Monday, March 21, 2016


The Winning Shot

By Arthur Conan Doyle

First published Bow Bells magazine, 11 July 1883.
Reviewed by Charles Prepolec (at in 2000)
Here we come to a turning point in Doyle's stories. The previous stories that I have mentioned have all been rather basic little vignettes of life, mostly in a humorous vein. Not so The Winning Shot. Here we have a slightly longer story with considerably more character development. We have a strong mystery with serious overtones of the supernatural, with hints of vampirism, cannibalism and witchcraft thrown in for good measure. Structurally and in content, we have what could easily have been a case for Holmes. Doyle's masterful use of descriptive language creates a great atmosphere of gothic horror. Highly evocative descriptions are peppered throughout. Much of the imagery would fit well in Stoker's Dracula.

The story opens with a newspaper advertisement that serves as a warning to avoid one Octavius Gaster. It also serves as a notice to the reader that this is to be a serious and somewhat nasty story. It certainly grabs your attention and draws you into the story. The description of Gaster is very much like one of Ian Fleming's grotesques, rather than Doyle's. I present this remarkable opening here:

"Caution. - The public are hereby cautioned against a man calling himself Octavius Gaster. He is to be recognized by his great height, his flaxen hair, and deep scar upon his left cheek, extending from the eye to the angle of the mouth. His predilection for bright colours - green necktie, and the like - may help to identify him. A slightly foreign accent is to be detected in his speech. This man is beyond the reach of the law, but is more dangerous than a mad dog. Shun him as you would shun the pestilence that
walketh at noonday. Any communications as to his whereabouts will be thankfully acknowledged by A. C. U., Lincoln's Inn, London."

Quite the prelude to a character to which we will not be introduced until some 4 pages later! A creature this ghastly, had of course to be foreign to be palatable to an English readership. The physical scar clearly represents a deeper, uglier scarring to the man's character. His liking of bright colours also mark  him as being outside the pale of normal society. As an opening it is certainly a cracker! What has this beast done to make him "...more dangerous than a mad dog." and "Shun him as you would shun the pestilence that walketh at noonday." I for one, wanted to know!

Had the next line been something about "And so read the advertisement that drew Sherlock Holmes attention that morning..." we would have had a classic opening to a Holmes case. Much of this story reads like the flashback told to Sherlock Holmes by a client at the outset of a case. Read on, the Sherlockian echoes abound in this one.

Once again Doyle uses the voice of a young woman to relate the events. Once again I found him to be very convincing. The story is set up in typical country house mystery style. A cast of characters including the retired colonel, the manly fiancée, various relatives and hanger-ons etc...are introduced. All is as it should be, joy and harmony in the county of Devon. Our young couple - to - be head out in the evening for a romantic unchaperoned walk in the open air to essentially the creepiest spot they can find (?). They choose to try " of the brooks upon the moor." This is no place for young lovers:

"Above us towered two great columns of rock, between which the water trickled to form a deep, still pool at the bottom. This pool had always been a favourite spot of Charley's, and was a pretty cheerful place by day; but now, with the rising moon reflected upon it's glassy waters, and throwing dark shadows from the overhanging rocks, it seemed anything rather than the haunt of a pleasure seeker."


"The noise that water makes is like the gurgling in the throat of a dying man."

Nice spot, huh? A brilliant and evocative description. Somewhere between The Hound and Reichenbach perhaps? It is in this atmosphere that we first encounter Octavius Gaster.

"Charley had staggered back, and was gazing upwards with a pallid face...I followed the direction of his eyes, and could scarcely suppress a scream."


"...about sixty feet above our heads, a tall dark figure was standing, peering down, apparently, into the rugged hollow in which we were...The moon was just topping the ridge behind, and the gaunt, angular outlines of the stranger stood out hard and clear against its silvery radiance."

This last bit is of course very similar to the Hound sequence with the man on the Tor. The effect is of course rather different. This is followed by a description of the man himself, which brings up the whole vampire angle. This story was published almost 15 years before Stoker's Dracula. This clearly illustrates that the vampire was already a well-defined literary figure before the appearance of the Transylvanian count. Note Doyle's description here:

"...a long thin face of ghastly pallor..."

and two paragraphs later we have

"There was something in his angular proportions and the bloodless face which, taken in conjunction with the black cloak which fluttered from his shoulders, irresistibly reminded me of a blood sucking species of bat which Jack Daseby had brought from Japan..."

While he is certainly described as being repulsive, there is also an
attraction to Gaster. Perhaps another allusion to the repressed sexuality
that also runs through Stoker.

"...the easy grace with which he raised his hat on perceiving the presence of a lady showed that he could lay claim to the savoir faire of a man of the world."


"...a slightly foreign lisp which imparted a peculiar beauty to his voice."

and much later

"...there was the gaunt, vampire-like figure..."

Certainly not out of place in Dracula. I can't help but wonder what Doyle's reading materials consisted of just prior to writing this. Joseph Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla (1872) perhaps? Possibly Varney the Vampire (1847)? Whatever it was, Stoker certainly was at the same source. Without any evidence, I hesitate to go so far as to suggest that Stoker had read this Doyle story, although it is very tempting.

At this point our hapless couple does the natural English thing when meeting strange men upon the moor, they invite him to stay at their home. Gaster sums up my feelings quite admirably on this topic with:

"Truly, when I return to Sweden, I shall have strange stories to tell of the English and the hospitality."

Charley gives a short explanation about strangers wandering in circles, getting lost on the moor and dying of fatigue. Gaster finds the concept highly amusing.

"Ha, ha!" laughed the Swede; "it is not I, who have drifted in an open boat from Cape Blanco to Canary, that will starve upon an English moor."

This line of course sets up the telling of a ghastly story and the hint of cannibalism on Gaster's part. Gaster relates how he and a companion named Karl Osgood had to flee from North Africa after a trading venture went awry. The two floated in an open boat for some time. At some point Karl became
overcome with hunger and cut off his own ears and ate them. (The Cardboard Box echo perhaps?) He promptly died. Gaster's comment is:

"...Had he but used his will he would have lived as I did."

"And you think that a man's will can prevent him from feeling hungry?" said Charley.
"What can it not do?" returned Octavius Gaster...

This of course is the crux of the whole story. Gaster's will. Personally, although I have no evidence, I suspect that Gaster was sustained for the rest of the boat trip with a far more substantial meal than simply ears.

The next few pages deal with Gaster's installation in the household. He manages to speak knowledgeably on a wide and varied range of subjects, endearing him to everyone. A number of offhand remarks on his ugliness are casually dropped. Apparently he doesn't blink much either, which adds yet another layer to the outré qualities of this strange man. To add even more, there is a curious incident with a dog. The bulldog belongs to Charley's bosom friend from Cambridge, young Trevor. An echo which clearly foreshadows a mention in The Gloria Scott. Gaster manages the beast with no trouble, causing it to whimper and hide. It even bites its own master. Another demonstration of will.

Some little time later, our couple find Gaster reading a strange little book written in Arabic. When asked what it was about, Gaster replies with:

"It treats of the days when mind was stronger than what you call matter; when great spirits lived that were able to exist without these coarse bodies of ours, and could mould all things to their so-powerful wills."

Clearly more foreshadowing. Lottie inadvertently finds Gaster quietly laughing over a newspaper clipping. Sneaking into his room, she reads the clipping that describes the mysterious death of the captain aboard a Swedish steamer. It appears that the captain had frequent altercations with the ships Doctor (clearly an unnamed Gaster) which ended with "...declaring that the surgeon was a necromancer and worshipper of the devil..." and of course the Captains death. Another wonderful piece towards atmosphere.

It soon becomes apparent that Gaster is attracted to Lottie, which inevitably leads to a scene with Charley, resulting in Gasters removal from Toynby Hall. All is happy and joy for some days in the wake of Gasters departure. Preparations are made for the big target-shooting event, wherein Charley will play a key part and from which the title is derived. On the very day, we of course find Gaster present. The teams are tied, and Charley must fire the winning shot. Will he make it?

I will leave you with the last sight of Gaster in the narrative. He is nearby as Charley is preparing for his shot.

"His face was turned towards me; but he evidently did not see me, for his eyes were bent with unswerving persistence upon a point midway apparently between the distant targets and himself.

I have never seen anything to compare with the extraordinary concentration of that stare, which had the effect of making his eyeballs appear gorged and prominent, while the pupils were contracted to the finest possible point.

Perspiration was running freely down his long, cadaverous face, and, as the farmers had remarked, there were some traces of foam at the corners of his mouth. The jaw was locked, as if with some fierce effort of the will which demanded all the energy of his soul.

To my dying day that hideous countenance shall never fade from my remembrance nor cease to haunt me in my dreams."

For the sake of those that have not had the pleasure of reading this remarkable story, I will say no more of the plot except to say that it finishes nicely along the lines it started with. Doyle has presented here a
truly chilling tale of the macabre and has demonstrated both superb plotting and his masterful ability to create mood. Yes, the supernatural elements are a bit jarring to the reader used to the calm rationale of the Holmes stories, but I still feel that on reflection, it would have made a superb starting point for a Holmes investigation.


Sherlock Holmes and the Terror Out of Time
By Ralph E. Vaughan
First Published: 2001 - Gryphon Books 

ISBN: 1-58250-041-X
Price: $15 USD
Reviewed by Charles Prepolec

I confess to having a fondness for Sherlock Holmes cross-universe pastiches when handled with a bit of flair, so when I’d discovered that Gary Lovisi’s Gryphon Books was releasing a third Holmes/H.P. Lovecraft pastiche by Ralph E. Vaughan, I lost no time in ordering it. On arrival it went directly to the top of my ever-increasing pile of pastiches, such is my regard for Vaughan’s previous work Sherlock Holmes in the Adventure of the Ancient Gods (first published in Holmesian Federation #4) and to a lesser extent Sherlock Holmes in the Dreaming Detective (sorry, but I’ve never been terribly fond of HPL’s Dreamland based stories). After devouring the book in one sitting, I’m happy to say that my regard is still intact and my fondness for Vaughan’s approach to Holmes and HPL has increased once again.

Sherlock Holmes and the Terror Out of Time is far less of a blatant HPL inspired story than the overly dramatic title would lead one to believe. Although the plot is still pure undiluted Weird Tales-style pulp fiction, Vaughan has developed considerably from a stylistic viewpoint, not even once invoking the well worn name of Cthulu! His use of locations and descriptive phrasing is solid throughout. The dialogue is strong and faithful to the spirit of Conan Doyle and by putting Watson out of the way, Vaughan has managed to side step the usual pastiche pitfall of providing Watsonian-style narration and has opted instead to use a third person omniscient narrative. Holmes well-known disregard of the supernatural is effectively explained away, not damaging his credibility or rationality in the least.  My only serious annoyance is in the handling of Professor Challenger, who is strangely relegated to the role of Watson substitute and never quite lives up to the brash and impetuous character of The Lost World.

Beginning with an establishing prologue set in British pre-history, we jump quickly to Baker Street where the dying seaman, India Jack Neville, has dropped a package of unspeakable horror literally at the feet of Sherlock Holmes, Professor Challenger and Inspector Wilkins, interrupting their fascinating discourse on Darwinism. With the Macguffin safely in their hands and Watson away, Holmes and Challenger set out to unravel its secrets. What does this ugly idol have to do with the Ki’M’tollo sect of the Maldives? Could it be tied into attacks in the docklands by three giant serpent-like beasts? Holmes and Challenger, the detective and the scientist, are determined to find out! Their quest for knowledge takes them to the British Museum and puts them at odds with a mysterious dark magician named Laslo Bronislav, who is deemed so evil that even Aleister Crowley refers to him as “That Devil!” Aided by the late Professor Moriarty’s chief information man McBane, Bronislav is determined to retrieve the idol from Holmes at all costs. How do the dark magician’s plans tie-in to the Elder Gods? Can Holmes and Challenger defeat Bronislav and the voracious elder gods terrorizing London? What do you think? Of course they can, but the fun of the tale is in the telling!

Highly recommended for those who enjoy a fun pulp-fiction style adventure story! Not recommended for the Canonical purist, but if you’ve been considering trying something a little more on the outré side of Holmesian storytelling, this is a good choice!

Not sure if the original publication version is still available from Gryphon, or anywhere else for less than premium prices, but it is currently part of a new collection of stories by Ralph E. Vaughan available via Amazon.


Sunday, February 28, 2016


The Case of Lady Sannox
By Arthur Conan Doyle
First published Idler, November 1893, Vol. 4, pp. 331-42
Reviewed by Charles Prepolec

Whenever reading the non-Sherlockian short fiction of Arthur Conan Doyle, I find myself drawn to his more macabre tales. I’m extremely fond of Lot 249, The Ring of Thoth, and The Leather Funnel, but my favorite has to be The Case of Lady Sannox. Although it contains no supernatural elements whatsoever, it is, in my opinion, Doyle’s strongest horror story.  This is not a popular selection I fear, as it has been criticized for harshness and undue cruelty. A Sherlockian friend of mine expressed some surprise and disgust when I declared my appreciation of the story. Ronald Pearsall, in his book Conan Doyle: A Biographical Solution goes so far as to describe it as:

“One of the most unpleasant non-occult nasties…”

A bit extreme in my view, as this is intended to be horror. And what is horror, if not a sense of loathing and disgust at the exposition of cruelty that man is capable of inflicting on another. Besides, it is a finely written horror story at that! If that isn’t enough the story also conjures up the shade of a classic Sherlock Holmes story, without actually being one. That is to say that it is a tightly scripted tale that demonstrates Doyle’s deft handling of his usual themes of sex, jealousy, revenge and horror. Having as it does, a somewhat Watsonian toned narration, it lacks only the presence of the great detective himself to fully complete the picture.

If you haven’t read The Case of Lady Sannox I urge you to do so now, as my review will cover some specific and major story points. If you haven’t got a copy handy (for shame, as it is has been reprinted numerous times), you may click here to read it, before continuing.

Just as Sherlock Holmes was heading to a premature demise at the Reichenbach falls in The Strand magazine, The Case of Lady Sannox saw print in The Idler magazine for November of 1893. The Idler was similar in structure to The Strand but designed to reflect the lighter literary tastes of its editor, Jerome K. Jerome (author of Three Men in a Boat). Conan Doyle was very much at the height of his popularity and enjoying the literary scene of which he had become a major part. The circle of writers associated with The Idler included James Barrie, Robert Barr, Israel Zangwill and of course Doyle’s friend Jerome himself, to name but a few. Apparently Jerome had suggested to Doyle that he might like to contribute a series of stories around a central theme of medicine that could do for The Idler what Holmes had done for The Strand. Doyle agreed and The Case of Lady Sannox was amongst his submissions.

Oddly enough, considering the criticism leveled against Sannox, a number of the other stories sent to Jerome for publication were deemed “too strong” for his readership and were consequently printed elsewhere. The story was collected, along with 14 others and published in the 1894 collection Round the Red Lamp.

So what is it that makes this story so very pleasing to me?

To begin, we have the writing. Doyle’s ability to involve the reader is masterfully demonstrated in the wonderfully intriguing hook in the opening paragraph. We are immediately made aware of “…the notorious Lady Sannox…” and the exalted social circle to which she belongs. Before we can even begin to ponder her notoriety we are further informed,  “…that the lady had absolutely and for ever taken the veil, and that the world would see her no more.” All very mysterious, but made positively compelling when faced with the somehow linked fate of the celebrated surgeon Douglas Stone.

“…the man of steel nerves, had been found in the morning by his valet, seated on one side of his bed, smiling pleasantly upon the universe, with both legs jammed into one side of his breeches and his great brain about as valuable as a cap full of porridge…”

By the end of the introductory paragraph we have a notorious woman removed from society and a brilliant surgeon reduced to a gibbering wreck without any clues as to the hows and whys of it. I defy any reader to put down the story after reading that remarkable description. The Sherlockian tones immediately arise, as this smacks of the sort of thing that Watson would read from the newspapers for Holmes’ benefit. One of those outré little bits that so captured the detective’s imagination. Considering that this story was written parallel to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes it should come as no surprise that Doyle is at the height of his story-telling ability.

From that amazing hook, Doyle starts setting the stage by describing his players. He fills in the character of Douglas Stone. He begins by building-up the surgeon’s success in a glowing Watson-like manner, at times sounding as though he were describing the detective himself. For instance, we have:

“…famous as he was…he might have succeeded with even greater rapidity in any of a dozen lines of life. He could have cut his way to fame as a soldier, struggled to it as an explorer, bullied for it in the courts, or built it out of stone and iron as an engineer. He was born to be great, for he could plan what another man dare not do, and he could do what another man dare not plan…His nerve, his judgement, his intuition, were things apart.”

Just as we come to think that Stone is a paragon of human virtue, we are hit with the contrast that “His vices were as magnificent as his virtues…” with Lady Sannox numbered amongst the former.  After elaborating on Stone’s sensualist nature we learn something of the character and background of Lady Sannox. It is here that we have the ever-popular and sordid element of sex introduced. Doyle is surprisingly straightforward, in a distinctly un-Watson-like manner, of elaborating on her notoriety and her relationships with Stone and her husband.

“She was the loveliest woman in London, and the only one to him. He was one of the handsomest men in London, but not the only one to her. She had a liking for new experiences, and was gracious to most men who wooed her. It may have been cause or it may have been effect that Lord Sannox looked fifty, though he was but six-and-thirty.”

Doyle then paints a little picture of a drab cuckolded husband whom at one time demonstrated a fondness for acting, but is now “…happier with a spud and a watering-can among his orchids and chrysanthemums.” He also specifies the scale of the scandal, detailing the openly brazen way in which Stone and Lady Sannox carry on. He finishes populating his story and informs the reader that the plot in earnest is about to begin.

“There was not an attempt to on either side to conceal their relations; but there came at last an incident to interrupt them.”

In the very next paragraph we surely drift into Holmes territory. The next few lines are as Watsonian as any to be found in the Canon. Although the narration is in the third person, one can almost visualize Watson sitting at his writing desk, warmly commenting on Holmes activities.

“It was a dismal winter’s night, very cold and gusty, with the wind whooping in the chimneys and blustering against the window-panes. A thin spatter of rain tinkled on the glass, with each fresh sough of the gale, drowning for an instant the dull gurgle and drip from the eaves. Douglas Stone had finished his dinner, and sat by his fire in the study, a glass of rich port upon the malachite table at his elbow. As he raised it to his lips, he held it up against the lamplight, and watched with the eye of a connoisseur the tiny scales of beeswing which floated in its rich ruby depths. The fire, as it spurted up, threw fitful lights upon his bald, clear-cut face, with its widely-opened grey eyes, its thick and yet firm lips, and the deep, square jaw, which had something Roman in its strength and its animalism. He smiled from time to time as he nestled back in his luxurious chair. Indeed, he had a right to feel well pleased, for, against the advice of six colleagues, he had performed an operation that day of which only two cases were on record, and the result had been brilliant beyond all expectation. No other man in London would have had the daring to plan, or the skill to execute, such a heroic measure.

Substitute Holmes for Stone, a chemical experiment for the port and a triumph over Scotland Yard detectives rather than medical colleagues, and you have a fairly distinct facsimile of an extremely typical opening to a Sherlock Holmes story. The similarity carries even further when in the next paragraph we have this tranquil scene disturbed by a knock at the door by a mysterious and distraught client. The client relates a tale of woe and off they go in a waiting cab. Sounds like Holmes to me! As a matter of fact, although I have no evidence whatsoever to support the idea, it is no real stretch to imagine that this story was quickly adapted from an outline or notes that might once have been earmarked for a now unnecessary Holmes story. At this point, one assumes that Doyle had already written the detective’s demise, as it would see print a month later in the Strand.

Humor me for a moment and picture this story in a somewhat different light and perhaps you’ll see what I mean. Take the “Baker Street moment” above as the opening.  The knock at the door is not Sannox, rather it is Stone’s valet or some relation that come to enlist the detectives aide in unraveling the circumstances of Stone’s madness. The valet relates or Watson reads of the situation as noted in the newspaper, this is the opening bit about notoriety and brains like a cap full of porridge. Holmes agrees to do what he can and goes about some off-screen sleuthing. He comes back with Lord Sannox in tow. Sannox then relates the rest of the story pretty much as it was published. Holmes then turns him over to the Police; or some other finish occurs that reinforces the more morally correct ending that Holmes stories demand. Bingo…a minimum of restructuring with an additional “detecting” bit and you have a perfectly acceptable Canonical tale, written at a time when Doyle was creating some of his very best Holmesian work.

Anyway, enough fantasy. Once Doyle has laid the groundwork, he quickly introduces the fly in the ointment, which shatters Stone’s shallow existence. Hamil Ali, the Turkish merchant, provides this interesting exotic element that re-ignites the readers curiosity. Very much a case of “Now where is this heading?” Of course the reader has already worked out that something nasty is afoot, and anyone that noted the reference to Lord Sannox’s early interest in acting has worked out that a grim deception is being played out, but just how it unfolds is the key to sustaining interest.

And so, for the love of money he permanently disfigures his lover while her husband looks on, gloating all the while. The cuckold has had his terrible revenge and the story concludes with a lasting sense of reprehensible moral ambiguity.

So, how can I justify the sordid and nasty tone?

Well, quite frankly, I don’t find it any more sordid or nasty than most of Doyle’s other writings that deal with infidelity and violence. Is this story any worse than many canonical ones? Surely, the grisly cutting off of the lip is no nastier than the removal, by axe, of an engineer’s thumb? Or the severing of an unfaithful wife’s ears by her jealous husband? Or the slow suffocation of an unfaithful butler by his jilted lover? Or the “accidental” skull crushing death of an abusive husband at the hands of his wife’s lover? Time and again Doyle meted out equally horrid “justice” to other characters in other stories yet the accusation of “nastiness” or cruelty is rarely leveled against them. With the exception of The Engineer’s Thumb, the others all touch on illicit love, jealousy and to some degree revenge. These themes are also evident in The New Catacomb and The Winning Shot to add a couple more non-canonical examples. Of course the subject makes for good drama, but it still surprises me when I realize just how often Doyle utilized the theme of infidelity and its effects. Clearly it is a subject that interested him a good deal.

While Lord Sannox has definitely gone beyond the pale in his revenge, we cannot but appreciate his cold cunning and method of executing that revenge. It is a demonstration of the “charm of evil” concept. It is that principal that makes horrific figures in horror books and films so appealing. Readers and filmgoers know that Hannibal Lecter is a twisted killer, yet we are thrilled nonetheless by his gruesome escape from custody in The Silence of the Lambs.  In much the same way, we detest what Sannox has done, but we have next to no sympathy for his victims either. Had Doyle made Lady Sannox or Douglas Stone more discreet, or intimated that Lord Sannox was a particularly abusive or cruel husband, the story would have a completely different tone.

At the climax, Stone is given an opportunity to redeem himself in the reader’s eyes. When faced with the drugged woman and her injury, Stone momentarily hesitates. This gives the reader a chance to exhale and hope that this shallow surgeon has a vestige of conscience remaining, but the idea is shattered when he decides that returning the fee would be the result and proceeds against his better judgement.

Having mentioned films, I’m surprised that The Case of Lady Sannox has only been dramatized for television on one occasion, as it is a natural for those half hour Tales of the Unexpected type shows. John Hawksworth adapted the story for the BBC’s Late Night Horror lineup in 1968.  It was broadcast under the rather more sensational name The Kiss of Blood and starred Diane Cilento as Lady Sannox, Roy Dotrice as Douglas Stone and Charles Workman as the vengeful Lord Sannox. (Having never seen this program myself, I’d be pleased to hear from readers that have.)

In the end, my little Holmesian fantasy aside, all that matters is that Doyle has told a gripping and clever tale that not only shocks the reader with a grisly climax, but also exposes the depth of emotion and horrific deeds that man is capable of when driven by jealousy. In that sense, I think Doyle achieved precisely what he intended, which was to craft a particularly effective (and yes, ghastly)  little horror story!