Dr Doyle’s Doubles

by Rafe McGregor

‘The Terror of Blue John Gap’ is an epistolary novelette of just over seven thousand words, divided into seven diary entries from 17 April 1907 to 10 June 1907, which are bookended by a foreword and a single-sentence conclusion narrated by an implied author. The most obvious doubling comes early in the manuscript: p.4 proceeds directly from 17 April to 22 April before a reversion to 20 April on p.5, which concludes with a duplication of the last six lines of p.4. The doubling in the story is more subtle, achieved by means of another literary device, the unreliable narrator. Although Dr James Hardcastle is introduced as a ‘sober and scientific’ man, he was terminally ill with tuberculosis at the time of the events chronicled and the narrative is replete with suggestions that he is experiencing both physical and psychological symptoms of his disease. On p.5, he even reflects on the relation between the two, musing that ‘one grows more nervous and more fanciful when one’s health is shaken.’

The repeated reflections, allusions, and intimations of mental illness are matched by a carefully constructed undermining of the possibility of corroboration. Hardcastle thinks he hears, sees, and shoots a blind, ‘bear-like’ beast taller and broader than an elephant and ten times the size of the biggest bear, but all the reader knows for certain is that he entered Blue John Gap mine, fell, and lost consciousness. Hardcastle first hears about the beast from a young man named Armitage on 17 April, when he favours prosaic explanations of missing sheep and a damaged wall. By 3 May, Armitage has himself disappeared and Hardcastle leaves the prosaic explanations to the locals, leaping to the completely baseless conclusion that the beast is responsible. Hardcastle’s shot either misses or fails to draw blood and his vague description of his own wounds — concussion, a broken arm, and two broken ribs — is ambiguous as to whether they were caused by a swat from a gargantuan mole or a fall down a mine shaft. Finally, the locals are quick to dissuade ‘adventurous gentlemen’ from descending on their peaceful haven in the Derbyshire Dales and repair the gap to prevent any further exploration. When I first commented on the ‘The Terror of Blue John Gap’, as editor of The Conan Doyle Weirdbook: Five Novelettes Comprising Doyle’s Essential Horror in 2010, I concluded that it could ‘be read as either a mad fantasy or a genuine narrative’. At the time I was drawn to the latter, but I’m increasingly convinced that Doyle’s achievement is similar if not identical to that of Henry James in The Turn of the Screw (1898), where the interpretations of psychological and supernatural horror are equally valid to the extent that the ambiguity is constitutive of the work’s literary value.

If the beast is an overgrown figment of Hardcastle’s imagination, then it is likely the product of his unconscious and ‘The Terror of Blue John Gap’ is a psychological horror story. Hardcastle is exemplary of the Victorian gentleman, a well-educated and well-mannered man of reason with a steadfast moral compass, a propensity for bold action when provoked, and the gender, class, and ecological prejudices of his time. As he narrates the majority of the narrative, the reader becomes acquainted with both his actions and his thoughts. The beast, in contrast, remains entirely enigmatic, with much of its appearance left to the reader’s imagination and scant explanation of its evolution, habitat, or behaviour. It is, in short, wholly Other to humanity in general and Hardcastle in particular, a sinister, savage, and subterranean monster that must be killed or captured. If the beast is real, then the narrative recalls the novels of one of Doyle’s contemporaries, H. Rider Haggard, whose serial protagonist Allan Quartermain is the archetypal Great White Hunter. Indeed, ‘The Terror of Blue John Gap’ initially takes shape as an instantiation of man versus monster, a timeless tale that reached its apotheosis in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), which also features a familiar rather than exotic setting and a natural rather than supernatural antagonist. For Haggard and the majority of Victorians, nature was simply a resource to be mastered, adapted, and exploited for humanity’s benefit, notwithstanding the widespread acceptance of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Doyle’s perspective on the relation between Hardcastle and the beast, whether mental or material, is much more sophisticated and explored with a calculated literary artifice that employs two converging configurations.

First, he distances his readers from Hardcastle as the narrative progresses, a cumulative effect achieved by the combination of repeated references to his unreliability with an escalation of his obsession to uncover the mystery of the mine, an investigation he is patently unfit to undertake. Hardcastle is most unsympathetic in his determination that Armitage has fallen victim to the beast, mentioned above. Irrespective of the beast’s ontological status, Hardcastle’s ludicrous logic reminds me of Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), in which the protagonist exploits his own psychological disorder to facilitate the continued satisfaction of his homicidal desires. Hardcastle exhibits a similar self-deception, convincing himself that the beast has taken Armitage in order to justify the satisfaction of his desire to hunt and kill it. In my previous commentary, I remarked the sense ‘that he has taken it upon himself to kill something that has thus far proved harmless to mankind, and should have been studied rather than destroyed.’ This sense is sustained by the addition of a second configuration, which invites readers to empathise with the beast in consequence of the late revelation of its vulnerability (blindness) and the even later speculation as to its origin (earthly not infernal). The epistemic ambiguity is thus extended to the ethical and the story closes on a doubly ambiguous note, the question of whether the beast is real or imagined and the question of whether our sympathies should lie with it or with Hardcastle.

Regardless of the interpretation of either ambiguity, the beast is the most complex of Doyle’s doubles because in spite of representing the brutish, savage, and untamed aspects of humanity, it is not presented as meriting approbation — like diseased-Verhagen, Moriarty, and Presbury-on-serum. As such, the doubling of Hardcastle and the beast is an instantiation of what Mark Bould refers to as the environmental uncanny in The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture (2021): the recognition by human beings that they are in the presence of nonhuman agency, which draws attention to the play of identity and difference between human and nonhuman. Whether produced by Hardcastle’s unconscious or by natural selection, the beast sheds light on the relation between the human and the natural worlds. This environmental uncanny is particularly striking given that Doyle was, like Hardcastle, a very Victorian gentleman, with all the virtues and vices that description implies.

It would be stretching credulity to categorise ‘The Terror of Blue John Gap’ as eco-fiction — fiction that takes the integration and interdependence of humanity and the environment as its subject — but Doyle’s deployment of doubling in the novelette is distinct from the other three examples I cited. Diseased-Verhagen is a serial killer, Moriarty an evil genius, and Presbury-on-serum a rapist-in-waiting. The beast is neither homicidal nor evil nor rapacious. While the zoocidal Hardcastle’s agency is impaired by his obsession, the beast has sufficient control of its instincts to refrain from making a meal of his unconscious body. That ‘awful moment when we were face to face’ is likely to have been awful for each of the doubles, the pair of which provide a reminder of the invisible ties among all living species.

Copyright 2023 Rafe McGregor


Rafe McGregor is the author of The Architect of Murder (Robert Hale, 2009) and The Adventures of Roderick Langham (Theaker’s Paperback Library, 2017), the editor of The Conan Doyle Weirdbook: Five Novelettes Comprising Doyle’s Essential Horror (Theaker’s Paperback Library, 2010), and a regular contributor to Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine (Wildside Press). The Weirdbook includes commentary on ‘The Terror of Blue John Gap’, ‘The Captain of the “Pole-Star”’, ‘Lot No. 249’, ‘A Pastoral Horror’, ‘The Parasite’, and Doyle’s complete horror oeuvre. Rafe is a critical theorist affiliated with Edge Hill University (criminology), the University of Rijeka (philosophy), and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (general and comparative literature), specialising in climate justice, aesthetic education, and poststructuralism. His doctoral thesis was published as The Value of Literature (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and he is currently writing a book about the role of popular culture in meeting the challenges of climate change.