Review: Gaslight Grotesque

By Orrin Grey

ggrot-cover_110Campbell, J.R. & Prepolec, Charles, ed. Gaslight Grotesque: Nightmare Tales of Sherlock Holmes. EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing, 2009. US $16.95. ISBN 978-1894063319.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) the legendary rationality and scepticism of Sherlock Holmes, there seems to be an undeniable allure for both writers and readers in stories that place him in situations both supernatural and irrational. Gaslight Grotesque is not the first themed anthology predicated on this premise — it’s not even the first one from editors J.R. Campbell and Charles Prepolec, who previously brought us Gaslight Grimoire — but it is the first one that I’ve ever read.

You see, I’m something of a novice when it comes to Sherlock Holmes. I know of the character, of course, and I’ve seen him on film in various incarnations, and read the occasional pastiche or Wold Newton-esque story with him as a guest star, but up until a few months ago I’d never actually read any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Holmes stories. And so, while Gaslight Grotesque is not my first exposure to stories that thrust Holmes into “outré or fantastic situations” (as Charles Prepolec puts it in his introduction to the book), it is my first since learning a bit more about Holmes canon.

The book starts off impressively, with an incredible frontispiece by artist Neil Vokes, featuring Sherlock Holmes surrounded by a menagerie of classic Hammer horror monsters. This is followed by a toweringly thorough foreword by Leslie S. Klinger that begins as a review of the history of horror and detective fiction (and the places where they intersect) and ends in a tantalizing hook for the stories to come.

As for the stories themselves, they feel like they would have been right at home alongside the works of Conan Doyle and his contemporaries. There is little in the way of literary experimentation; most of the tales are pastiches, written in the immediately familiar style of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories, though there are a few clever and welcome deviations, such as Simon Kurt Unsworth’s “The Hand-Delivered Letter” or Robert Lauderdale’s “The Best Laid Plans,” an intriguing piece written from the oft-neglected point of view of Inspector Lestrade.

The “outré and fantastic” elements of these “nightmare tales,” however, range pretty widely from the overtly supernatural to the uncanny to the merely grotesque or disquieting, though it would be giving the game away to tell which stories are which. Suffice it to say that many stripes of monsters and horrors are represented herein, enough that the aforementioned frontispiece does not end up feeling like a cheat. From a deceptively simple yet haunting murder, to zombies, werewolves, Goetic demons, and even a Lovecraftian fungus creature, Gaslight Grotesque delivers a variety of Gothic and, yes, grotesque pleasures.

Not being much of a Holmes scholar myself, I can’t usefully discuss how well the book fares in the department of canon, though I will say that the authors all seem to have done their homework. Special mention must be made of Barbara Roden’s exceptional “Of the Origin of the Hound of the Baskervilles,” probably my favorite story in the book, which is an amazingly effective retelling and re-envisioning of perhaps the most famous and certainly the most horrific of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. It’s a prime example of what this kind of story can do in the right hands, and would be worth picking up Gaslight Grotesque for all on its own merits.

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