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The Further Madness of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I have always loved The Hound of the Baskervilles. I can take or leave most of Sherlock Holmes, but to me The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the most perfect mystery stories ever told. The ghostly bogs and quicksands of bleakly beautiful Dartmoor are used to great dramatic effect. There are escaped prisoners and hatchet faced housekeepers and an old, old house, complete with family curse. The ghost story tone here is flawless, worthy of Henry James, and the shudders are well provided in the shape of a vicious, glowing spectral dog, feeding into folkish fears of padfoots and barghests.

And it’s all a red herring. All of it. The whole carefully constructed spooky atmosphere is a smokescreen for the real evil at the heart of the story. There are no ghosts, just a cleverly plotted supernatural scam, the reveal of which is as lip-biting as a well judged striptease.

It’s a great story. Read it if you haven’t. Read it if you have. It’s one of those ones you can read again and again, best enjoyed on long winter nights with a reading lamp and all the curtains drawn, the better to shit yourself up good and proper. The Hound of the Baskervilles is far more scary than it has any right to be, especially since it doesn’t (spoiler!) contain any actual ghosts. It’s an astonishing illustration of how fear, legend, atmosphere and the desire to believe can feed into our delusions and cause us to ascribe paranormal explanations to mundane events.

Even more astonishing is that Sir Arthur fell for his own trick. And not just the once.  Continue reading

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The Madness of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Do not sneer at the humble beginnings, the heaving table or the flying tambourine, however much such phenomena may have been abused or simulated, but remember that a falling apple taught us gravity, a boiling kettle brought us the steam engine, and the twitching leg of a frog opened up the train of thought and experiment which gave us electricity. So the lowly manifestations of Hydesville have ripened into results which have engaged the finest group of intellects in this country during the last twenty years, and which are destined, in my opinion, to bring about far the greatest development of human experience which the world has ever seen.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The New Revelation.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle needs no introduction. Over eighty years after his death, this big, Melchett-moustached Victorian still dominates bestseller lists all over the world.

I owe Doyle more than a nod as an inspiration. In fact it was Doyle’s frequent usage of the term ‘Summerland’ that gave me a title for this book. ‘Summerland’ was first coined by a self-styled ‘seer’ named Andrew Jackson Davis, and while Doyle later gently disparaged Davis’ autobiography as ‘being disfigured with too many long words’, he adopted Davis’ term for the afterlife and brought it into common usage among spiritualists.

‘Summerland’ spoke of eternal youth and bliss and lent weight to the gooey, joyful pronouncements of séance visitors. It seems that nobody ever went to a séance to discover that their dead relatives were in Hell, having their pubic hairs removed one by one by demons wielding red hot tweezers.

The trouble with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was that he would believe anything. Did you ever do that magic trick where you slide your thumb in such a way that it looks like you’ve cut your thumb in two? Remember that one? When Harry Houdini performed this schoolboy trick to amuse his friend, Sir Arthur thought Houdini had genuinely detatched his thumb. When Lady Jean Doyle claimed to be psychic, her husband didn’t question her sanity for a second and in fact a made ‘a trusted family friend’ of his wife’s spirit guide. By the early 1920s most Sherlock Holmes fans were quietly dying of vicarious shame, and the publication of The Coming Of The Fairies only cemented the widely whispered opinion that poor Sir Arthur had finally gone bye-byes.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s spiritualist and occult works are astoundingly silly books. Don’t take my word for it – read them if you can. They’re available on Project Gutenberg. They’re silly enough to raise Graham Chapman from the grave, purely for the purposes of him putting on his Colonel’s uniform and declaring them too silly to continue.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s two volume History of Spiritualism is a series of unsubstantiated puff pieces on mediums such as Eusapia Palladino, Florence Cook and high octane super-grifter Daniel Dunglas Home, all of whom were exposed as frauds on more than one occasion in their respective careers. The quote above, from The New Revelation, pretty much sums up the tone of Doyle’s spiritualist tracts – polemic, evangelical and entirely credulous. In The Vital Message he nailed his theses firmly to the door and proclaimed spiritualism to be the new way to Christ.

In the mindboggling Pheneas Speaks Doyle recorded conversations with spirits. Pheneas was the name the Doyles gave to Lady Doyle’s ‘control spirit’, an Arabian high priest who had allegedly lived in Ur before the time of Abraham. By the early 1920s Pheneas had taken up residence in Lady Jean’s head and was prophecying the end of the world, a sort of Spiritualist Rapture in which the true believers would be saved and sceptics, scoffers and opponents of spiritualism would suffer and perish. This was supposed to happen around about 1925, so you can work out for yourself how much of that revelation turned out to be true.

Further embarrassment came when the Cottingley photographs led Sir Arthur to publicly proclaim that he believed in fairies, and everyone died a little inside.

So what on earth happened? How did one of the most beloved and respected authors of rational detective fiction suddenly go full on David Icke and start babbling feverishly about the ‘little folk’? Continue reading