8. The Hound of the Baskervilles – a ghost story?

I am going to include a chapter on The Hound of the Baskervilles in my second book.  Despite being one of the most written about stories of the last hundred years or so like all great texts it seems to have an endless capacity as a subject for literary analysis.  The more I study it – and I must have read it a hundred times or more – the more I become convinced that, at its heart, lies a ghost story.  I say this not merely because of the overarching legend of the hound but the part played by the landscape, that ‘forbidding moor’, as Conan Doyle puts it.  Holmes, Eliza Barrymore’s convict brother, Selden and Stapleton all appear as spectral figures in this wilderness during the story, as if they are somehow in thrall to it.  Much of the narrative is overshadowed too by the image of the great Grimpen Mire where the denouement takes place – it is a place of death, worthy of any Gothic tale.  This dreadful tract of land claims its victim in the same way that a ghost does in the conventional supernatural tale – Stapleton is not captured but literally absorbed by the landscape.  Consequently, Holmes’s deductive powers often play second fiddle to the atmosphere – so critical in any ghost story – created by the dramatic landscape.  I live near Dartmoor and when I worked for the National Trust I managed some remote parts of it and if ever there was a ghostly landscape where orientation and certainty become blurred it is here.  One nice, off-the-wall touch links The Hound of the Baskervilles  to Henry James’s ghostly tale ‘Owen Wingrave’, as the eponymous hero views the portraits of his family many of whom will haunt him – Holmes too recognizes Stapleton’s likeness to the Baskervilles (and thus his reason for wanting to murder Sir Henry Baskerville so that he may inherit the estate) from a portrait at Baskerville Hall.

Conan Doyle was a writer of ghost stories and so were/are many crime writers – one such I have been re-reading recently as part of my research is Edmund Crispin (he was also a composer and noted cruciverbalist) who wrote witty, elegant and erudite detective stories in the immediate post-war period.  In The Case of the Gilded Fly one of the characters actually relates a Jamesian type ghost story at some length, a remarkable intrusion into a seemingly conventional who-dunnit.  Some critics have questioned this device, but they underestimate the self-reflexive and metanarrative tendencies present in detective fiction of this period.  Whatever the motive it underlines once again the close relationship between the genres and the textual homage that they frequently pay each other.  Check out Crispin’s output it’s well worth it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmund_Crispin

Finally, I hope others enjoyed Dirk Gently on BBC4 as much as I did – Douglas Adams’s idea of the interlinking of all strands in a narrative – holistic detection – makes me think of it as a parody of some of the great 19c novels such as Bleak House where all roads eventually end up in the same place.  Stephen Mangan as Gently had just the right touch of sociopathy and Darren Boyd as Macduff is quietly hysterical!!

24th March

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