‘So the old dog returns to his vomit’:
‘The Terror of Blue John Gap’ and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Readers

by Roberta Pearson

Doyle enjoyed the bountiful economic fruits of his popular fictions but longed for recognition as a ‘serious’ author. As Kate Bromley explains, in the 1890s a ‘fierce debate’ took place between upper class ‘traditionalists’, who hoped that their works would constitute part of an artistic canon and middle-class authors, who hoped that appealing to a popular audience would result in riches. Doyle, says Bromley, was caught betwixt and between; needing the money but yearning for the literary respectability achieved by his role model Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels. (Kate Bromley, ‘The Problem with Popularity’, 9 January, 2015 ) When the author temporarily resolved his dilemma by literally killing his golden goose, readers and publishers responded with grief and anger. Evidence of continued interest from the former and generous financial incentives from the latter eventually persuaded the author to resurrect his popular hero. Holmes had achieved a popularity and ubiquity that forced the old dog continually to return to his vomit. But what factors underpinned the character’s phenomenal success?

Two chapters in the recently published edited collection Transmedia Practices in the Long Nineteenth Century discuss the contribution of Victorian publishing practices and copyright laws (or the absence thereof) to that phenomenal success. [Ann McClellan, ‘Creating transmedia fan engagement in Victorian periodicals: The case of Sherlock Holmes,’ (168-187) and ‘To Just steal the name of a character: Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and the conditions of transmedia dispersion’, in Transmedia Practices in the Long Nineteenth Century, eds. Christina Meyer and Monika Pietrzak-Franger (London: Routledge, 2022).] In an excellent essay, Ann McClellan argues that previously established modes of periodical/reader interactions encouraged what she terms a Holmes proto-fandom. As McClellan says, ‘several periodicals invited readers to share their own knowledge and imagining of Holmes, be it through letters to the editor, in comments sections, contests and quizzes’ (171). Tit-Bits, The Strand’s sister magazine in George Newnes’ publishing house, had a particular stake in encouraging reader engagement with the fictional detective. Especially after Holmes’ 1893 demise, the magazine used its letters to the editor, inquiry columns and competitions such as quizzes to keep the character alive in its readers’ imaginations. In another chapter, Roberta Pearson examines how the lack of strict copyright regimes facilitated the Holmes character’s North American and European dispersion. For example, Denmark did not sign the 1886 Berne Convention regulating international copyright until 1903. Until that time, Danish pirates gleefully reproduced the Holmes stories, staged a very successful version of the William Gillette play, and filmed a similarly successful series of Holmes adventures all without acknowledging Doyle’s authorship or claims to the character.

How might Holmes’ success have shaped readers’ responses to ‘The Terror of Blue John Gap’, authored by Doyle but lacking the detective or indeed detection? When the story appeared in 1910, Holmes had escaped his creator to achieve an independent existence in plays, films, advertisements, and comics. In contemporary parlance, Holmes had become an established brand separate from his author and cherished by the proto-fans whom McClellan discusses. As is definitely the case today, many early twentieth century consumers of Holmes content would have known the name Sherlock Holmes but not the name Arthur Conan Doyle. Other consumers may have recognized the name Arthur Conan Doyle, but associated it only with the Holmes stories. But had Doyle managed to establish an author brand independent from his most famous creation to create faithful readers, indeed fans, who would happily seek out and embrace everything he wrote? Would subscribers encountering the story in the latest edition of The Strand have been more inclined to read it knowing that it stemmed from the same pen as did Sherlock Holmes? Might some subscribers have shunned or at least resented the story, since it didn’t feature the detective, whilst others happily devoured anything written by their favourite author?

Were I writing a fully-fledged academic essay addressing these questions, I would turn to two potential sources of evidence. First, I would first seek any data concerning the sales and circulation of Doyle’s non-Holmes fiction. We know that The Strand’s first installment of The Hound of the Baskervilles, for which Doyle semi-resurrected his most famous character, boosted the magazine’s circulation for that month. Did ‘The Terror of Blue John Gap’ or indeed any Doyle fiction not featuring Holmes, have the same effect? Did the novels and short story collections that Doyle published to avoid returning to his old vomit perform as well in the publishing market as the Holmes novels and short story collections? How did the sales of the non-Holmes novels and short story collections compare to those of other best-selling celebrity authors of the period? Perhaps the members of the Arthur Conan Doyle Society might be able to answer some of these questions or at least tell me where to look for the answers.

Second, I would take a closer look at what I am terming Doyle’s author brand. An author brand emerges not only from the published works but also from what literary scholars call paratexts. Paratexts are not the work itself but that which surrounds the work – magazine covers, advertising, author interviews, reviews and the like. How prominent is the Holmes character in the Doylean paratexts? For example, when reviewing a new non-Holmes Doyle story, novel or non-fiction work, did reviewers inevitably mention the detective? Did Doyle’s publishers expend greater energy publicizing his Holmes texts than his non-Holmes texts? For example, the non-illustrated cover of the May, 1909 issue of The Strand features the names of three authors: Doyle, Hall Caine, and WW Jacobs. Doyle’s contribution is not a Holmes story, but rather a narrative poem (‘Bendy’s Sermon’) about a famous Nottingham prize fighter who experienced a religious conversion and became a preacher. The cover indicates that Greenhough Smith (who presumably authorized the cover content), recognized the power of the Doyle author brand, but sans Sherlock, considered it as equivalent to that of two other frequent contributors, Hall and Jacobs. By contrast, the covers of the January and April 1911 American editions of The Strand feature the detective’s name, with large accompanying illustration – no mention of Doyle. The editors clearly believed that the Holmes character brand could attract readers without mentioning his creator. These examples indicate that Doyle’s brand could exist independently of Holmes, but may have been perceived as a weaker attraction.

‘The Terror of Blue John Gap’ raises another question related to Doyle’s author brand. If there were indeed Doyle fans as opposed to Holmes fans, how might they have reacted to their favourite author’s penning a story centred around a terrifying monster from pre-history? Would they have considered the story incommensurate with the established Doyle brand? A quick perusal of Doyle’s bibliography up until 1910 reveals nothing that might be characterized as horror or science fiction (The Lost World wasn’t published until 1912). Although Holmes does not declare that ‘no ghosts need apply’ until the 1924 ‘Adventure of the Sussex Vampire’, all mysteries in the Holmes canon are rationally resolved without recourse to the supernatural. Some key paratexts published in the early 1890s reveal that Doyle’s personal image was that of a bluff and hearty sportsman: ‘He is just a happy, genial, homely man’; ‘A great big, breezy athlete, not in the least one’s ideal litterateur’; ‘immensely powerful in build, and the keenest of sportsmen, he is the very embodiment of the Man in the Field.’ (These quotes are all taken from interviews posted on the Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia.) Doyle did not declare his spiritualist beliefs until 1916. Doyle paratexts and the author brand they constructed may not have prepared his readers for the supernatural, or at least science fictional, resolution of ‘The Terror of Blue John Gap’.

Since this contribution falls far short of a fully-fledged academic essay, it has raised many more questions than it has provided answers. But perhaps it may inspire some contemporary Doyle fans, the members of his literary society, to do research that could provide answers.

Copyright 2022 Roberta Pearson


Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham. She has published several articles and book chapters exploring various aspects of the Holmes character’s circulation. She has been a devout Sherlockian since early adolescence and a proud member of the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes since the early 1980s. She was honoured to deliver the inaugural Baker Street Irregulars Trust Lecture in 2021. The lecture was published as ‘The Problem of the Mutable Detective’ in the Spring 2022 issue of the Baker Street Journal. She would be happy to respond to emails concerning this contribution or indeed any of her writings on Holmes.