Wednesday, August 20, 2008

34. The Horror of the Heights and other stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Dark Harvest pictureI have to admit that I didn't read all of this book in 2008, and in doing so, reveal a little strategy I use to give me a slight boost towards reaching the goal of 50 books a year. I don't like buying books of short stories, even if I am a fan of the author, because I can rarely get through them. Every now and then, in the case of great authors (such as Doyle and Howard), I can not resist. My trick is that in between every book that I finish, if I don't immediately go on to another novel, I'll read a short story or two. Eventually, I'll complete the entire collection and get to add it to my list. Such was the case with Howard's Blood of the Gods as well as today's review, a fun little collection revealing Doyle's early interesting in mysticism and the supernatural.

I got this book through a bit of serendipity. I went to S.W. Welch's, a great little bookstore and a Montreal landmark not too far from my house. It used to be right on The Main, across the street from Schwartz's, but the owner, in a savvy move, found a new place in the growing Mile End neighbourhood just before they started a two-year construction project on St. Laurent that killed several businesses, including the maternal clothing store that replaced the old Welches. I sold some books and after, noticed this book on the feature table and said "Oh, I'd like to throw that in," or words to that effect. I had meant that I wanted to buy it and have him take the difference out of the cash he was giving me. The owner thought I was bargaining and said "sure" giving it to me for free! It was only 7 bucks, but I felt like it was a sign of respect (probably my own fantastic imagination, that) and a cool move by the Mr. Welch himself. I do go in there and chat with him and the other employees on a semi-regular basis. He knows his stuff and the other employees are quite cool (including the hilarious and talented Howard Chackowicz of Wiretap fame). A good used bookstore. Visit it if you come to Montreal.

The Horror of the Heights are all on the subject of the supernatural, written in Doyle's rich and evocative Victorian language. He's not the tightest of writers from this period, but he captures the comfortable and slightly wry British mentality of that period well. I always love passages like these:

Hastie was a good fellow, but he was rough, strong-fibered, with no imagination or sympathy. He could not tolerate departures from what he looked upon as the model type of manlinesss. If a man could not be measured by a public-school standard, then he was beyond the pale with Hastie. Like so many who are themselves robust, he was apt to confuse the constitution with the character, to ascribe to want of principle what was really a want of circulation.


There was one little indulgence which Abercrombie Smith always allowed himself, however closely his work might press upon him. Twice a week, on the Tuesday and the Friday, it was his invariable custom to walk over to Farlingfod, the residence of the Reverend Plumptree Peterson, situated about a mile and a half out of Oxford. Peterson had been a close friend of Smith's elder brother Francis, and as he was a bachelor, fairly well-to-do, with a good cellar and a better library, his house was a pleasant goal for a man who was in need of a brisk walk.

How that makes me long for a brisk walk upon the moors!

It saddens me that in his later years, Doyle got way into the whole mysticism and spiritualism phenomenon that made its rounds among the upper classes at that time. He engaged in some public debates on this issue and got taken in by some charlatans (whom they all were) and it is a smudge on his reputation. One would not think that the creator of the most rational detective of all time would succumb that kind of flim-flam. But he got rich and old.

These stories, from, I presume, his younger years, show a lighter and more entertaining interest in the subject. The intent is to thrill, not to convince. They seem rather light in comparison to contemporary horror, but they don't lack imagination or impact. There is often a real sense of fear and dread in these stories.

It's a nice volume, but I wish they would have shown the original source and dates of the stories. I imagine they were mostly published in the Strand, where all the Sherlock Holmes stories were published. It would be nice to know how they fit into the chronology of his more famous work.

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