Monday, April 26, 2010

The Roots of Steampunk -- Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles

On Thursday, we established that Detective Fiction is an important precursor to modern Steampunk because of its devotion to logic and deductive reasoning. As Steampunk is by and large a science fiction subgenre dependent on technology and science, this is a reasonable conclusion to draw. And no character recognizable to a contemporary reader is a more shining example of this archetype than one Sherlock Holmes.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes to the world in 1887 with the tale A Study in Scarlet. Between that first publication and 1927, when the last Sherlock Holmes tale was published, Conan Doyle wrote four full-length novels and 56 short stories featuring the detective and his companion Doctor John H. Watson. All but four of the Holmesian catalog are narrated by Watson as opposed to the detective himself, and A Study in Scarlet includes lengthy omniscient narration of events not known to either Holmes or Watson.

The Hound of the Baskervilles, published in serial format between 1901 and 1902 in The Strand magazine, brought Holmes and Watson to the English countryside where the styles of Gothic fiction and Detective stories blend together. For Gothic fiction, we have the windswept moor and the out-of-the-way manor house; for Detective fiction, there's Holmes and Watson and all their scientific methods of teasing out the solutions to cases.

For those who don't know the story: The Baskerville family is cursed because of an ancestor, Sir Hugo, who lived life to all sorts of immoral excess. In particular, Sir Hugo kidnapped a yeoman's daughter and kept her locked in his bedchamber; when she escaped, Sir Hugo proclaimed he'd sell his soul to the devil if he could only overtake her in pursuit. Sir Hugo's friends found both he and the girl dead out on the moor, and a large spectral hound standing over Sir Hugo's body. The hound ripped out Hugo's throat and disappeared.

Fast forward several centuries later, and Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead in the yew valley because of a heart attack. For the safety of his nephew, Sir Henry, a Dr. John Mortimer summons Holmes and Watson to the moor to investigate Sir Charles's death. Watson takes the lead in this case, as Holmes is tied up in London with other cases. The good doctor accompanies Sir Henry to Baskerville Hall, where the majority of the action takes place.

Watson investigates, and uncovers a number of secrets and plots within plots surrounding the death of Sir Charles. Holmes eventually reappears, saying he wants to be nearby when the critical moment occurs, and together Holmes and Watson confront Jack Stapleton (who's a Baskerville himself), and was the one who managed to kill Sir Charles simply by virtue of frightening him to death. The eponymous Hound is an actual dog that Stapelton covered in phosphorus so it appeared like a ghost.

Holmes and Watson use their minds to see through the deception of the dog, and uncover a plot involving hidden marriages, lost cousins, and escaped convicts all in the same story. There's action and danger, and real fear out on the moor, but this story serves to show that logic and deduction can save the day in the end.

To Steampunk, stories like The Hound of the Baskervilles give a sense of scientific terror. By that, I mean it shows that logic can overcome the prehistoric terrors of ghostly figures and creatures beyond the world, and in the face of science there is always a rational explanation. One of the more famous Holmesian sayings is in fact, "When you remove the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

Steampunk tales like The Affinity Bridge by George Mann can draw a direct line to the Holmes stories. The method of detection through logic and observation, and complete and total devotion to solving the case is what we can take away from the stories of Sherlock Holmes. Sometimes by any means necessary.

Tomorrow: Dystopias and the Bleakness of the Future-Past


L. T. Host said...

GREAT post. I love THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, and am now going to have to go find it and read it again!

Stephanie Thornton said...

You know, I've heard of this, but never read it. I should!

I'm excited about the dystopian posts soon to come!

dolorah said...

Thats the best synopsis of Hounds I've seen, and really makes me want to pick it up.

I've never read a Sherlock Holmes book, but of course watched the movies as a kid. I was fascinated by some of the contraptions - wondering how they could put that stuff in the time period. It's only as I've gotten older that I appreciated the effects.

I never thought of scientific logic as steam punk. I like the idea.


Adam Heine said...

Man, I love Sherlock Holmes. I haven't even read that many of the stories.

Heh, I think a lot of my love for Sherlock Holmes comes from Star Trek: The Next Generation ;-)