Scottish author Arthur Conan Doyle became a household name through his Sherlock Holmes stories, published in The Strand magazine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The eccentric investigator was hugely popular, influencing large numbers of detective fiction writers from the genre’s ‘Golden Age’ in the 1920s and 1930s through to the present day. The figure of Holmes endures into the twenty-first century too and is frequently given new leases of life in various different television and film adaptations.
Conan Doyle’s most famous literary creation is a rationalist, meticulously solving crimes through his shrewd powers of observation. The world in which he lives is an explicable one which accords with Holmes’s adage of ‘when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’ Even crimes which seem to be caused by uncanny forces are revealed to have more prosaic explanations. But while the Holmes tales eschew the otherworldly, Conan Doyle himself was an advocate of Spiritualism and published various stories in which supernatural forces run rife. Some of these are available to view in The Strand anthologies housed in the University of Glasgow Library’s Special Collections.
‘The Brown Hand’ (1899) is narrated by a gentleman, Dr Hardacre, in order to explain why his deceased uncle, Sir Dominick Holden, made him his heir, eschewing the line of succession and transforming Hardacre ‘in an hour from a hard-working and impecunious medical man to a well-to-do landed proprietor.’ Hardacre recounts how Sir Dominick, a famous and childless surgeon who made his name in India, summoned him to his country residence after returning to England with broken health. Here, Sir Dominick interrogates his nephew at length, after which he concludes that Hardacre is ‘the very man’ he has wanted to meet. (So far, so Sherlockian: the distressed individual with a mysterious problem to be solved appears frequently in the Holmes canon.) Sir Dominick worries that he will unduly influence his friend if he explains the circumstances of his dilemma, and so invites him to spend a night in his laboratory, alongside a shelf of ‘pathological and anatomical specimens’. Holden explains that these are the last vestiges of a ‘most excellent collection,’ the majority of which was lost in a fire in 1892.
Later that night, Hardacre’s rest is disturbed by the figure of ‘a man, short and squat, dressed in some sort of dark grey gown’ and with a face ‘chocolate-brown in colour, and with a ball of black hair like a woman’s at the back of his head.’ This mysterious figure examines all the jars of biological specimens in the laboratory, after which he throws up his arms in a gesture of despair. Hardacre notices that the man is missing a hand. He confesses that he might have mistaken the man for an Indian servant of his uncle’s, but his sudden disappearance convinces him that the man is a spectre.
The following morning, Sir Dominick explains to Hardacre that this spectre disturbs him every night, searching for his lost hand. When abroad, Sir Dominick had treated the man for an injury which necessitated the amputation of that appendage, after which the doctor had requested to keep it in lieu of a fee. His patient had demurred, explaining that ‘according to his religion it was an all important matter that the body should be reunited after death, and so make a perfect dwelling for the spirit.’ Sir Dominick convinced the man that he had more sophisticated means of preserving the hand. The patient therefore agreed to relinquish it, warning the doctor that: ‘I shall want it back when I am dead.’ Since the hand is one of the specimens that was lost in the fire, Sir Dominick has no means of assuaging the restless spirit’s desire. Hardacre’s eventual solution is ingenious, but somewhat morally dubious, particularly in a postcolonial context. It is intriguing to note how ‘The Brown Hand’ uses several elements that recur in the Holmes stories and recasts them in radically different ways.
‘Playing with Fire’ (1900), published a year later, is an unsettling tale detailing the consequences of a seance. A group of people gather for that purpose, including a businessman, an artist, a female medium, a male mystic and the narrator. The narrator confesses that he is a ‘dilettante man about town, … thankful for any new sensation which would … open up fresh possibilities of existence.’ Although he is not an enthusiastic supporter of Spiritualism like some of the others, he admits that the atmosphere made him feel ‘as if we had a private pass-key through the door of death’ and ‘filled [him] with a great contentment.’ This satisfaction is, however, short-lived. Soon afterwards, he confesses that ‘a sense of fear and cold struck into my heart’ at the thought of how ‘lightly and flippantly’ they had approached ‘the most real and august of sacraments, communication with the dead.’ The mystic’s insistence that ‘thoughts are things’ and that ‘when you imagine a thing, you make a thing’ proves central to the story’s denouement. The artist – who had been working on a painting of a mythical creature just prior to the seance – eventually comes to regret his choice …
Of course, Conan Doyle’s stories are not the only treasures to be found in the Strand anthologies. The popular magazine contains a huge range of material: serialised novels, short stories, cartoons, articles, photographs, advertisements, and miscellanea on a broad range of topics, balancing light-hearted ephemera with more serious pieces on biology and technology. UoG’s Special Collections contains several volumes published between 1891 and 1900, which provide an intriguing glimpse into the late Victorian world.
Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Brown Hand’ (May 1899), in The Strand Magazine, Jan 1899-June 1899 (RF 1144), 499-508.
Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘Playing with Fire’ (Mar 1900), in The Strand Magazine, (RF 1145), 243-251.
Categories: Archives and Special Collections