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Book review: <i>Shadows Over Baker Street</i> Edited by Michael Reaves and John Pelan


The cover of the book

If this was an egg, it would be a curate’s egg.

Cover

A classy coloured pencil illustration, smoothly blending the two ideas of the book under some apposite pulp-serial text. Why don’t they use more illustrations on book covers? Or do they, but I’m just reading other genres?

The plot

This collection of short stories is based around a melding of two fictional “worlds”, to whit, the London of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and the murky backwaters of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories. Some stories involve minor characters from the Holmes canon, but most involve either Watson, Holmes or both. (In case you’re unfamiliar with Lovecraft—I refuse to believe you’re reading this if you’ve never read a Sherlock Holmes story—he was a bookish one-off who wrote short fiction in the nineteen-twenties, largely for pulp horror/sci-fi magazines, and went largely unrecognised until well after his early death. He was never a prose wizard, but his imagination oozed with a murky, nightmarish invention so intoxicating and unique that his correspondents, many better writers than he, borrowed part and parcel from the “Cthulhu Mythos”, as it came to be known, for their own works, long before modern writers such as Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell would hone their blades on his freaky-ass whetstone.

The good

If you’re a fan of Lovecraft and/or Sherlock Holmes, there’s a lot to get your teeth into. Most of the stories begin in turn-of-last-century London, but the dark, woody period flavour is just as suitable for Lovecraftian catacombs and dreamscapes as it is for the height of rational Victoriana.

The best story is the first—Neil Gaiman’s Hugo-award-winning A Study In Emerald. In twenty-five pages, he commingles Doyle and Lovecraft’s best tricks, conjures a fascinating parallel Earth, cracks wise with funny cod-period advertisements as chapter headings, and then pulls off a fait accompli which will delight fans of either or both authors. If one wanted to risk qualifying for the Nerd Olympics, one could say that there’s enough going on in Gaiman’s contribution to spawn another short story collection set within its boundaries.

There are other successes, however. James Lowder’s The Weeping Masks effectively uses one of Watson’s Afghan war stories to unearth an unsettling, and authentically alien, Lovecraftian evil. The Case of the Antiquarian’s Niece, by Barbara Hambly, is less adventurous but very effective, and combines the styles of both authors almost as well as Gaiman. Brian Stableford’s Art In The Blood is short but capable, and Paul Finch’s The Mystery of the Hanged Man’s Puzzle, while cheerfully negating any attempt to ape Doyle or Lovecraft’s prose, is a gamey little yarn, which reminds us that there’s no damn reason why you can’t put Sherlock Holmes down a sewer on the receiving end of a giant alligator and a gatling gun. A lesson, in fact, that the other writers could have taken heed of. Poppy Z Brite and David Ferguson’s contribution, for a common example, is good fun and, again, full of period flavour, but neither scary nor mysterious, which is hard to forgive, given the stated intent of the book.

The bad

Yep, though the overall quality is fairly high (I found just one story which actually pissed me off), there is a definite sense of all the contributors writing in isolation, and it leads to a feeling of repetition. It’s not caused so much by the same characters popping up again and again (though Lovecraft’s least interesting invention, the Innsmouth fish-men, appear too often), but rather by a sense of the authors working through the equation Holmes + Watson + Lovecraft = X, where X is the same answer about half the time. It’s not that it’s never good (Barbara Hambly gets it just right), but, inevitably, the writers paying tribute can neither attain the levels of smart-arsery required for a Sherlock Holmes story (most take a token stab, then forget about it), nor maintain the creeping delirium of one of Lovecraft’s best. Even if they could, the format itself gives safe compromise a gravity most seem unable to escape. Thus a large chunk of stories occupy the middle ground, a place you could accuse neither Sherlock Holmes nor Lovecraft of straying long.

The problem, as noted in the introduction to Gaiman’s contribution (not included in this book but instead in Fragile Things, his latest work), is that, while there are superficial similarities between the two authors’ works (and, patently, an overlapping readership), they are, at heart, opposites. Doyle’s Holmes represents the most rational era of Victoriana, a time when some truly thought there was little in the universe left to discover, England owned half the globe, and Man, i.e. Men, steered the noble engines of destiny while cheerful darkies kept the boilers hot.

Lovecraft, on the other hand, had a respect for the value of human enterprise which would make Bill Hicks uneasy. In his mind, we wander about blithely on a hair-thin plane between vast, horrifying, unknowably ancient forces to which we are, if anything, an occasionally useful source of genetic material. The only thing that stops us going instantly insane is the fragile membrane of our own ignorance, and thus enlightenment and technology become as much our enemies as friends, potentially revealing sanity-destroying truths with each step forward.

The way this disparity manifests itself most plainly in this book is the approach taken by Holmes and Watson to the unknowable. It’s all over the place, to be frank. Some authors avoid it altogether, by using minor characters from the Holmes canon such as Mycroft (Sherlock’s brother), or, more commonly, focusing on Watson. In his honest goodwill and brittle sanity he resembles the unluckier kind of Lovecraftian protagonist, it’s true, and his military history is a handy ingredient. But Holmes has to appear sooner or later. Of course, despite the lack of rationality, he copes well with each situation—no writer has the courage and/or cruelty to send him screaming into the night. Sometimes he’s initially skeptical, sometimes he knows far more than he’s letting on. Sometimes he’s sent to find the Necronomicon, sometimes he refers to it, sometimes he owns a copy.

This was an interesting read, and I’d definitely recommend it for a fan of Doyle and/or Lovecraft. Like Lovecraft’s own (often patchy) collections, it contains a few magic moments that will stay with you for a goodly while. But it could have been so much better. For a book blending two of the century’s most unique pulp creations, and from such a disparate pack of writers, it’s often repetitive and strangely staid in tone. And I’m still unsure if running the best story first is a flash idea, particularly when it’s available in another volume.

What I learnt

That, as with film, what sounds like a great idea (not to mention a fanboy cash-cow) in the publisher’s office does not necessarily flourish in execution, and this partial success can be nearly as frustrating as a total failure to the intended audience.

In short

Title: Shadows Over Baker Street
Author: Michael Reaves and John Pelan (eds)
Publisher: Del Rey
ISBN: 0345452739
Year published: 2005
Pages: 464
Genre(s): Fiction, Short stories, Horror, Crime Fiction

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here

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