|Reviewed: Shadows Over Baker Street - New Tales of Terror|
|Writing Sherlock Holmes pastiche can’t be an easy task, but trying to write pastiche that straddles two distinct and highly differing styles, such as that of Arthur Conan Doyle and H. P. Lovecraft, must be doubly difficult. Conan Doyle managed a relatively clean compact form that carried a strong narrative flow and wonderfully combined solid description with well-defined characters. Lovecraft, on the other hand, tended towards more roundabout prose, peppered with archaic and pseudo-archaic language and forms, which said more about atmosphere and a creeping sense of indefinable dread than character. Doyle, in his Sherlock Holmes stories, was concerned mainly with very basically human situations and crime (…no ghosts need apply...), while Lovecraft took on a broader view that incorporated a larger mythic quality while exploring realms of nightmare and cosmic angst. So, the idea of combining these two disparate styles in pastiche, while certainly fascinating as a concept, strikes me as being riddled with many pitfalls for the unwary writer staight from the outset. While the concept certainly isn’t new, both P. H. Cannon and Ralph E. Vaughan have tackled it with varying degrees of success in a few small press publications, the idea of a whole collection by a mainstream publisher is, however, decidedly new. Sadly, the result is likely to disappoint both Lovecraft and Sherlock Holmes fans alike.
What we have in Shadows Over Baker Street: New Tales of Terror from Del Ray is a collection of 14 short stories by 20 modern (mainly horror) writers that attempt to place Sherlock Holmes in the context of Lovecraft’s Cthulu-riddled nightmare landscape. While any collection of pastiche is likely to contain both hits and misses, this collection, with the clash of styles inherent in the theme, leans heavily towards the latter category. Apparently, for a number of writers, the idea of placing Holmes in Lovecraftian context means little more than having Holmes drawn into a slightly bizarre investigation that leads to a final confrontation with a multi-tentacled monster while someone in the background mutters something about dreaded R’yleh or Cthulhu. There is little or no attempt to create the rich atmosphere of angst that dominates Lovecraft’s writing. As a result, Holmes is rarely a recognizable Holmes and the Lovecraft elements fall flat and we are left with stories that are neither fish nor fowl, but an unpalatable blend of the two. Of course even the best of the bunch tend to stumble when it comes to characterization of Holmes or Victorian language usage, so brace yourself for the usual jarring anachronisms and Americanisms.
That being said, there are a few near misses that make the collection not entirely devoid of merit. Amongst these are Tiger! Tiger! by Elizabeth Bear, a fairly rewarding read that makes interesting use of Sebastian Moran and Irene Adler in what turns out to be much more than simply an Indian tiger hunt. In Steven Elliott-Altman’s atmospheric and rather successful entry A Case of Royal Blood, we have H. G. Wells doing Watson duty in an effort to assist Holmes in ridding the Dutch Royal family of that most Lovecraftian of creatures – a Shoggoth! In one of the best entries in this collection - Art in the Blood - Brian Stableford has Sherlock reporting to brother Mycroft on his investigations into the creeping chaos that has corrupted the flesh of John Chevaucheux. The story structure with its slowly building sense of dread and grotesque finale is such that it genuinely evokes the creepiness and urgency so typical of Lovecraft’s most compelling stories. Barbara Hambly, no stranger to the Victorian milieu, gives us what is likely the best entry in the book. Her piece The Case of the Antiquarian’s Niece makes good use of Holmes and has features of Lovecraft’s best story – an isolated, inbred family sporting the Innsmouth look! Surprisingly, she also managed to work in an appearance from William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki without using a shoehorn! Definitely my favorite entry in this collection, unlike John Pelan’s The Mystery of the Worm, which is a rather paint by numbers effort that features a wasted appearance by Guy Boothby’s Dr. Nikola. Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowned Geologist features a Lovecraftian-style letter to Watson from someone who thought he had encountered Holmes during the Great Hiatus and demonstrates that the clanging of styles is less of an issue when you drop the Canonical story approach and use a new character’s perspective.
On the negative end, oh boy, there is simply too much to cover, but hands-down worst of the lot must be Paul Finch’s - The Mystery of the Hanged Man's Puzzle. Structured like a bad pulp-style adventure story, we have a villain attempting to poison London's water supply in a bid to turn the populace into pustule sprouting vegetables to appease the Old Ones. This one was truly awful in every sense, although Tim Lebbon’s - The Horror of the Many Faces gives it a run for its money. Watson thinks he's sees Holmes kill an innocent, but malevolent bees are at the heart of the mystery…I kid you not!
As for the rest, well, the less said the better, particularly as I quite like some of these writers when they are in their own element. Neil Gaiman, Simon Clark, and Poppy Z Brite are all far better writers than their entries in this collection would have you believe.
The Bottom Line: For the pastiche completist only.
|Shadows Over Baker Street: New Tales of Terror
Author: Edited by Michael Reaves and John Pelan
First Published: October 2003 Publisher: Del Rey
Format: Hardcover 464 pages
Price: $23.95 USD
Reviewed by: Charles Prepolec
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