Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Dabbling in the Weird

by S.T. Joshi

Doyle’s work, perhaps more than that of many writers, is intimately linked to the events of his life — or it may be that the abundant documentary evidence that exists for nearly all phases of his life allows us to trace linkages between his life and work in a way that would not be possible for writers whose biographies are not as well chronicled. Born in Edinburgh, the child of a family of Irish Catholics, Doyle was sent to study at a Jesuit school in Hodder, Lancashire, at the age of nine, then at a school in Stonyhurst. Although loathing the harsh discipline of these schools, he gained a fondness for sports that would last a lifetime and that figures in a number of his tales. It was at another Jesuit school, in Austria (1875-76), that he read Edgar Allan Poe for the first time. Poe’s detective stories would be instrumental in the creation of Sherlock Holmes, but his weird tales would also exercise a profound influence on Doyle. He later entered the medical school at the University of Edinburgh, where his teachers included Joseph Lister, a pioneer in antiseptic surgery, and Joseph Bell, the avowed model for Sherlock Holmes. In 1881 he received the Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degrees.

By this time, however, he had already begun to write. His first published story, “The Mystery of Sasassa Valley” (1879), appeared a few months after his twentieth birthday. This tale already ventures into what might be called the pseudo-supernatural — where the supernatural is suggested, only to be explained away naturalistically. Set in South Africa, the narrative involves an apparent ghost that terrifies the natives in the region. This element proves to be a relatively minor component in a story whose true focus is the securing of an immense diamond, but it nonetheless qualifies as Doyle’s first venture into the weird. Somewhat analogous is “The American’s Tale” (1880), set in the American West. Doyle’s fascination with American culture and, especially, American language is at the forefront of this tale. He was not the only Englishman to exhibit such an interest: in the previous decade Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and other American writers capitalized on their knowledge of and former residence in California and became celebrities in England. Doyle’s account of a hapless man who is apparently devoured by an immense Venus flytrap is compelling — but at the end he casts doubt on the veracity of the entire story.

In February 1880 Doyle signed on as a ship’s surgeon on the Hope, a whaler that sailed to Greenland and then the Arctic Circle. In the course of the journey Doyle proved his prowess in boxing and also experienced several near-death experiences in the treacherous waters. This voyage was manifestly the source of “The Captain of the ‘Pole-Star’” (1883), one of Doyle’s early weird triumphs. Here too we have a whaling ship that ventures into the Arctic. Written in diary format (a device much favored by Doyle to lend immediacy and cumulative dramatic tension to the narrative) by a medical student on board the ship, the tale is a long, detailed account of the captain’s desperate attempt to reunite with the ghost of his dead fiancée.

Sport is at the forefront of “The Winning Shot” (1883), where a sinister Swede, Octavius Gaster, develops an infatuation with the first-person narrator, Lottie Underwood, although she is engaged to an Englishman, Charley Pillar. This somewhat over lengthy tale suggests that Gaster may be some kind of devil worshipper; it culminates in a target practice contest in which Charley believes that he sees someone standing between himself and the target — it looks very much like himself. Has Gaster cast a spell on him? We never know, and the tale ends ambiguously. (Sport enters into a much later story, “The Bully of Brocas Court” (1921), where a boxer finds that his opponent has been dead nearly a century.)

“Selecting a Ghost” (1883) is one of several stories Doyle wrote that poke fun at conventional supernaturalism. The elephantine humor of the story — premised on the notion that an old mansion in England is obliged to have a ghost haunting it, and recounting how a parade of ghosts audition for the job — ends with an explosion of the supernatural premise. This story anticipates several more celebrated parodies of the ghost story, such as Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost” (1887), John Kendrick Bangs’s “The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall” (1894), and H. G. Wells’s “The Inexperienced Ghost” (1902).

It might seem that “The Silver Hatchet” (1883) takes us definitively into the supernatural, but there is reason for doubt. Set in Budapest, the tale opens as a mystery story: how is one to account for two murders and an attempted murder in the city? The explanation finally arrived at — that a Rosicrucian has applied an ointment on the handle of a silver hatchet that would endow the user with “sudden and acute attacks of homicidal mania” — is treated somewhat clumsily, but even here we can see a faintly pseudo-scientific accounting of the supernatural.

In the meantime, Doyle experienced some difficulty establishing himself as a physician. Shortly after receiving his degree, he took a position as a medical officer for the African Steam Navigation Company, leaving for Africa on board the Mayumba in October 1881. In an article written the following year, Doyle expressed deep sympathy for the Blacks he encountered:

With the exception of the natives who have been demoralized by contact with the traders and by the brutality of the slave trade, the inhabitants of the dark continent are really a quiet and inoffensive race of men, whose whole ambition is to be allowed to lead an agricultural life, unmolested and in peace. That, at least, is the impression I have formed of them.

There is little doubt that this entire experience led to one of the most striking tales in Doyle’s early career: “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement” (1884). This lengthy narrative, again written in diary form by a ship’s doctor, purports to account for the mysterious disappearance of the Marie Celeste (properly the Mary Celeste), a ship that was found abandoned and adrift in the Atlantic Ocean in 1872. Jephson, an American physician, recounts how, during the American Civil War, an old Black woman had given him a peculiar black stone in the shape of an ear — perhaps from a meteorite. When Jephson then joins the Marie Celeste, he finds that another passenger is a “quadroon” named Septimius Goring. The ship goes off course and reaches Africa. Goring becomes increasingly the focus of the narrative, for he has “devoted [his] life to the destruction of the white race.” He seeks to take revenge against those who have inflicted such cruelties upon Blacks. Goring engineers the death of most of the white crewmen; Jephson is spared because of his possession of that black stone, which proves to be the ear of an immense statue that is worshipped by the Blacks. Significantly, Jephson refuses to condemn Goring’s actions or motives. This is one of several tales where Doyle broaches significant sociopolitical issues in a manner that is surprisingly advanced for his time.

Another lengthy narrative written around this time has a very different focus. “John Barrington Cowles” (1884) is set in Doyle’s native Edinburgh and deals with Cowles’s fascination with a woman named Kate Northcott. He is disturbed that she has been engaged twice before: one of her fiancés died, and the other has sunk into dissipation, calling her “the devil.” Her father was reputed to be a devil worshipper. Cowles himself becomes affianced to Kate, then breaks off the engagement — he calls her a “fiend,” a “ghoul from the pit,” a “vampire soul behind a lovely face.” His end is not a pleasant one. But the crux of the matter is whether Kate has exercised some power of will over the men she has become involved with — and again, we are never given a definitive answer.

“The Great Keinplatz Experiment” (1885) presumably draws upon the year Doyle spent in Austria. It is another humorous tale wherein a staid German professor seeks to prove that the soul can exist separate from the body — but when he conducts an experiment with one of his students to prove his contention, he finds that their souls have switched bodies. It is all very amusing, but ultimately rather slight. The tale was published just before Doyle married his first wife, Louisa Hawkins, on 5 August 1885. Half a year later he wrote his first Sherlock Holmes tale, the short novel A Study in Scarlet; it would be published in November 1887.

In the flurry of writing that Doyle now undertook — including his first historical novel, Micah Clarke (1889) — the supernatural does not seem to figure to any great extent, unless we consider a novel, The Mystery of Cloomber (1888), which involves Buddhist priests in India with apparent psychic powers, to be such.

“The Ring of Thoth” (1890) and “Lot No. 249” (1892) — the latter probably Doyle’s most celebrated weird tale — constitute an interesting case in his writing. These stories were written years before Doyle took a trip to Egypt in the winter of 1895-96. But the exoticism and antiquity of Egypt had been compelling subjects for weird writers for decades — the tendency culminated around this time with Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897) and Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903) — and it did not require an actual visit to that hoary land for Doyle to weave riveting tales on the subject. At the outset of “The Ring of Thoth” he paints a vivid portrayal of the fascination that Egypt exercised on the Western imagination, as his protagonist, John Vansittart Smith, falls asleep in the Egyptian wing of the Louvre:

He was alone with the dead men of a dead civilisation. What though the outer city reeked of the garish nineteenth century! In all this chamber there was scarce an article, from the shrivelled ear of wheat to the pigment-box of the painter, which had not held its own against four thousand years. Here was the flotsam and jetsam washed up by the great ocean of time from that far-off empire. From stately Thebes, from lordly Luxor, from the great temples of Heliopolis, from a hundred rifled tombs, these relics had been brought. The student glanced round at the long silent figures who flickered vaguely up through the gloom, at the busy toilers who were now so restful, and he fell into a reverent and thoughtful mood. An unwonted sense of his own youth and insignificance came over him.

In the end we are unsurprised that a strange-looking attendant who accosts Smith claims to be Sosra, a 3500-year-old Egyptian who has prolonged his life by a chemical formula. Is this detail, slender and implausible as it is, sufficient to classify the tale as non-supernatural? Perhaps not, but the quasi-scientific element is nonetheless significant. As for “Lot No. 249,” set at Oxford University and full of vivid college slang of the period, it is a harrowing tale of an ancient mummy come to life. Surely we can at last deem this tale unequivocally supernatural. But perhaps not: throughout the tale there are repeated attempts by a variety of characters to account for the phenomena naturalistically, and the final sentence — “But the wisdom of men is small, and the ways of Nature are strange, and who shall put a bound to the dark things which may be found by those who seek for them?” — is more than a little equivocal.

Around this time Doyle wrote two tales that can only be called contes cruels (“cruel tales”) — a uniquely French genre (exemplified in the work of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and, later, Maurice Level) whereby the wrenching of emotions by the exhibition of cruelty and sadism is the focus. “The Los Amigos Fiasco” (1892) cheerfully examines the means of designing the most efficient electric chair — a matter that was debated throughout the 1880s and first used in 1890. Doyle’s victim just can’t seem to die, in spite of repeated attempts at executing him. Finally a German physician states that electricity might keep the victim alive for centuries; after all, “electricity is life.” Far more grim is “The Case of Lady Sannox” (1893), wherein a surgeon, Douglas Stone, is carrying on an affair with a married woman, Lady Sannox. When a Turk comes to him and states that he must amputate the lip of his wife after she has been cut with a poisoned dagger, Stone reluctantly agrees — only to find that the wife in question is Lady Sannox and the Turk is her husband in disguise. This is Doyle’s first, but not last, tale of psychological terror.

The novella The Parasite (1894) is of significance in demonstrating Doyle’s interest in hypnotism and, indirectly, spiritualism. This interest — which dominated the final two decades of his life — can be traced to his renunciation of his religion in youth. Doyle professed himself an agnostic as early as 1882; indeed, he refused his wealthy uncle’s offer to set up a medical practice because he would be compelled to cater to the uncle’s Catholic friends. It appears that Doyle had sloughed off Catholicism as a result of a number of factors — his scientific training (including an embrace of Darwin’s theory of evolution) and, more emphatically, his loathing of the exclusivity of certain Catholic priests of his acquaintance:

I remember that when, as a grown lad, I heard Father Murphy, a great fierce Irish priest, declare that there was sure damnation for everyone outside the church, I looked upon him with horror, and to that moment I trace the first rift which has grown into such a chasm between me and those who were my guides.

But Doyle was, it appears, not cut out — intellectually or psychologically — to remain without faith of some kind. Throughout his life he sought for some alternate religion that he could justify morally and scientifically; and spiritualism proved to be the solution.

His ventures into this realm began as early as the late 1880s. It was then that he began investigating hypnotism (on one occasion he himself volunteered to be hypnotized, but nothing came of it), telepathy, and related subjects. His acquaintance with Major-General Alfred Drayson led him to pursue spiritualistic phenomena, and he quickly became convinced that these phenomena definitively proved the reality of life after death. He joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1893.

All these elements are fused in The Parasite, which deals with a professor, Austin Gilroy — an avowed materialist who nonetheless has some spiritualist tendencies — who sees a demonstration of mesmerism practiced on his fiancée, Agatha Marden, by a Miss Penclosa. Gilroy eventually becomes aware that Penclosa has fallen in love with him and that she has planted a post-hypnotic suggestion in him; as a result, he deems her a “parasitic soul.” But he is careful to note: “I understand that this dreadful thing which has sprung out at me is neither supernatural nor even preternatural.” Doyle is, by present-day standards, a bit insensitive in expecting us to think the worse of Penclosa not only for her attempts to win over Gilroy by mesmerism but for her physical disabilities; but the tale is nonetheless compelling — and again, it is another case where the diary format allows for the gradual accretion of horrific details.

“Playing with Fire” (1900) is still more explicitly spiritualist, wherein bizarre manifestations occur during a séance. Even here, however, Doyle holds out a natural explanation, proposing that the events of the narrative might perhaps reveal only that the attendees of the séance were “the victims of an elaborate and extraordinary hoax.” For all his devotion to spiritualism, Doyle well knew that fake mediums were abundant and brought disrepute upon the cause he was so ardently embracing.

Two striking tales that are entirely non-supernatural are “The Fiend of the Cooperage” (1897) and “The Brazilian Cat” (1898). The first of these stories takes us to the west coast of Africa, where the disappearance of a native every third day seems supernatural but proves to be of natural origin. The second tale is a thrilling narrative that puts on display an eleven-foot-long Brazilian cat whose owner attempts to kill off a cousin (for the sake of an inheritance) only to end up being the cat’s victim himself.

Two instances where Doyle melds his interest in the weird with his devotion to history — as exemplified in his most famous historical novel, The White Company (1891) — are “The Leather Funnel” (1903) and “The Silver Mirror” (1908). In both stories the supernatural phenomena — and here there is no attempt to account for the events naturalistically — are attributed to objects from the distant past. History also figures significantly in “The Terror of Blue John Gap” (1910), where a physician goes to a remote farm to recover his health, but becomes intrigued by the remains of a mine dug by Romans nearby. There are persistent rumors of a “Terror” that lives in the mine. In the end he finds that there is indeed such an entity — but he conjectures that the immense monster he encounters might be a case of parallel evolution. “Through the Veil” (1910) also features Roman ruins, and goes on to suggest the reality of reincarnation.

“The Horror of the Heights” (1913), however, takes us very much into the present — and future. This tale of the terrors that might result from airplane voyages is decidedly science-fictional in its premises, but also horrific in its emotional effects. The celebrated pilot Joyce-Armstrong (his first name is never supplied) has disappeared in the course of ascending into the stratosphere. He had already conjectured what might be up there in those heights: “There are jungles of the upper air, and there are worse things than tigers which inhabit them.” In our day, when such travel has become commonplace, it is perhaps implausible that the pilot sees huge jellyfish-like creatures (whom he nonetheless deems “beautiful”) in the skies; but he later encounters entities of a far more sinister nature.

Doyle appears to have abandoned the weird for some years after writing this story. The outbreak of World War I was a traumatic event for him as it was for all European civilization, and he spent the bulk of it writing an immense history of the war while it was in progress. By this time much had happened in his life. He had been knighted in 1902 for his service in the Boer War; his wife Louisa had died of tuberculosis in 1906, and he soon married Jean Leckie, whom he had known since 1897. Spiritualism became a focus of his interests; in October 1917 he gave a lecture to the London Spiritualist Alliance and admitted to being an unwavering believer in psychic research. He explicitly likened it to an alternative religion — but one that, in his view, could be scientifically justified. It is important to note that this interest — which, as we have seen, can be traced back decades — occurred well before the death of his own son, Kingsley, in 1918. From this point onward Doyle became an ardent — and, in the view of many, a fanatical — crusader for the truth of spiritualism, even going so far as to profess belief in the possibility of photographing fairies, as he noted in his treatise The Coming of the Fairies (1922). Doyle’s literary and personal reputation took a severe blow as a result of his devotion to the cause.

And yet, he still managed to write “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” (1924), a late Sherlock Holmes tale in which the famous detective scorned the very notion that there could be such a thing as a vampire or any other supernatural entity; in Holmes’s memorable words, “No ghosts need apply.” And sure enough, he accounts for the apparent case of vampirism by natural means.

And Doyle continued to work the vein of proto-science fiction in “The Maracot Deep” (1928), one of his last works of fiction. By this time he had created another recurring character, Professor George Edward Challenger, who appeared in the short novels The Lost World (1912), The Poison Belt (1913), and The Land of Mist (1925-26). Challenger is a somewhat contrived figure — an irascible and arrogant scientist who nonetheless triumphs over the many skeptics surrounding him. In “The Maracot Deep” Doyle fashioned a milder version of Challenger in the person of Professor Maracot, who is determined to plumb the depths of the Atlantic Ocean in a vessel he has devised. He takes along with him the narrator, Cyrus Headley, and an American, Bill Scanlan — and sure enough, they end up discovering what appears to be the remains of the sunken continent of Atlantis, and in addition the still-living inhabitants of that realm. It is a thoroughly entertaining adventure story — and, in addition to the overall scientific premise of descending into ocean depths farther than any human being has ever done before, the tale may constitute one of the first citations of the word “television” (the technology for which had been developing in crude form throughout the 1920s) and actually envisioning the Atlanteans as utilizing such a device, in addition to mental telepathy. In addition, the undersea race has learned to split the atom. The tale develops a more sinister tone with Headley’s account of the Lord of the Dark Face, who “had acquired magic powers of the most far-reaching sort which he turned to evil ends.” Essentially this is an entity corresponding to Baal, the god of the Philistines who in the Old Testament is presented as a rival to Yahweh. Intertwined in the narrative is a thread of reincarnation, whereby Headley discovers his remote ancestor existed in Atlantis some 12,000 years ago. The mix of science fiction, spiritualism, religion, and adventure somehow works, and it remains one of Doyle’s most engaging novellas.

Challenger himself reappears in a final novelette, “When the World Screamed” (1928), where he wishes to test his hypothesis that “the world upon which we live is itself a living organism.” Predictably, Challenger verifies his hypothesis in the most emphatic way.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s two dozen or more weird tales, written over a fifty-year span, embody the many and various interests of their author — in spiritualism, in recent and ancient history, in sport, in exploration of unknown realms, and most significantly in conjecturing the nature and effects of contemporary technological advances. If they only rarely broach significant human issues, they are all written with a verve and a narrative skill that carries the reader on to a satisfying conclusion. The relative absence of the standard motifs of weird fiction (the ghost, the vampire, the haunted house, and so on) — or, rather, the manner in which many of these motifs are introduced but explained away as the product of error, hallucination, or human contrivance — shows that Doyle recognized the need to devise new and innovative means of generating terror in his audience. Doyle’s influence upon subsequent horror fiction may be difficult to detect, but his variegated stories — written during the entirety of what many scholars regard as the “golden age” of the weird tale — added their weight to a genre that was seeking to leave behind the hackneyed tropes of the past. There is far more than vacuous entertainment in these narratives; more often than not they reveal an insight into human character, a fascination with the strange and bizarre, and a firm moral compass that their author demonstrated throughout his literary career.

Copyright 2023 S.T. Joshi


S.T. Joshi (B.A., M.A., Brown University) is the author of such critical studies as The Weird Tale (1990), The Modern Weird Tale (2001), Unutterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction (2012), and 21st-Century Horror (2018). He has prepared corrected editions of H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction, poetry, essays, and letters, and he has written a comprehensive biography, I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2010). His collected essays on Lovecraft appeared as Lovecraft and a World in Transition (Hippocampus Press, 2014). Joshi has done scholarly work on other authors of supernatural fiction. He is the author of a bibliography (Scarecrow Press, 1993) and critical study of Lord Dunsany, and a critical study of Ramsey Campbell. He has prepared editions of the work of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, M. R. James, Ambrose Bierce, and other writers. He is the coeditor (with Stefan Dziemianowicz) of Supernatural Literature of the World: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2005). Joshi has edited such anthologies as American Supernatural Tales (Penguin, 2007), the Black Wings series (PS Publishing, 2010f.), Searchers After Horror (Fedogan & Bremer, 2014), and The Madness of Cthulhu (Titan Books, 2014-15).