Gothic Tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The master storyteller sets out to scare…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Although best known today for his Sherlock Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote prolifically across a whole range of genres in his lifetime. This collection brings together thirty-four of his tales which have been categorised as “gothic”, although some of them are more gothic than others. Some are well known as classic horror stories and a couple have already put in an appearance on my semi-regular horror slot, Tuesday Terror!The Horror of the Heights and Lot No. 249. None of the Holmes stories are included, although several of them would certainly count as gothic and have a strong element of horror – The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, for example, is one of his most Poe-like gothic horrors, I think.

The level of horror is variable from mild and even humorous to really quite scary. But the real joy of the collection, as always with Conan Doyle, is the sheer quality of his story-telling skills. Whether relating an Arctic adventure complete with ghostly apparition, or telling a tale of vengeance set in the wild frontier of old America, or forcing the reader to spend a night in a museum full of not completely dead Egyptian mummies, or taking us into the dark heart of the British Empire, his powers of description and ability to create atmosphere and tension are surely second to none. And his total command of a wonderful vocabulary and seemingly effortless writing style make the stories pure pleasure to read.

The range of stories is incredible, making it quite hard to single any out as representative of the collection. Some have a supernatural element while others concentrate on the horrors men and women perpetrate on each other, and yet others take their horror from the dangers of the natural world. We even get a couple culled from Conan Doyle’s life as a physician, including one about a young man with hereditary syphilis – I was astonished that such a subject was handled so openly in a story at this early date. I’m spoiled for choice, but here’s a brief look at some of the ones I enjoyed most…

J Habakuk Jephson’s Statement – based on the story of the Marie Celeste, ACD gives his version of what might have happened. A “quadroon” kills everyone and takes the ship to Africa. Although there’s some fairly strong racial stuff here that sits uneasily with the modern reader, Jephson is an abolitionist and the motive is revenge against white people for the cruelties they have perpetrated through slavery and colonialism. Powerfully told, it reminded me of Conrad’s stories in its reaction to colonialism.

The Beetle Hunter – the narrator is a newly-qualified doctor and beetle collector who answers an advert for the same. His new employer takes him to the home of a famous beetle expert, where the beetles will not be the scariest thing he has to face! Very well told and quite creepy in parts, especially if you’re squeamish about beetles… ugh!

The Retirement of Signor Lambert – a cuckolded husband takes revenge on the opera singer who seduced his wife. That’s all, but it’s told in a kind of understated deadpan that makes it deliciously horrible.

The Pot of Caviare – a group of Westerners trapped following the Boxer Rebellion await relief. But they have heard terrible stories of how the Chinese treat their captives, especially women, and so have a contingency plan should the relieving force not turn up in time. This is a dark and rather disturbing story, expertly told for maximum effect. The notes point out that it’s part of the Edwardian “Yellow Peril” genre, but it’s far more realistic and chilling than any of the silly Fu Manchu type of stuff I’ve read.

The Captain of the Polestar – an Arctic expedition to hunt whales comes to a stop when the ship is caught in the ice. Scary enough, but even scarier when the ghostly figure of a woman begins to appear and the Captain seems to recognise her. This is narrated via the journal of a young ship’s medic, a role ACD himself had undertaken in his youth. Very atmospheric, great descriptions and some first-rate Scottish dialect!

As always in the Oxford World’s Classics editions, there is an informative introduction and extensive notes, this time written by Darryl Jones, Professor in English at Trinity College Dublin. He gives a kind of biography of Conan Doyle’s thought development over the course of his life. He talks about these stories and Conan Doyle’s wider writings in the context of the various phases of his changing beliefs – his pro-Imperialism, his anxiety over the question of Irish Home Rule culminating in him changing from anti- to pro- after seeing the worst of colonialism in the Belgian Congo; and of course his loss of religion and the growth of his belief in spiritualism – Jones shows that he always had an interest in the subject but “came out” as a believer after witnessing the huge losses in the Great War. An interesting and informative essay, happily written without any lit-crit jargon, making it both accessible and enjoyable for the general reader. (Though I do wish he wouldn’t refer to him as Doyle – after he added Conan to his name (in tribute to his godfather) he was always known as Conan Doyle, he published under that name, his son refers to him that way in his biographical writings about his father, and his wife took the double surname Conan Doyle, so I don’t understand why some modern commentators have taken on themselves the right to change his name back.)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I loved this collection. Admittedly Conan Doyle can do no wrong in my eyes, so I’m not the most unbiased reviewer, but nearly all of these stories are good and many are excellent – masterclasses in the form. Perfect for dipping – one to keep on the bedside table in perpetuity, since stories of this quality will stand up to frequent re-reading.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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33 thoughts on “Gothic Tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

  1. What a treat, FictionFan! To me, one of the real pleasures of reading a collection from such a talented storyteller is that you don’t get any real disappointments. There might be a few you like better than the others, but no really bad’uns in the bunch. And it’s an interesting side of Conan Doyle’s writing personality…


    • Yes, even the ones I liked least were still great because his writing is so pleasurable to read. I was reading one a night for about a month and I’m having withdrawal symptoms now… 😉 I love that writers of that generation tended to write in all different genres – it seems to be a fairly recent development that people stick to just one type of story. ACD was great at so many different styles…

      Liked by 1 person

    • Aw, thank you! 😀 Haha – sorry about your TBR though! But this one deserves a place for sure. I used to just read the Sherlock Holmes stories but I’ve been loving reading lots of the other stuff Conan Doyle wrote recently – what a talent he had!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hugely prolific! Until fairly recently I’d pretty much only read the Holmes stories and the Professor Challenger books, but it’s been great sampling all the other types of stuff he wrote – what a talent he had!


  2. Oh, my, what glorious words of praise — “his powers of description and ability to create atmosphere and tension are surely second to none. And his total command of a wonderful vocabulary and seemingly effortless writing style make the stories pure pleasure to read.” ANY writer would be honored to be the recipient of such thoughts, FF! Sounds like a delightful collection.


    • I must admit I love the way he writes at least as much as the actual stories – I genuinely think I could read anything by him and enjoy it. When I start one of his stories it’s like sinking into a fluffy cloud… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A book of short stories on my nightstand is a must, FF, and I’m adding this one to my wishlist, FF. Wonderful review, and I’m so happy to hear you think these will hold up to a re-read. I think the shortening of the name is due to laziness. My friends who have hyphenated last names are almost never called by the full last name. Others pick and choose either the first half, or the second. So frustrating and one of many reasons I kept my last name when I married. 😊


    • I love to keep short story collections by my bed in case I ever have a sleepless night (rare for me, but it happens!). And these are great – interesting and not so scary they’ll give nightmares. 😲 Yes, I think there might be a kind of reverse snobbery to it too – calling him Doyle makes it clear he’s just a humble commoner. But it does annoy me – loads of people change their names, and it’s not up to other people to change them back… grrr! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. As usual I learned something from your review – that he wrote more than Sherlock stories and that Conan wasn’t a middle name! (Ugh – palm to the face – so embarrassing.) Terrific review and I’m glad that this was such a stellar collection.


    • That’s why he grew to dislike Holmes – he felt those stories were overshadowing all his other stuff, and he was right. But his other stories are just as good. Haha! I do get on my high horse about his name – my generation always called him Conan Doyle, but in the last couple of decades he’s more and more getting called Doyle. Cheek, I call it! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. A brilliant review of what sounds like a fascinating collection. I’m also surprised that hereditary syphilis was written about (and presumably read by many) at this point in history and I do like the sound of the revenge on the opera singer – understated writing when well done is more satisfying to me than out and out scary stuff. It sounds as though the collection is truly enhanced by the notes about the author’s life (even if he wouldn’t get his name right)and having recently read Conan Doyle’s Defence which both reminded me and informed me about his life; I’m very tempted…


    • I was surprised that the story was so clear about the syphilis – these things were usually only hinted at back then! Haha – the opera singer one is another where he uses his medical knowledge to good effect… 😱 I do love the intros to these OWC collections. They give enough info to make you feel you’ve learned something without getting bogged down in hundreds of pages of a full biography or literary criticism… and the stories are great! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I didn’t know whether the ‘Conan’ part of his name was a middle name or part of his surname, now I do! I’ve always wondered how librarians know how to file books when the author’s have three names, too.


    • He was a villainous Chinaman back in a series of books and then films in the first half of last century – hideously racistly stereotyped. And there were all kinds of copies of that style of story too – all lumped together under the “yellow peril” genre. But some, like this one from Conan Doyle, were a bit more thoughtful, though they still tended to portray all Chinamen as evil and vicious villains.


    • A great collection! I wish I’d read more of his other stuff earlier – for many years, I just re-read the Holmes stories and didn’t really realise how prolific he’d been otherwise. But now I’m loving exploring his other work… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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