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:         😀 😀 😀 😀

The Coming of the Fairies by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

the coming of the fairies“If you believe in fairies, clap your hands…”

🙂 🙂 🙂

In this short book, Conan Doyle tells the story of the famous ‘Cottingley Fairies’ – 5 photographs taken over a three-year period purporting to show fairies and gnomes sporting in a valley in Yorkshire. The photos were taken by two young girls, but it was only when Conan Doyle got his hands on them that they became a cause célèbre.

By the time the first photos surfaced in 1917, Conan Doyle had already become a firm supporter of spiritualism and, while he makes it clear that he doesn’t consider the existence of fairies to be directly related to people communicating from beyond the grave, he expresses his hope that this ‘proof’ of one thing thought to be a myth might open people’s minds to considering the truth of the other. In short, he was motivated to accept the photos as genuine and to dismiss any other explanation. And sadly, that’s exactly what he does.

cot fairies 1

‘Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’

Unlike the revered Mr Holmes, Conan Doyle decided to believe the improbable by assuming that it was impossible for the girls to fake the photos. Fortunately, by the time the girls admitted that the fairies were copied from a magazine, cut out from cardboard and held in place by hatpins, Conan Doyle had long since died – though of course one of his medium friends may have passed on the shock news.

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“We received [psychic] communications from a fairy named Bebel several times, one of them lasting nearly an hour. The communication was as decided and swift as from the most powerful spirit. He told us that he was a Leprechaun (male), but that in a ruined fort near us dwelt the Pixies. Our demesne had been the habitation of Leprechauns always, and they with their Queen Picel, mounted on her gorgeous dragon-fly, found all they required in our grounds.”

Extract of a letter from one of Conan Doyle’s ‘witnesses’.

cot fairies 2

The book itself is less interesting than I hoped. Conan Doyle includes his own magazine article and copies of the correspondence between himself and Edward Gardner, the man who carried out the investigation. But he also includes copies of lots of correspondence he received from other people also claiming to have seen fairies and his acceptance of even the tallest of these tales becomes somewhat uncomfortable after a time. There’s also a long chapter in the form of a report from a clairvoyant who sees so many fairies, goblins and gnomes cavorting in the valley that it’s hard to understand how a man of Conan Doyle’s undoubted intelligence couldn’t see it for the sham it so clearly was. Unless, of course, you believe in fairies…

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(It’s OK, Lady Fancifull – I’ve finished. You can stop clapping now… 😉 )

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The Annals of Sherlock Holmes by Paul D Gilbert

Good plotting marred by inelegant writing…

😦 😦

the annals of sherlock holmesThis book is made up of three short novellas and my initial impressions were favourable. The first episode sets out to tell the story of one of the most intriguing of Watson’s references in the original tales; that of the politician, the lighthouse and the trained cormorant. In the second, he explains the mysterious reference to the parsley in the butter dish. The final story gives us an opportunity to meet up again with Mrs Watson’s employer in The Sign of Four, Mrs Cecil Forrester.

I found the plotting gave the authentic flavour of a Watson narration and the author doesn’t tamper too much with the Holmesian world we all know – no female assistants, for instance, thank goodness. However, there were some real problems with these stories as far as I’m concerned. The over-emphasis on Holmes’ and Watson’s smoking habits really grated after a while. Nearly every paragraph includes a reference to one or other (or both) of them lighting up a pipe, cigarette or cigar. But that paled into insignificance beside their constant cognac swilling. Cognac? I got so irritated by that that I checked and confirmed that never, not once, did they drink cognac in the original. And yet here they’re knocking the stuff back at a rate that would suggest serious addiction issues! Also Holmes and Watson rarely speak to each other without squabbling and Holmes is so excessively nasty to Watson throughout that I couldn’t help but wonder where the friendship had gone.

I can just about forgive these kinds of variations however if all else is good. What I find harder to forgive, in both the author and possibly even more in the editor, are the grammatical howlers that litter this book. Conan Doyle’s elegance in use of language is one of the most attractive things about the originals and any pastiche must at least pass the ‘writes well’ test. Phrases such as

“…somebody within the household felt that it was important enough to secrete from within the bedroom of their matriarch”


“It was only the absolute stillness of the night that rendered the subtle sound which was barely perceptible.”

are not only clunky and inelegant, they are just plain wrong.

So for the plotting and sticking within the spirit of the originals, two stars. But the poor quality of the writing means that I will not be looking out for any of the author’s other books, I’m afraid.

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Sherlock Holmes: Further Collection by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – BBC Audio

Masters at work…

pipepipe pipe pipe pipe


sherlock holmes further collection

Master actor, Carleton Hobbs, plays master detective, Sherlock Homes, created by master storyteller, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Bliss!

This collection of twelve short stories, adapted into half-hour radio plays and recorded in the 1950s and 60s, captures the true spirit of the Sherlock Holmes tales. Unlike many dramatisations over the years, these stick rigidly to the original tales and are the better for it. Carleton Hobbs is a superbly sardonic Holmes and is ably assisted by the excellent Norman Shelley, playing a bluff and genial Watson. The two work seamlessly together and are supported by a cast of fine actors and actresses, often reappearing as different characters.

Seven of these stories are from the final section of the Holmes’ collection, The Casebook. Written at a time when Conan Doyle had lost his enthusiasm for Holmes, but couldn’t resist the enormous fees he was being offered for more episodes, these are often considered weaker than the earlier works – but in the hands of Hobbs, Shelley et al they reveal themselves to be little masterpieces. The other five episodes are randomly selected from across the whole collected works. Watch out for A Case of Identity – the performance of the actress playing our put-upon heroine, Mary Sutherland, is a little gem. Unfortunately, no cast lists are provided in this collection so I had no idea who she was while listening, but a fellow reviewer later informed me she is none other than Ysanne Churchman, perhaps better known as Grace Archer!

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his moustache
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his pet moustache

A brief introduction to each story is provided by Nick Utechin, a former editor of The Sherlock Holmes Journal. His enthusiasm for the stories shines through as he sets the scene for the episode to come.

There is a warning on the box that the sound quality is variable, particularly on the last two discs. The Cardboard Box and The Naval Treaty do suffer quite a bit from quality issues but not badly enough to spoil the enjoyment they provide. Otherwise the quality is remarkably good considering the age of the recordings. The box also tells us that 4 of the stories were missing from the BBC archives and were provided by a Holmes enthusiast – the box doesn’t specify but I’m guessing these are the four with the poorer sound quality on the last two discs. A measure of quality loss is a small price to pay for the recovery of these lost little treasures.

The test of an audio-CD for me is will I listen to it more than once. For this collection, the answer is a resounding yes. Highly recommended.

Carleton Hobbs and Norman Shelley
Carleton Hobbs and Norman Shelley

The stories are: The Copper Beeches, Thor Bridge, The Three Garridebs,
The Sussex Vampire, The Three Gables, The Retired Colourman,
The Boscombe Valley Mystery, The Crooked Man, The Cardboard Box,
A Case of Identity, The Naval Treaty
and The Noble Bachelor.

NB This disc set was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK. These are also available as an Audible download.

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle read by Derek Jacobi

the adventures of sherlock holmesThe definitive reading…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As a huge fan of Holmes and Watson, it’s always a great pleasure to me to try out a new version of the stories. In this set, Derek Jacobi gives such wonderful readings that I think this will become the definitive audio version. These twelve unabridged stories give over 11 hours of enormous listening pleasure. The Adventures were the earliest Holmes short stories, of course, written when Conan Doyle was still enthusiastic for the character he later tried to kill off. Some of the best are here: The Red-Headed League, The Five Orange Pips, The Speckled Band.

If you are already a Holmesian, Jacobi’s readings will refresh the stories for you. Without in any way acting them out, he manages to subtly alter his voice and accent for each character thus bringing them individually to life. His Watson is as bluff and genial as we imagine, Holmes is quick and incisive and the rest of the huge cast of these stories are given individual characters as much by the reading as by Conan Doyle’s words.

Derek Jacobi
Derek Jacobi

If you have never read the stories and this is your first experience, I envy you! This combination of the master storyteller and the wonderful narration is a joy. Excitement, humour, horror and fear all await you…Highly recommended.

NB This disc set was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK. It is available as either a disc set or an Audible download in the UK, but appears to be available only as an Audible download in the US.

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Audible UK Link
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The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle read by Derek Jacobi

SHBaskervilles.inddThe dog that DID bark in the night…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

AudioGo production – running time 6hrs 25 mins

While I love the Sherlock Holmes short stories, I have always felt the long stories were greatly superior. Conan Doyle took the opportunity afforded by greater space and time to devise plots that allowed him to show his masterly skill for telling thrilling adventure stories to their best advantage.

Derek Jacobi
Derek Jacobi
And for me, The Hound of the Baskervilles is the best of them all. It has everything: a dramatic setting, a family curse, an evil villain and best of all the terrifying and possibly supernatural hound itself. This is also the story that concentrates most on Watson, the human side of the partnership. We see his doggedness, his loyalty, his courage and, in this story more than the others, we also see his intelligence. It’s just possible that I prefer Watson to Holmes…

Derek Jacobi’s reading is superb on this AudioGo production. I can’t imagine anyone ever doing it better. His Watson is bluff and warm-hearted, his Holmes is incisive and each of the other characters is given a distinctive voice. Without spoiling the plot (because I so hope there are some lucky people out there who’re coming to this story for the first time), when the book reaches its terrifying climax, the sheer horror that Jacobi gets into his voice deserves any acting accolades available. Spine-shivering, hair-raising, marvellous stuff – very highly recommended.

Hound drawing

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