Tuesday Terror! Horror of the Heights by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Gelatinous jellyfish in the sky…


Even the bravest amongst us must surely have shivered when the ghastly howl of the Hound of the Baskervilles echoed over the doom-laden moors. So who better than the master storyteller to lead us into a nightmare far above the clouds in this week’s…


Horror of the Heights by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle


The Horror of the Heights cover

I have seen the beauty and I have seen the horror of the heights – and greater beauty or greater horror than that is not within the ken of man.

First published in 1913, we are in the early days of flight, when brave aviators were exploring the previously unknown regions above the clouds. The story is taken from the pages of a notebook found amidst wreckage in a field in the south of England, but no trace was ever found of the man who wrote them – Mr Joyce-Armstrong, known to his friends as ‘a poet and a dreamer, as well as a mechanic and an inventor’. A skilled amateur aeronaut, he has been roused to suspicion by a number of mysterious deaths of other flyers…

And then there was Myrtle’s head. Do you really believe – does anybody really believe – that a man’s head could be driven clean into his body by the force of a fall?

He has a theory that, far above the clouds, at the extreme limit of where the most modern aeroplanes could reach, there lurks an unknown danger…

A visitor might descend upon this planet a thousand times and never see a tiger. Yet tigers exist, and if he chanced to come down into a jungle he might be devoured. There are jungles of the upper air, and there are worse things than tigers which inhabit them.


The Horror of the Heights 2

And so he sets off in his tiny monoplane to fly above thirty thousand feet into one of the zones where some of the mysterious deaths and disappearances have happened…

Every cord and strut was humming and vibrating like so many harp-strings, but it was glorious to see how, for all the beating and buffeting, she was still the conqueror of Nature and the mistress of the sky.

The journey is a long one as his ascent must be slow so that he can become accustomed to the rarefied air, and as he rises he describes the wonders of the clouds he is passing through and the earth beneath him. And finally, he reaches forty thousand feet and lo! There is indeed an air-jungle filled with beautiful mysterious creatures like giant jellyfish, changing colour as they float through the air. But they are not the only creatures that inhabit the jungle – there is a purple thing, with monstrous eyes and three bubble-like protuberances on its back…

The vague, goggling eyes which were turned always upon me were cold and merciless in their viscid hatred… As quick as a flash there shot out a long tentacle from this mass of floating blubber, and it fell as light and sinuous as a whip-lash across the front of my machine.

The Horror of the Heights 1

Pulling out his trusty shotgun, he fires on the beast…

…though, indeed, it was like attacking an elephant with a pea-shooter to imagine that any human weapon could cripple that mighty bulk.

Escaping, he returns to earth; but wishing to have something to prove that his story was true, he decides to make one more trip to catch one of the creatures…

OK, I admit it. This story made me chuckle more than shiver, but only because we know now that there are no such creatures in the sky…don’t we? But back in 1913, I’m sure it would have been considerably more effective. In terms of descriptive writing, it’s great – giving a real feel for the experience of early flying in a plane held together by string and prayer. The monsters have an almost Lovecraftian feel about them, as does the idea of the tale being found in a fragmentary journal. But of course it was written long before Lovecraft, so probably fairer to say that Lovecraft achieves a Doylian feel. There’s no mystery about how it will end, since we know from the beginning that the trip doesn’t go well, but that lack of tension is compensated for by the imagination that created these creatures and described them so well. It would be a fun story to read just as you’re taking off on your next budget flight…

The Horror of the Heights 4


Fretful porpentine rating: 😯 😯

Overall story rating:         😀 😀 😀 😀

41 thoughts on “Tuesday Terror! Horror of the Heights by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

  1. A very nice choice, FictionFan. Even if it doesn’t exactly make you quake in your shoes, it features Conan Doyle’s terrific writing style and his skill with building tension. Glad you enjoyed it.


  2. I have to confess to never having read this – but it sounds super! I will have to get hold of a copy now, it seems right up my street. I am off travelling next month, so it will be perfect to take away with me.


  3. I read this long before I made my first flight – so long ago, in fact, that I had forgotten who wrote it, so I am glad to be reminded now.


  4. I’m clearly a MUCH more fritted creature, as despite the fact I have never seen a jellyfish in the skies (but now i’m reminded of this story it will be another THING to add to my catalogue of flying fears) I imagined the beast, and far from chuckling felt quite anxious. Perhaps if someone else other than Sir Arthur had written the story I’d be chuckling, but I do rather surrender to our sometimes very credulous creator of Jeremy Brett. Sorry. Of Sherlock Holmes

    And I’m delighted no purchase is necessary. On my shelves is a big fat ‘complete Sir Arthur’ book, so once I’ve done the requisite biceps and triceps strengthening exercises I can take a quick shufty at this. I think rather than eating chocolate, either some turkish delight or semolina, or a mixture of both would work well as a disgusting accompaniment. Probably best of all would be jelly babies, but I don’t each such things, it needs to be something I might eat, which could then be imaginatively changed to OMG I have the jellyfish in my mouth. Help! Help!

    Floating blubber, vague goggling eyes, viscid hatred and shooting tentacles is pretty porpentinish to me> Eek!


    • Are you a feartie then when it comes to flying? This should be just perfect for you to take on a flight then…

      I love ACD’s writing – he’s just such a great storyteller. They don’t write them like that any more, sadly. But apart from Holmes, there’s so much of his stuff I’ve never read yet – thankfully my Complete Works is a Kindle version and so doesn’t require weight training! Isn’t ‘viscid hatred’ just lovely? And as usual with these old stories, I love seeing what the various illustrators have come up with over the years… Enjoy!!


  5. I had to smile when I got to the jellyfish. What on earth (pun intended) would they be doing up above the clouds? Great story although I’m sorry to see that it only merited two fretful porcupine. Of course this must have seemed much less silly back when air travel was so new.


    • Floating, of course! It always amuses me to see how these stories get recycled – the first episode of Star Trek The Next Generation stars some floating space jellyfish – now I know where that idea came from.


  6. Like reading about sharks before heading out to sea in a small boat. I’m thinking those jellyfish are like, Nessie, the Loch Ness monster. Can’t quite see them unless you’re not quite looking for them. 😀


  7. Sounds like a hoot! We introduced Miss Eight to ACD recently via The Hound of the Baskervilles movie. She’s a big fan of Peter Cushing & Christopher Lee. Next step, the Sherlock Holmes stories…


    • Oh you must introduce her to Basil Rathbone! What a lovely thought to have all the Sherlock Holmes stories to read for the very first time… I remember the experience so well… 🙂


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