strong gothic setting and a plot that captures fin-de-siècle anxieties.

The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1950 edition.

At first glance, a gothic tale and a detective story may seem like an unlucky combination with the first one relying on the supernatural and the second one, especially one following Sherlock Holmes, relying heavily on a strict scientific deduction that rejects any form of imaginative elements. Nevertheless, Conan Doyle managed to merge both genres by using a double narrative. In the first half of the story, the reader follows Dr. Watson’s perspective of the case since Mr. Holmes stays in London, busy with other cases. This tactic is useful for two main reasons: first, it allows the mystery and the gothic atmosphere to set the tone of the narrative. Without the cold scientific intellect of Holmes, the supernatural seems possible. It also allows the writer to delay the solving of the mystery, keeping it alive for a bit longer without it suggesting that the famous detective has lost his touch.

It is through Dr. Watson’s eyes that the reader experiences a gothic tale with an old and decaying family mansion in the middle of a desolate moor, and a folk tale at the core of the story. The mysterious death of Sir Charles Baskerville brings the revival of the Baskerville curse and its last heir, Sir Henry, fears following the same path. As Jonathan Harker did in Dracula, Dr. Watson follows the last Baskerville from modern and civilized London into the rural and primitive Dartmoor where Baskerville Hall lies, surrounded by a moor permanently covered in fog with caves and secrets that no human being seem to have explored for centuries. The town is known for a curse that started generations ago as a punishment for the capture and murder of a young innocent girl by Hugo Baskerville. The desolate landscape, the haunted Baskerville Hall, and the legend of an enormous hound hunting a family leads Dr. Watson, and therefore the reader, to believe that maybe this time, scientific deduction will not be enough to solve this mystery. In true horror fiction style, this story revolves around “the freeing of an ancestral house from a contaminating curse” (Kissane & Kissane, 1963, p. 354).

"There in the centre lay the unhappy maid where she had fallen."

Sherlock Holmes finally arrives at the scene and the light of reason illuminates the dark gothic tale clouding the case. Nevertheless, this proves to be a difficult case even for Mr. Holmes as he remarks several times throughout the novel. There are even hints that maybe reason cannot reach this particular case. Dr. Mortimer, a man of science that Sherlock Holmes respects, reflects: “There is a realm in which the most acute and most experienced of detectives is helpless” (Doyle, 2002 p.37). This was a terrifying prospect for a Victorian reader. As it has been touched upon in previous instances of this series, the Victorian era was a time of scientific discoveries and the firm belief that through reason any earthly question could be answered. Therefore, Sherlock Holmes was not just a brilliant detective, he was the personification of that belief. It is worth noting that Holmes' favourite word is elucidate, “from the Latin ex=completely + lucidus=bright, clear” (Clausson, 2005, p. 66). Once the murderer is discovered and the curse dismantled, reason once again reigns over superstition and proves once more that “what appears to be supernatural is but the agent of a human master whose designs can be discovered and foiled by scientific deduction” (Kissane & Kissane, 1963, p. 356).

One of the scientific theories that heavily influenced Victorian horror fiction was that of Lambrose and his followers, who, closely related to Darwin’s theory of evolution, offered the concept of degeneration as an explanation for criminal behaviour. Victorian society was terrified of the possibility of the fall of the empire due to a decaying of morality in its social circles, the criminalization of homosexuality and Oscar Wilde’s trial is probably the most significant example. Following that line, when Lambrose offered the possibility that evolution could not always follow an upward line, horror fiction took the chance and plagued its stories with the imagination of such a possibility. Therefore, when Holmes and Watson travel from a civilized London to a primitive Dartmoor, it is not only a journey to a gothic and supernatural setting, but also a return to a primitive state, facing the metropolis against the empire, the civilized against the primitive, and progress against degeneration.

"Over the rocks was thrust out an evil yellow face."

As it has been argued before, the appearance of Holmes in the moors halfway through the novel meant the return of reason and science. He represents the possibility of evolution as progress instead of degeneration. In addition, the arrival of Sir Charles Baskerville to Dartmoor worked in a similar way because he is Canadian, comes from the New World, and brings modernity with him. He brought electricity to Baskerville Hall hoping that he could shine a light over “the long shadows [that] trailed down the walls and hung like a black canopy above him” (Doyle, 2002, p. 90). Nevertheless, he still needs the help of Sherlock Holmes and his powers of deduction to cleanse the house of the curse. He fears that the weight of past sins has become too grand, and like The Fall of the House of Usher, the Baskervilles seem doomed to collapse under it.

Going back to Lambrose and his theory of degeneration, the two criminals that appear in the novel are perfect examples of what Victorian society believed crime to look like. When Dr. Watson first arrived at Dartmoor, he found the town on full alert after the escape of a criminal from the famous prison of Princetown. Imprisoned after committing a violent murder, Selden barely escaped the death penalty on an insanity plea. After catching a glimpse of him in the moors, Dr. Watson describes him as a “terrible animal face, all seamed and scored with vile passions” (Doyle, 2002, p. 143). Like Dr. Jekyll (who transforms himself into an ape-like creature) and Dracula (who has the ability to transform into animals), Selden’s criminal tendencies are evident in his animalesque appearance. In a similar manner, Stapleton, the man behind the murder, abused his wife, killed his uncle, and was planning on killing his cousin in order to inherit the Baskerville title and properties. Lambrose’s influence can be appreciated in Mr. Holmes' deduction of his real identity: he discovers that Stapleton is a Baskerville due to his likeness to a portrait of Hugo Baskerville. This alludes to the concept of degeneration through the different generations of a family, the Baskervilles may produce a Stapleton or a Sir Henry. Nevertheless and referring to this last Baskerville, Dr. Watson argues that “it was evident that the fiery temper of the Baskervilles was not extinct in their last representative” (Doyle, 2002, p. 58); meaning that Stapleton’s death may not be the end of the curse.

"Holmes emptied five barrels of his revolver into the creature's side."

“Who killed Charles Baskerville?”, “How?” and “Why?” are all questions with a very clear answer at the end of the novel, and the detective plot is successfully matched. However, the same cannot be said about the gothic and horror fiction aspect of the plot. The moor remains just as mysterious and desolate as it was at the beginning, and even though Holmes claims that “[they]’ve laid the family ghost once and forever” (Doyle, 2002, p. 222), it exists the possibility of a future Baskerville heir with criminal tendencies. Dr. Mortimer’s question to the detective “Do we progress?” (Doyle, 2002, p. 14) also remains unanswered. Nevertheless, Sherlock Holmes represents the Victorian ideal of science and reason, a man capable of constantly demonstrating the superiority of reason in every situation.

Bibliographical References

Buzwell, G. (2014). An introduction to The Hound of the Baskervilles. The British Library.

Clausen, C. (1984). Sherlock Holmes, Order, and the Late-Victorian Mind. The Georgia Review, 38(1), pp. 104–123.

Clausson, N. (2005). Degeneration, “Fin-de-Siècle” Gothic, and the Science of Detection: Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and the Emergence of the Modern Detective Story. Journal of Narrative Theory, 35(1), pp. 60–87.

Doyle, A. C. (2012). The Hound of the Baskervilles. Dover Publications. (Original work published in 1902)

Kissane, J., & Kissane, J. M. (1963). Sherlock Holmes and The Ritual of Reason. Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 17(4), pp. 353–362.

Thomas, R. R. (1999). Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, United Kingdom.

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Isabel Panadero

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