Sunday, January 2, 2011

Conan Doyle's Favorite Weird Tales

So, as part of my recent spate of reading several quirky little minor books by Conan Doyle, I read THROUGH THE MAGIC DOOR --something I'd picked up maybe a decade ago, I think down near Pike Place Market, in the assumption it dealt with his spiritualism (a la PHENEAS SPEAKS). Turns out it's him reminiscing about his favorite books and why he likes them. There's far too much in it about manly men displaying magnificent manliness (as Napoleonic solders, as bare-knuckle boxers, &c) but also some interesting comments on what the eighteenth and nineteenth century classics means to one particular writer of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. He has a lot to say about some authors (Scott), and almost nothing about others (Austen is only mentioned once, dismissively; Twain not at all). Many of the names and titles he covers are still held in high repute today (Dr. Johnson, Richardson, Pepys), while others have faded to specialty interests only (Macaulay, Borrow, Reade).

One chapter that particularly interested me was Doyle's take on short stories. He was himself a master of the short story in its detective story form, and also wrote a few interesting other pieces of short fiction ("The Horror of the Heights" is a pretty gd Cthulhu Mythos precursor-tale, while "Danger!" dramatizes England's vulnerability to unrestricted submarine warfare in the years leading up to The Great War.

Of them all, it's Poe Doyle admires the most,* calling him "the master of all . . . Poe is, to my mind, the supreme original short story writer of all time . . . the world's supreme short story writer." As he goes along, Doyle singles out his favorites, his "list of masterpieces", which turns out to have a strongly weird-tales bent. Here are the stories Doyle includes in his listing:

Poe: The Gold Bug
Poe: The Murder (sic) in the Rue Morgue
Bret Harte: The Luck of Roaring Camp
Bret Harte: Tennessee's Partner
Stevenson: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Stevenson: The Pavilion on the Links
Kipling: The Drums of the Fore and Aft
Kipling: The Man who Would be King
Bulwer Lytton: Haunted and the Haunters
[anon; Blackwoods Magazine]: Metempsychosis
Grant Allen: The Reverend John Creedy
Quiller-Couch: Old Aeson
Maupassant: La Horda
Bierce: In the Midst of Life

All in all, I found it surprising how many of these might be considered horror stories, or at least weird tales. There are obvious omissions -- for example, he dismisses Hawthorne, saying that he always preferred his son Julian's work. A few are now considered classics (the Poe, Bierce, Jekyll & Hyde), while others I'd never heard of ("The Pavillion on the Links", "The Reverend John Creedy", "The Drums of the Fore and Aft"). After having read the whole book, despite some points of agreement I'm dubious that I'll find Doyle a guide to my tastes, but nonetheless I may at some point track down some of the short stories he praised and give them a read.

So, if anyone wants to put out a 'Doyle's Favorite (Weird) Tales', like the several Lovecraft's Favorites volumes from a few years back, the raw material is ready to hand.

--John R.
*not surprising, given that Doyle's most famous work, the Sherlock Holmes series, derives directly from Poe's work.


grodog said...

Good stuff: thanks John, and Happy New Year! :D


N.E. Brigand said...

Doyle mentions Poe in A Study in Scarlet:

"'It is simple enough as you explain it,' I said, smiling. 'You remind me of Edgar Allen Poe's Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories.'

Sherlock Holmes rose and lit his pipe. 'No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin,' he observed. 'Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends' thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour's silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.'"