Review of Vampire Stories
The Vampire Stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Skyhorse Publishing, 2009
When you first see the title of this new Arthur Conan Doyle anthology from Skyhorse Publishing – ten tales under the heading Vampire Stories – your first impulse is to beg for mercy and feel betrayed; et tu, Arthur? you want to cry. In the current heyday of the undead, it seems like vampire stories have hijacked every genre of fiction going. Blood-sucking fiends infest the Romance section of every bookstore; they’ve long had a claw-hold in the Science Fiction section; and let’s not even talk about the Teen section, where Encyclopedia Brown was turned two years ago and Nancy Drew is a dark brood-mother by now. Surely, surely, if there’s one bastion that will hold out against this necrophilic onslaught, it’s the creator of that rational icon, Sherlock Holmes, who once reprimanded Watson with words that should be spelled out for Stephenie Meyer with holy water: “This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.”
Those words, ironically, come from the 1924 tale “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,” which is of course featured in this delightful, indispensable collection – and just as the vampire in that Holmes story turns out to be far more subtle and substantial than a pretty boy who glitters (glitters!) in the sunlight, so too this Skyhorse volume, edited by vampire-lore expert Robert Eighteen-Bisang and veteran anthologist Martin Greenberg, is far more satisfying than its title implies. For although Conan Doyle was friends with Bram Stoker, he almost entirely avoids the literal kind of undead so crowding bookstores these days. Instead, he gives us a much wider variety of creatures who prey, in various ways, on the vitality of those around them.
There’s Isadora Klein of “The Adventure of the Three Gables,” who flourishes while her lovers languish; there’s Baron Gruner of “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client” (another Holmes story), a truly vile blackmailer who ruins women as methodically as ever the evil Count did; there’s the diminutive Miss Penclosa of “The Parasite,” who exercises a powerful mental coercion over the men in her life, who resist her at their peril:
“You fiend!” I cried. “You have come to the end of your tricks now. I will have no more of them. Listen to what I say.” I strode across and shook her roughly by the shoulder. “As sure as there is a God in heaven, I swear that if you try another of your deviltries upon me I will have your life for it. Come what may, I will have your life. I have come to the end of what a man can endure.”
“Accounts are not quite settled between us,” said she, with a passion that equalled my own. “I can love, and I can hate. You had your choice. You chose to spurn the first; now you must test the other. It will take a little more to break your spirit, I see, but broken it shall be…”
And there’s Octavius Gaster, the mysterious gaunt-faced figure at the heart of “The Winning Shot,” an eminently fascinating character who will have readers momentarily forgetting all about the consulting detective of 221b Baker Street. These nine stories (the tenth is a pastiche by Bill Crider that’s effective enough but can’t help but look a little, shall we say anemic, alongside works by a master like Conan Doyle) fully deserve the wider audience this book’s canny angle will certainly bring them. And Eighteen-Bisang’s brief, incredibly comprehensive bibliography (included as an appendix and listing every imaginary encounter between Holmes and Dracula, in books and comics) is an added treat. So there’s no betrayal here after all, just vintage Arthur Conan Doyle probing the dark edges of the human condition every bit as effectively as his friend Stoker did, and every bit as entertainingly. I highly recommend this book.