Gothic Horror at its finest: vendettas carried on generation after generation heralded only with seeds sent to the victim in the mail, a luminous evil stalks a Victorian gentleman over the mist-covered downs, snakes slide down into unsuspecting ladies’ beds at the bidding of a cruel stepfather… Sounds like the stuff speculative fiction (specifically horror) is made of, doesn’t it?
These are, of course, all plots from the stories Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about his famous fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes. Widely classified as straight-up mystery, the question remains: can we classify Sherlock as speculative fiction, and why should we care if it is? Besides The Five Orange Pips, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Speckled Band which I have referenced above, I would like to consider one particular short story as being proof that the Sherlock Holmes mysteries can be considered speculative fiction; The Adventure of the Creeping Man is a truly speculative work. The Creeping Man is essentially Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring Sherlock Holmes. Recently, Professor Presbury, a renowned scientist, has started acting very strangely. His secretary, engaged to the professor’s daughter, enlists Holmes to explain the Professor’s change in behaviour. It is revealed through Holmes’ characteristic deductive reasoning that the Professor has become half-monkey, half-man through his use of a drug cultivated from the langur, a species of ape from the Himalayas, injected into his veins in an attempt to restore his youth. The story concludes with Holmes’ reflection on what science has the potential to do. It is a cautionary tale about artificially prolonging life that could have come from any contemporary science fiction novel. Holmes warns: “There is a danger there – a very real danger to humanity. Consider, Watson, that the material, the sensual, the worldly would all prolong their worthless lives. The spiritual would not avoid the call to something higher. It would be survival of the least fit. What sort of cesspool may not our poor world become?” Regardless of whether you agree with Holmes’ rather bleak view of science, you have to admit it could have come from any tale in the science fiction canon.
There is no doubt that despite the many horror elements in Doyle’s writing, Sherlock Holmes himself was a remarkably pragmatic man. That is perhaps why he is so appealing; he is an oasis of calm, analytical logic in an ocean of murder, horror, and mystery.
It is also worth noting that Sherlock Holmes would have read as science fiction to Victorian readers. According to PBS’s recent mini-series: How Sherlock changed the World, Holmes’ investigative techniques were unheard of by his contemporaries; his blood spatter analysis and chemical tests to determine blood stains had never been tried before. Police officers were still focused on getting eye-witness accounts of crimes rather than analyzing physical evidence. The notion of an uncontaminated crime scene was unheard of. As Sherlock put it to Lestrade in The Boscombe Valley Mystery, “they [Lestrade’s officers] came like a herd of buffalo, and wallowed all over it [the crime scene]”.
The speculative elements in his work all suggest that Conan Doyle’s universe is not a realist place populated by ordinary men. Take for example his arch-nemesis, Professor James Moriarty, on whom arguably every successive super-villain is based. The man is a “spider” at the head of an international crime organization. He reflects Holmes “through a glass, darkly”. Their interactions are the template for every hero/arch-villain showdown since (especially in comic book exchanges).
Mystery, much like speculative fiction, has long been accused of being “escapist” due to the re-establishment of law and order that usually takes place at the end. According to P.D. James, mysteries are reassuring due to their fundamental structure. When aberrant behaviour disturbs the routine of ordinary life, it is investigated and, eventually, the killer is caught and order is restored. This rather simplistic view ignores the mystery literature which does not end with the triumphant restoration of law and order, but rather with a questioning of the entire justice system’s effectiveness. This is yet another ex-ample of the parallels between mystery and speculative fiction. When speculative fiction, as a genre, is accused of being escapist, critics ignore the literature that challenges our deeply held assumptions.
Mystery is present everywhere, and investigation drives the plot in much of the greatest speculative fiction. Who killed Jon Arryn in A Game of Thrones? Who (and what) is Count Dracula? Who is trying to steal the Philosopher’s Stone from Hogwarts? There isn’t as much separation as we think between the speculative and the “realist” detective novel and these parallels need to be acknowledged. We need to see the artificial divide that exists between the pragmatic Holmes and his brethren in speculative fiction for the false premise that it is. After all, as Holmes would say, it’s elementary.
-Contributed by Lara Thompson