Revisiting: The Dead and The Hound of the Baskervilles

Today I’ve chosen two more titles to revisit somewhat at random. I wanted to do the two Melville novellas, but I’ve been extremely busy and wanted to devote more time to them, so instead you get two (or at least 1.5) Irish writers.

Dubliners is the only James Joyce I’ve read, and while I wasn’t what you’d call blown away, I did enjoy “The Dead,” which is here considered a novella (so I’ll start italicizing it I guess). But going back over it now, I realize how distorted my memory of the story was. I saw “the story” as being about Gretta and her tale of woe: when she was a girl, she was “great with” a 17-year-old boy who was very “sensitive” and ended up dying, possibly of consumption, possibly for her. Gretta begins thinking about this boy, or at least, she gets upset and tells her husband about him, after an annual dance given by her husband’s maiden aunts and their neice. I remembered the festivities of Miss Kate and Miss Julia as a framing story, a device to set up Gretta for her memories.

In this 64-page novella, less than 5 are devoted to Gretta’s story of Michael Furey. So much for that framing story.

Still, what is the party story if not a set-up for the sad one? What are the talking and laughing and eating and family and friends, not to mention Gabriel’s speech about remembering those dead and gone, if not preparation for Gretta’s tale—or, really, preparation for Gabriel’s reaction to Gretta’s tale?

“It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light.” Oh, Sherlock Holmes, I revisit you and I only want to quote passages I already quoted—not to mention see Dartmoor again. Although Watson does make it awfully creepy. “Always there was this feeling of an unseen force,” he says when he discovers that he’s been watched, “a fine net drawn round us with infinite skill and delicacy, holding us so lightly that it was only at some supreme moment that one realized that one was indeed entangled in its meshes.” Fortunately, the net here is woven by someone who can be trusted, at least mostly.

Everything about this mystery feels classic to me, as, I imagine, Sherlock Holmes should. But it’s more than that. It’s the setting, the structure, the author’s own assurance. I do love this genre.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The main reason I started December’s mystery/ghost stories project was for the atmosphere. It’s cold, it’s snowy, it’s dark and dreary, and I wanted something to warm up with. Most of my selections have been good on atmosphere, but The Hound of the Baskervilles was great. Dartmoor is, to borrow a phrase from Bertie Wooster, just “dripping with atmosphere,” and since Dartmoor is where the bulk of the action of The Hound takes place I was all over it. For those who can’t quite envision the russet, boggy moor, I give you Nicole, at play on Dartmoor (I am the tiny one):
Nicole on Dartmoor

This is my kind of place. And I like to think the Stapletons’ cottage is something like this:

On to the book, you say? For me it is hopelessly tied up in this scenery, and becomes almost a specimen of regional fiction. The legend of the hound, especially. I love how exotic Devon is to Holmes and Watson, how West Country folklore of a supernatural hound almost gets the better of the supreme rationalist.

And, in my first encounter with Holmes himself, I was actually pleasantly surprised by how much I liked him. I had feared his charms would be overrated, but no. In the first chapter, after he and Watson investigate a walking stick left behind by a caller:

“Really, Watson, you excel yourself,” said Holmes, pushing back his chair and lighting a cigarette. “I am bound to say that in all the accounts which you have been so good as to give of my own small achievements you have habitually underrated your own abilities. It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt.”

As if “you are not yourself luminous” was not enough, when Watson actually starts to get a little pleased with himself, Holmes follows up with:

“I am afraid, my dear Watson, that most of your conclusions were erroneous. When I said that you stimulated me I meant, to be frank, that in noting your fallacies I was occasionally guided towards the truth.”

I hadn’t anticipated how funny Holmes would be, but he definitely is. Nor how excited he would get over the mystery; I always imaged him as much more cool and calm but he is certainly hot and bothered over the fate of Sir Henry Baskerville—and over the capture of his would-be killer. All to the good.

As for the mystery itself, unusually, I solved it. That is to say, I could name the culprit and his motive, but not his means, which were definitely a surprise. And my one misgiving about my solution, how the assassin would later get away with presenting himself as an heir, was even left as a hole in the plot by Holmes himself. (This was something of a disappointment, but by the final pages, after so much fun, who really cares?)

Oh, and I don’t want to forget Mr. Frankland, of Lafter Hall (as he is qualified the first four times he is mentioned!). This is a character worthy of Dickens, and truly wondrous—if only he had more screen time!

He is an elderly man, red faced, white haired, and choleric. His passion is for the British law, and he has spent a large fortune in litigation. He fights for the mere pleasure of fighting and is equally ready to take up either side of a question, so that it is no wonder that he has found it a costly amusement. Sometimes he will shut up a right of way and defy the parish to make him open it. At others he will with his own hands tear down some other man’s gate and declare that a path has existed there from time immemorial, defying the owner to prosecute him for trespass. He is learned in old manorial and communal rights, and he applies his knowledge sometimes in favour of the villagers of Fernworthy and sometimes against them, so that he is periodically either carried in triumph down the village street or else burned in effigy, according to his latest exploit.

Is this what people are like in Devon? I mean, to the cosmopolitan Holmes and Watson. Maybe so: Baskerville Hall is, after all, a venerable old country home; quite right that one of its only educated neighbors should be “learned in old manorial and communal rights.”

I have been lucky enough to find a few new wholesome comfort reads in 2008, and this goes on that list. The fog, the mire, the russet hills, the moaning winds. The huge dark house, yet to be modernized. And the hellhound roaming the moor breathing flames. Perfect December pick.