Shadows Over Baker Street: New Tales of Terror
(Del Rey/Ballantine Books, $23.95, 464 pages, hardcover; October 2003.)
"When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however
improbable, must be the truth."
-- Sherlock Holmes, 1890
Sign of Four?* In this and other stories by Conan Doyle, the mythical
Holmes's uncanny abilities and knowledge appear almost supernatural
in the setting of late-Victorian London. With that antique society's
predilection for and whole-hearted embrace of mystical and semi-occult
tinkering, it is a very natural extension for the character of Sherlock
Holmes to step into the realm of the Elder Gods and Old Ones as recounted
by H.P. Lovecraft.
there ever a better setup for a more mystical Holmesian adventure than
the above quote from Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective in
In Shadows Over Baker Street: New Tales of Terror a gathering
of well known genre authors have attempted to produce a convincing marriage
of these two equally well known universes. And they've done very well
indeed, dear reader.
The collection opens with a tremendous and disturbing contribution
from Neil Gaiman, "A Study in Emerald", set in 1881. This story begins
in a regular way, told in the first person by someone presumably recognizable
as Doctor Watson. Things get a little iffy after that: the odd becomes
commonplace and the bizarre and unnatural become normal. Nothing appears
what it seems to be, or should be, in the regular Holmesian world. Evil
is perceived as the conventional norm, and fighting against it has the
feel of underground furtiveness. It is revealed at the end which personas
have been switched, and who is actually who. I had to read this story
twice to find all the foreshadowing elements with which the author subtly
fermented the text.
It was nice to encounter the character of Irene Adler again in "Tiger!
Tiger!" by Elizabeth Bear. Although there is ample presence of Lovecraftian
myth in this story, and plenty of adventure, the removal of it from
the sordid backstreets and veiled drawing rooms of gaslit London to
the mores and dangers of the African bush smacks faintly more of something
from the pen of H. Rider Haggard than that of Doyle. Still, it is smartly
paced and well characterized enough to frame the era quite well. A nice
"The Case of the Wavy Black Dagger" by Steve Perry is set in the New
York of 1884, and introduces a characterization of Sherlock Holmes that
I'm not wholly comfortable with. Holmes has always maintained a certain
kind of cold arrogance of tone in his dealings with associates and clients,
but always with an impeccable politeness. The interplay between Holmes
and his nocturnal lady visitor implies a seduction as they verbally
spar with each other in an intricate dance of intellect. Holmes appears
arrogant, smarmy and sensually aroused by the intelligence and appearance
of the lady. Other than his being impressed by Irene Adler in past adventures,
I do not consciously remember Holmes being portrayed thus at all --
unless of course it was in a Hollywood screen treatment of the character.
A good idea, but a difficult version of Holmes.
In "A Case of Royal Blood" Steven-Elliot Altman spins another twist
in the coupling of the Holmesian and Lovecraftian universes by adding
a third: the presence of H.G. Wells, who replaces Watson as the sidekick
and point-of-view "voice". Wells also picks up some inspiration for
future stories along the way.
The excellent "The Weeping Masks" by James Lowder is set pre-Holmes,
and tells in flashback style of Doctor Watson's experiences as a subaltern
physician newly arrived in the wilds of Afghanistan, and of the war
being waged there. The legendary Afghan caves are the setting for Watson's
encounters with the Weeping Mask deaths, and ultimately with "the unspeakable
one", "The One Who Must Not Be Named". Cthulhu, even?
The frequency of Afghanistan being represented in these tales as a
place where evil dwells, or hosting access to demonic dimensions, speaks
eloquently of current events and world feeling. As much as Afghanistan
is a part of Doctor Watson's military past, I find that the literary
associations contained in this anthology to be an interesting response
to recent tragedies in the Middle East, also here, and abroad. I wonder
if it was intentional.
There are plenty more tales in this excellent collection, some straightforward,
some not. They tell of curses upon men and women involving supernatural
transmutation and horrific metamorphosis; black arts revolving around
the Necronomicon; human sacrifice and transplantation of evil spirits;
and the odd megalomaniac or two. All of them make compelling reading
for fans of Sherlock Holmes mysteries and of period drama; however,
I'm not completely sure if purists of the works of H.P. Lovecraft will
agree. I thoroughly enjoyed this anthology of supernatural Sherlock
Holmes tales, enough to remind me that too many years have passed since
I last read the works of Conan Doyle. An enjoyment well remembered.
All in all, I found the stories collected here a wonderful addition
to the worlds of both Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft. The authors
have recreated a splendid mythical history that works in either universe,
or both. This is a book that will remain on my shelves for years to
come, to be taken down and read again from time to time, when winter
creeps too close and the windows rattle on a windy night...
* On the page preceding the Contents page in this volume, the quote
by Sherlock Holmes is incorrectly attributed to A Study in Scarlet.
The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and the New International
Dictionary of Quotations give the original reference as The Sign