Out on the Moor with Mr. Holmes

Don't you love battered, yellowed old books?

I’ve heard The Hound of the Baskervilles described as a horror novel.  I don’t think I’d go quite that far, but there definitely are some horror elements to it.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is my favorite Sherlock Holmes novel, maybe my favorite of any of the stories.  Holmes and Watson leave their usual stomping grounds of London to venture out onto the moor.  This is the biggest horror-story element.  I loved the setting: the spooky, eerie, mist-covered moor, full of strange croppings of rock, treacherous bogs and mysterious noises.  I felt rather like I had followed Holmes into a Bronte novel.  There’s even a big, gloomy pile of an old manor house: Baskerville Hall plainly belongs in the same neighborhood with Wuthering Heights and Thornfield Hall.

Holmes and Watson are out on the moor investigating the recent death of Charles Baskerville, which seems to be tied in some way to the legend of a monster hound stalking the Baskervilles through the centuries.  Something is stalking Sir Henry Baskerville, Charles’ heir and the new lord of the Hall, and Holmes and Watson launch into an investigation.

Sir Henry is a poor substitute for Mr. Rochester, with a mostly place-holder role in the story, but it doesn’t much matter.  Holmes and Watson are always the significant characters, and there’s a fairly good cast of strange secondary characters surrounding them.

This felt the most like a horror novel when Watson and Sir Henry first arrive at Baskerville Hall (Holmes coming later) and explore the dark rooms.  It seems like just the sort of place to have Frankenstein’s monster on a slab in the basement.  The Hall even comes with an ancient butler and his wife, who have their own secrets.

Quite apart from the horror setting (and, of course, the possibility of a spectral hound), this is a good Sherlock Holmes mystery.  There are strange happenings, unsuccessful inquiries, and odd clues that all come together in the end.  I always love books that end up with all the random bits pulling together to explain everything.  Since Doyle follows a pattern of having Holmes lay it all out for Watson at the end, his stories are uniquely suited to managing this trick.

It causes an interesting problem for Doyle, I would imagine–Holmes always solves everything long before Doyle wants to reveal the answers to the reader.  He creates an extra layer between us and the answer by having Watson narrate, and Watson always stays as much in the dark as the rest of us.  The flaw there is that this means Holmes can’t tell Watson anything either, which sometimes seems a little forced.  Mostly Doyle justifies it by making Holmes, by temperament, an extremely laconic and uncommunicative man.  It stretches a bit, but I’ll take it.  I’ll suspend disbelief a touch for the sake of the story.

It is necessary for Holmes to play it close to the vest, because there wouldn’t be any tension otherwise–and Doyle is very good at tension.  I love the way he plays the story out bit by bit, drawing the reader along through the maze, heightening the danger as he goes.  There’s not actually that much action–it’s mostly people talking–but it’s somehow a very tense and exciting story.

My favorite moment in probably any Holmes story (and I’ve read a lot of them) is midway through Baskervilles.  I don’t want to ruin it for anyone–but Watson is out on the moor, and he’s anticipating a confrontation.  Nothing is happening.  He’s just waiting.  And yet Doyle keeps building the tension higher and higher, and then all of a sudden it snaps…and it’s brilliant.  It’s fairly predictable, but it’s still brilliant.

I love Sherlock Holmes stories, and Hound of the Baskervilles is an excellent one.  I don’t think it’s a horror novel, but it is perhaps a Gothic Sherlock Holmes story, and well-worth the read.

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