The release of Mr Holmes in the UK this week provides an incredibly tenuous reason for me to write a love letter to one of my favourite novels of all time: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Existing almost as a spin-off compared with other Sherlock Holmes stories, it takes an interesting sidestep from crime fiction into gothic horror. Another reason it feels like a spin-off is because Holmes disappears for a vast chunk of the narrative, leaving Watson with the bulk of the investigating.
The plot – about a supposedly cursed family line stalked by a bloodthirsty hellhound – is ripping, gripping stuff. The death that sets the story in motion is vividly and terrifyingly related, as is the subsequent background of Sir Henry Baskerville’s ancestor – a “profane and godless man” who supposedly sold his soul to the devil for assistance in abducting a woman.
The text positively drips with atmosphere and intrigue, and no matter how many times I read it, I get shivers. After I first read the novel, I managed to scare myself silly by camping on Dartmoor and imagining the hound stalking around our tent in the shrieking winds. A recent late night re-reading caused me to feel slightly unsettled even now, and I had only reached the end of chapter six, which is hardly the scariest part of the tale. Here’s an excerpt from the end of said chapter:
“I drew aside my curtains before I went to bed and looked out from my window. It opened upon the grassy space which lay in front of the hall door. Beyond, two copses of trees moaned and swung in a rising wind. A half moon broke through the rifts of racing clouds. In its cold light I saw beyond the trees a broken fringe of rocks, and the long, low curve of the melancholy moor. I closed the curtain, feeling that my last impression was in keeping with the rest.
And yet it was not quite the last. I found myself weary and yet wakeful, tossing restlessly from side to side, seeking for the sleep which would not come. Far away a chiming clock struck out the quarters of the hours, but otherwise a deathly silence lay upon the old house. And then suddenly, in the very dead of the night, there came a sound to my ears, clear, resonant, and unmistakable. It was the sob of a woman, the muffled, strangling gasp of one who is torn by an uncontrollable sorrow. I sat up in bed and listened intently. The noise could not have been far away and was certainly in the house. For half an hour I waited with every nerve on the alert, but there came no other sound save the chiming clock and the rustle of the ivy on the wall.”
Anyone who has ever found it difficult to sleep in a strange house will relate to the above. As for the rest of the novel, practically every sentence oozes menace. It is a truly remarkable piece of writing.
I contend that there has not yet been a fully satisfactory film version of the novel. Some have been better than others, and one or two have come close, but all have fallen short in some way. Perhaps there simply is no way to full convey the gnawing sense of dread one gets from reading the text. For instance, the above passage where Watson is unable to sleep on his first night in Baskerville Hall somehow just doesn’t come across in the same unsettling way in any of the film versions.
The earliest version of The Hound of the Baskervilles on film is a German serial from 1914. The first British version is from 1921, and the first version with sound is from 1932. These are little remembered historical curiosities, as is the Nazi Germany 1937 version. However, the first version to really grab the audience was the 1939 take starring Basil Rathbone. It works well enough, and more or less sticks to the novel, omitting a number of elements. This version also features a censor-baiting and hilarious reference to Holmes’ drug habit in the final line.
Subsequent versions worthy of a watch include the 1959 Hammer Horror version (featuring late, greats Peter Cushing as Holmes and Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville), and a faithful TV movie version starring Jeremy Brett (whom many consider to be the definitive Holmes). Versions to avoid unfortunately include Benedict Cumberbatch take, because whilst other Holmes stories can be effectively updated to the present I don’t think The Hound of the Baskervilles can be due to the genre hopping into the gothic. I enjoy Cumberbatch’s Holmes immensely, but this one didn’t work for me.
However, nothing for me tops the prose in the original novel. It’s a truly masterful piece of work well worthy of a read, even if you’ve seen film or TV versions of the story and know the plot backwards.