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Shadows Over Baker Street: New Tales of Terror

edited by Michael Reaves and John Pelan

(Del Rey/Ballantine Books, $23.95, 464 pages, hardcover; October 2003.)

Review by Marianne Plumridge

"When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."
-- Sherlock Holmes, 1890

cover scanWas there ever a better setup for a more mystical Holmesian adventure than the above quote from Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective in The 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.

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 read.

"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 of Four.

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