Read James Lovegrove's exclusive guest post about the ways in which Sherlock Holmes works with H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, then make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win the second book in the Cthulhu Casebook series, Sherlock Holmes and the Miskatonic Monstrosities!
On the face of it, there isn’t much to tie together Sherlock Holmes and H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. They’re almost mutually exclusive. On the one hand, we have in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous creation perhaps the most rational character in all of fiction, who snortingly dismisses the very idea of the paranormal. In Holmes’s own words, “This Agency stands flat-footed upon the ground and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.” On the other hand, we have a literary universe predicated on the notion that ancient, star-spawned gods not only exist but exert their evil influence over all humankind. To meet a Lovecraftian elder being in the flesh—or even to worship one from afar—is to risk your sanity and your very life.
But there are, in fact, more common elements between these two polar opposites than you might think.
1. Dr. Watson's Unrecorded Cases
Some of the unrecorded cases Dr. Watson mentions in passing have a distinctly Lovecraftian ring. Consider, for instance, this passage from “The Problem of Thor Bridge”:
Among these unfinished tales is that of Mr. James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world. No less remarkable is that of the cutter Alicia, which sailed one spring morning into a small patch of mist from where she never again emerged, nor was anything further ever heard of herself and her crew. A third case worthy of note is that of Isadora Persano, the well-known journalist and duellist, who was found stark staring mad with a match box in front of him which contained a remarkable worm said to be unknown to science.
Each of those three, but particularly the last, could form the basis for a pretty decent Lovecraft tale, don’t you think?
2. The Giant Rat of Sumatra
Another “untold tale” is that of the giant rat of Sumatra, mentioned in “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” (where we also find the quotation above about ghosts). Said rat is linked somehow to a ship, the Matilda Briggs, and the implication is that some supernatural-seeming incident occurred that Holmes was instrumental in unraveling. Of all the glancing references to other cases in the original Conan Doyle tales, this one has excited the imaginations of Holmes pasticheurs the most.
There have been countless proposals offered by other authors as to what the rat was and what it did, some of them rather Lovecraftian. In David Stuart Davies’s 1999 novel, The Shadow of the Rat, an oversized rodent forms part of a plot to infect London with the bubonic plague, and a similar scheme features in Fred Saberhagen’s The Holmes–Dracula File (1978). In Sherlock Holmes’s War of the Worlds (1975) by Manly Wade Wellman and his son Wade Wellman, we are told that that other great recurring Conan Doyle character, Professor Challenger, helped solve a case concerning the animal. The Doctor Who series The Talons of Weng-Chiang—a Victorian-era caper with the Fourth Doctor very much in Holmesian mode—has a giant marauding rat loose in London’s sewers. Andy Lane has written about giant rat-like creatures both in Young Sherlock Holmes: Snake Bite (2012) and his 1994 New Adventures novel, All-Consuming Fire. The latter novel triangulates Holmes, the Doctor, and Lovecraft in a romp whose villain is none other than the Outer God Azazoth.
3. Creepy Canines
The Hound of the Baskervilles has all the eerie Gothic atmosphere and spine-tingling uncanniness of a Lovecraft story, at least up until its dénouement where—spoiler alert—the sinister glowing canine which haunts Dartmoor is revealed to be a large bloodhound/mastiff cross coated in phosphorous.
In turn, Lovecraft’s 1922 short story “The Hound,” about a genuinely ghostly dog that exacts vengeance on grave robbers, is set in an England of mist, moorland, and manor houses and seems very much a tribute to Conan Doyle’s 1901 novel.
4. Science Gone Too Far
“The Adventure of the Creeping Man” is perhaps the creepiest (no pun intended) entry in the Sherlock Holmes canon. It deals with a science experiment gone wrong and features another dangerous dog, this time an agitated wolfhound named—somewhat incongruously—Roy. Aging Professor Presbury, “the famous Camford physiologist,” experiments on himself disastrously with a rejuvenating drug, a serum derived from a Himalayan langur.
Lovecraft likewise wrote about scientists meddling with forces beyond their control and venturing too far in their quest for knowledge in tales such as his short story “Herbert West—Reanimator” and his novella At the Mountains of Madness.
5. Poisonous Plants & the Descent into Madness
The mystery in Holmes tale “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” hinges on a fictitious plant “used as an ordeal poison by the medicine-men in certain districts of West Africa.” Its poisonous fumes induce visions that are so phantasmagorical they cause irrevocable madness and even death. Lovecraft himself, whose protagonists more often than not end up losing their sanity, would have been proud to have come up with such a literary contrivance.
Conan Doyle, of course, was notoriously superstitious, not to say credulous. He fell hook, line, and sinker for the Cottingley Fairy hoax, he wrote ardently about spiritualism in books such as The New Revelation and The Vital Message, and he sank a lot of his money into supporting the Psychic Bookshop on London’s Victoria Street. He even fell out with his friend Harry Houdini over his belief that the great escapologist possessed supernatural powers, despite all protestations by the man himself to the contrary.
Lovecraft, paradoxically, appears to have been something of a rationalist and materialist in his private life, for all the cosmic weirdness inherent in his stories. Each author, then, wrote most famously about a subject that ran counter to his personal credo. That irony offers a grey area that is ripe for exploitation. It is almost as if one could swap Conan Doyle’s and Lovecraft’s heads around and they would still have produced the same words of fiction they did.
My Cthulhu Casebooks trilogy sits firmly in that grey area, where the stranger side of Sherlock Holmes shades into the factual-reportage style—the unreal recounted as if real—in which Lovecraft couched his tales. The overlap between the two, at first glance almost vanishingly narrow, is in truth much broader than it seems. Rather than eliminating the impossible, as in Holmes’s oft-quoted dictum, I have chosen to write about him embracing it.
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James Lovegrove is the author of more than 50 books, including The Hope, Days, Untied Kingdom, Provender Gleed, the New York Times bestselling Pantheon series, the Redlaw novels and the Dev Harmer Missions. He has produced four Sherlock Holmes novels and a Holmes/Lovecraft mashup trilogy, Cthulhu Casebooks: The Shadwell Shadows, The Miskatonic Monstrosities and The Sussex Sea-devils. He has sold well over 50 short stories and published two collections, Imagined Slights and Diversifications. He has produced a dozen short books for readers with reading difficulties, and a four-volume fantasy saga for teenagers, The Clouded World, under the pseudonym Jay Amory.
James has been shortlisted for numerous awards, including the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Bram Stoker Award, the British Fantasy Society Award and the Manchester Book Award. His short story “Carry The Moon In My Pocket” won the 2011 Seiun Award in Japan for Best Translated Short Story. His work has been translated into sixteen languages, and his journalism has appeared in periodicals as diverse as Literary Review, Interzone, BBC MindGames, All About History and Comic Heroes. He reviews fiction regularly for the Financial Times and lives with his wife, two sons and tiny dog in Eastbourne, not far from the site of the “small farm upon the South Downs” to which Sherlock Holmes retired.