Doyle’s Tales of Terror and Mystery:
Writer Dean Wilkinson picks his 4 favourite “Conandoylic” horror stories for your distressingly dire delight

by Dean Wilkinson

First published 1913 in The Strand

PLOT: A battered and blood-stained journal is found in the East Sussex village of Withyham. It becomes known as the Joyce-Armstrong Fragment after its author, a keen aviator named Joyce-Armstrong.

The pilot was curious about the mysterious deaths of a couple of other monoplane pilots who had died quite savagely after achieving heights of around 30 thousand feet, one of whom was beheaded. He had come to the conclusion that there were unknown hostile creatures living in what he described as ‘air-jungles.’ These were pockets of air capable of sustaining ecosystems inhabited by terrifying life-forms that were actively preying on the new-fangled aeroplanes of man. He takes his monoplane to 40 thousand feet and actually sees the semi-gelatinous, air-borne creatures that resemble hellish jellyfish and snakes. He confronts a savage air beast and narrowly escapes doom. On a return flight he is not so lucky and writes in his journal that his death is going to be horrific. ‘A dreadful death to die.’ Later his wrecked plane is found, as is his journal — what we call today a ‘found footage horror.’

It’s an unnerving and ingenious idea for a story. Bear in mind that aviation was much in its infancy at the time Doyle penned this tale, and precious few had ever been up so high. Doyle really exercised his imagination as to what nightmares would be found up there. The story surely must have influenced the revered Twilight Zone episode ‘Nightmare At 20,000 Feet’ starring Star Trek’s William Shatner. In this 1963 episode, written by Robert Matheson, Shatner’s character is the only plane passenger to see a menacing creature on the outside of the plane, mid-flight, deliberately causing damage. In the 1983 remake starring Third Rock From The Sun star John Lithgow (part of the tragically ill-fated Twilight Zone The Movie), the gremlin creature eventually flies away from the plane into the night sky. ‘Horror of the Heights’ is eerie, ingenious, and wonderful fun.

First published 1902 in McClure’s Magazine

PLOT: An eccentric French collector of bizarre antiquities, Lionel Dacre, invites his English friend to visit him at his Paris apartment. The rooms are lined with ancient heirlooms, sinister looking curios, and unnerving objet d’art. He claims each piece in his collection has a sinister history attached. The Englishman’s attention is drawn to a strange leather funnel. Dacre claims he does not know the tale behind this relic, but suggests he try a form of psychometry to read the object’s past. By placing it near his head as he sleeps, he might dream of how the funnel was used in some memorable, possibly violent, way.

The Englishman does as he is instructed and has an unnerving dream. Like a silent ghost, he bears witness to an event from the past: The beginnings of a torture scene in which an ill-fated woman has the funnel forced into her mouth, making her consume massive amounts of water. It will stop when she confesses to her crimes.

The Englishman awakes, deeply upset, and Dacre admits he has had the same dream. He now tells his friend that the funnel was used to procure a confession from Marie Madeleine d’Aubrey in 1665. She was accused of numerous poisonings and was executed by beheading following the torture and subsequent confession. Doyle handles the torture delicately, which leaves gaps in your imagination one cannot help but fill. The scene is cold and clinical, making it all the more upsetting.

Marie-Madeleine d’Aubray — the Marquise de Brinvilliers — was indeed a real historic character. She is thought to have poisoned around 30 innocent people for various nefarious reasons. The fact she actually underwent this heinous water torture, sometimes called the ‘Water Cure’, enhances this gem of a paranormal tale. ‘The Leather Funnel’ would have made a fantastic addition to the 70s/80s sci-fi fantasy TV series Sapphire And Steel. Sapphire had the gift of psychometry and Steel could alter time. Surely S&S creator P.J. Hammond read this tale in his youth.

LOT No. 249
First published 1892 in Harper’s Magazine

PLOT: It is 1894 and the setting is the University of Oxford. A brilliant medical student, Abercrombie Smith, is called to assist his friend, Edward Bellingham, who has fainted from shock. Bellingham is an Egyptology student and has purchased, at auction, lot 249 — a genuine Egyptian mummy. It is indeed an eerie thing to behold, desiccated and swaddled in decaying wrappings. The mystery thickens when the caretaker claims to have heard laborious shuffling sounds coming from Bellingham’s room when the student was out. Soon after, another student, whom Bellingham has a grudge against, is attacked by a mysterious and dishevelled figure. Another Oxford pupil, Monkhouse Lee, is also set upon by an unknown, mouldering brute after having told Smith that Bellingham confided a dire secret to him. Smith confronts the Egyptology student, surmising he has somehow reanimated the mummy to attack those who have crossed him. Indeed, the next night, Smith himself is targeted by the monstrous artefact. Bellingham must take drastic action to stop the grotesque abomination and its work.

At the time ‘Lot No. 249’ was written (1890s), Egyptology was sweeping the world. Much of the mysticism and wonderment of ancient Egypt had already been explored by other writers, but Doyle was the first to portray reanimated mummies as murderous assassins. Many horror scribblers followed in Doyle’s wake and a new type of movie monster was created.

The story was lauded by the likes of Rudyard Kipling, H.P. Lovecraft and Anne Rice. ‘Lot No. 249’ is truly chilling and evokes an eerie atmosphere if read completely alone on a dark, still night. Wicked fun and another classic from Doyle.

First published 1910, Strand Magazine

PLOT: Doctor James Hardcastle has been severely ill with tuberculosis and is sent to recuperate on a quiet Derbyshire farm. It is run by two elderly spinsters, the Allerton sisters. Gradually feeling stronger he investigates a local mine dating back to Roman times where the rare mineral called Blue John can still be found. Hardcastle wants to explore the vast underground chambers formed from many excavations but is warned against this by a local farmer. He claims there is an inhuman, ungodly presence in the mine. A centuries old legend only the locals believe. The farmer claims it is a monstrous beast that emerges at night to steal his sheep.

Indeed, Hardcastle stumbles upon a colossal supernatural monster and narrowly escapes a violent death. Exhibiting stubbornness and stupidity — bearing in mind he is still not completely recovered from his tuberculosis — he vows to go back and get solid evidence of the monster’s existence. He does so, but the outcome is not what the doctor desired. The locals, wishing for an end to this nightmare once and for all, seal off the mine.

This story is claustrophobic and unsettling and could be considered a prelude to Doyle’s better known ‘monsters underground’ classic The Lost World, his first in a series of similar tales featuring the equally stubborn Professor Challenger.

Blue John Gap, real name Blue John Cavern, or The Devil’s Arse, is an actual tourist attraction in the Peak District, Derbyshire. The mines still offer up the mineral Blue John and the miners also act as tour guides and put on demonstrations, events, and gigs.

Doyle penned an impressive back catalogue of terror and mystery tales that are well worth investigating. ‘The Lost Special’ and ‘The Man With The Watches’ feature hints of an amateur sleuth that could be Holmes himself. Allegedly. And ‘The Brazilian Cat’ boasts a mauling incident that will have your calf muscle aching with sympathetic pain for days afterwards.

Sir Arthur left us so much in the way of original, ground-breaking, and hugely entertaining literature. Many of these short stories are on audio and can be enjoyed for free on YouTube.

Copyright 2023 Dean Wilkinson


Dean Wilkinson is a veteran writer for TV, film, games, books, comics, and stage. He penned the multi-award-winning SMTV Live and Chums for Ant and Dec. He’s written for John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Harry Hill, Chevy Chase, and Dan Aykroyd, to name drop just a few. Dean writes the smash hit Sherlockian horror/comedy pastiche book series Sheerluck Versus The Paranormal.