Every reader knows of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Fewer are aware that he also invented Professor Challenger, whose visit to a plateau frozen in prehistory in The Lost World was a forerunner to Jurassic Park.
But hardly anyone knows that Doyle also wrote many horror stories and was a brilliant master of the genre. A collection of these can be found in The Horror of the Heights & Other Strange Tales. And what a delightful treat these tales are!
I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised that the father of literature’s most enduring character would bring considerable creativity to bear. But it’s remarkable how Doyle invented many of the staples of supernatural fiction.
His story “The Great Keinplatz Experiment,” anticipates the many body-swapping movies Hollywood has churned out, such as Freaky Friday, 18 Again, Prelude to a Kiss, and Rob Schneider’s surprisingly hilarious The Hot Chick.His “Lot 249” introduces the shambling, homicidal mummy that would decades later send chills up the spines of movie goers in The Mummy. Another story, “The Ring of Thoth,” precedes The Mummy’s theme of an immortal Egyptian driven by love spanning the centuries.
The story “The Horror of the Heights,” is about an airplane menaced by a monster that dwells in the clouds. It would be echoed in the classic 1963 Twilight Zone episode in which William Shatner, recovering from a nervous breakdown, is the only passenger aboard a plane to see a mysterious creature tampering with the engine.
As a writer, I’m often frustrated at how often I’ll come up with what I believe to be an original idea for a supernatural story, only to discover that The Twilight Zone got there first. Well, again and again, Conan Doyle beats Rod Serling to the punch.
The most truly fascinating thing about these stories is that each includes a clearly outlined mechanism for the supernatural occurrence, lending the tales unusual realism.
Remember, Conan Doyle was an ardent believer in the occult. He vouched for mediums and ascribed to their pseudoscientific cosmology (ectoplasm, astral planes and the like). He believed in telepathy, psychometry, clairvoyance — and even fairies, championing those dubious “fairy photographs” as legitimate.
In most modern horror novels and movies, the supernatural element requires total suspension of disbelief. We are simply supposed to accept that there are vampires, werewolves, ghosts, zombies or whatever, with the why and how left unanswered. In occult-expert Conan Doyle’s stories there is always a logical explanation for the supernatural events, no matter how fantastic. For example, in the body-switching story, the spooky fun starts when a professor and his assistant, sitting side by side, simultaneously attempt out-of-body projection.
And in “Horror of the Heights,” the denizens of the upper atmosphere are life forms that one might reasonably believe could inhabit the sky — unlike the lumbering, Abominable Snowman-like “gremlin” of The Twilight Zone episode.
Beyond that, the twisty, sometimes grimly humorous stories deliver the requisite scares. There were none that I didn’t like. My favorite was “The Parasite,” in which a hypnotist’s parlor exhibition at a cocktail party leads to harrowing consequences for the subject. This tale features a storyline you definitely WON’T recognize from Hollywood movies. And it builds up to a nail-biting climax even Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t foresee.
This article was written by the author of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Harry Houdini in The Adventure of the Spook House