Saturday, January 10, 2004

Anthology: Holmes meets Cthulhu

Shadows over Baker Street: Edited by Michael Reaves and John Pelan, containing stories by Neil Gaiman, James Lowder, Elizabeth Bear, F. Gwynplaine McIntyre, and others.

I came to this book by a strange path – I was attending the Northwest Bookfest, and sat on a panel with, among others, editor John Pelan, who had previously edited an anthology I had enjoyed, The Last Continent, a collection of new tales of Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique. (Apparently I enjoyed it so much I pushed it on a friend or fellow-writer and it is now no longer in my collection). So over the course of the panel discussion it came up that his latest anthology was a cross-genre collection called Shadows over Baker Street. I and several of the other Alliterates on the panel picked up the book (and I am curious about their opinions as well).

Anyway, Shadows over Baker Street is a collision between two noble and long-lived fictional worlds – the sharply thought-out, rational world of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes with the amorphous, terrifying world of the H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. While the two belong to different literary eras (Doyle’s creations belong to the popular magazines of the 1890s., Lovecraft’s to the pulps of the 20s and 30s), the Victorian era is rife with potential for Cthuloid goodness (indeed, there is a sub-genre of gaming, long ignored, dedicated to this very period, Cthulhu by Gaslight, and could be considered a precursor to these tales).

The two worlds are very different, and a challenge to those who seek to cross the streams. Doyle’s writing for Holmes was cerebral, rational, and rather bloodless, and he has a direct approach where the mystery is resolved by Holmes to the unwitting Watson, often using clues that might not always be shared with the reader. Lovecraft’s world, by comparison, is visceral, terrifying, and more blood-curdling in nature, and uses ornate and obscure language (Squamous is a favorite word. Rugtose is another). Indeed, the two universes seem to be in direct opposition – Holmes embodies universal understanding, rationality and comprehension, with the Cthulhu Mythos deals with uncaring, sanity-shattering gods, fell ancient terrors, and books which should never have been written and should definitely not be read. Holmes in his London only rarely fails (such is his nature), and mortals rarely succeed against the Mythos. How can cold rationality and sanity-smashing terror exist side-by-side?

The answer varies according to the writer. Most authors take a definitely Holmsean view of the universe. In these tales, Sherlock is more than capable of withstanding the soul-blasting knowledge of the Necronomicon, while Watson is protected by his own dull and unimaginative nature. And while the bulk of these tales are solid and enjoyable, its those that do not hew to this line that truly stand out.

The lead story is "A Study in Emerald", and is Neil Gaiman’s piece, and probably the best “draw” of the book, given Gaiman’s popularity. He takes the broadest pen of the lot, completely reinventing Holmes’ universe as one where the Old Ones live and rule, and evil is pedestrian. He pulls off a few nice tricks and turns along with way, and his path is rewarding to both the Cthulhuphile and the Holmes addict.

The best story NOT by Neil Gaiman is James Lowder’s “The Weeping Masks” which moves Holmes off-stage entirely and deals with Watson’s eldritch experiences in Afghanistan. Former TSR editor Lowder tells a direct tale, more in keeping with the Cthuloid mythos, without Holmes to banish the shadows back with the light of logic. He pulls it off quite nicely. The other non-Holmesean Holmes tale is also excellent – Elizabeth Bear’s “Tiger! Tiger” which deals with Miss Irene Adler’s experiences in India and creatures of Hastur.

Pound for pound, the entry with the MOST Lovecraft and Doyle references is I F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre’s “The Adventure of Exham Priory”, which mixes the Necronomicon, Deep Ones, Moriarity, and things which should not be, with a nice head-nod to rats (both those in the walls and big ones from Sumantra). By throwing everything into the mix, this story ends up being one of the freshest of the lot, since you aren’t quite sure where its going until it gets there.

Most of the others have typical Holmesean scenes – Holmes deduces the new client’s name, occupation, problem, and sun sign upon meeting him for the time, without breaking a sweat, Holmes reveals that he has heard of (or often read) the Necronomicon. Watson operates at a number of different levels of buffoonery ranging from foolish to life-endangering. In many tales Holmes transforms the Mythos into nothing more than another type of science – a mind-shattering, soul-destroying science, but a science nonetheless. In these tales, Holmes wins, and the Mythos is lessened a bit by each victory.

Reaves and Pelan have assembled an excellent collection of stories around the common hub of Holmes meets (and occasionally beats) Cthulhu and his eldritch lot. If you have interest in either of these subgenres, I strongly recommend you check this volume out.