Falls Short of the Mark – Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu

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Sherlock Holmes vs Cthulhu

Given the popularity of the Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, it should come as no surprise that those two properties would cross over at some point. Sherlock Holmes/Cthulhu Mythos crossovers exist, though none of them have really piqued my interest because, in my mind, the two are so utterly incompatible. After all, Sherlock Holmes is the epitome of incisive logic in an illogical world, while the Elder Gods of the Mythos are so incomprehensible and illogical that dealing with them inevitably leads to madness. What story could combine these two polar opposites and still make some kind of sense?

In the end, it was the cover (as is often the case with books) that drew me to Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu: The Adventure of the Deadly Dimensions by Lois H. Gresh. The title, of course, says it all: another Sherlock/Mythos crossover to add to the ranks of the others that have come before. And yet, this time, instead of dismissing it out-of-hand I chose to pick it up and give it a shot. I suppose I could say that the cover overrode my better judgement, but in the end, I have to admit that I wanted to know: was it indeed possible to have the Elder Gods share story space with Sherlock Holmes? As is often the case with similar questions, there is really only one way to find out for sure.

Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu is set in England in 1890. Human remains have been found in London’s East End: bones, piled up in strange ways, along with strange spherical bones incised with unusual designs. With the memory of Jack the Ripper still all too fresh, some suspect that the Ripper might be on the loose again, but Sherlock Holmes is quite convinced that this is not his work. It does not take them long to get on the case, but as Holmes and Watson go deeper and further into their investigation, they begin to realise that what may lie at the end of the trail is something so far beyond their understanding of the world it defies the understanding of Sherlock Holmes himself.

Due to the crossover nature of this novel, there are a few ways to look at it, and therefore judge its merits. On one hand, it can be approached as a kind of Sherlock Holmes pastiche, with the reader paying close attention to how the characters from the Sherlock Holmes stories (not least Holmes and Watson) are portrayed, as well as to how the mystery plot itself is handled. From that perspective, fidelity to Doyle’s original material is important, though how strict the fidelity is can vary from reader to reader.

On the other hand, readers can approach this novel as a story set within the framework of the Cthulhu Mythos. For those who take this approach, requirements for fidelity to the original source material are much looser, with less focus on characterisation (Lovecraft was not exactly known for creating nuanced characters) and more emphasis on worldbuilding and on certain tropes and themes.

As someone who is familiar with both Sherlock Holmes and the Cthulhu Mythos, it is possible for me to tackle this novel from both sides, and see where one would work best with the other. And in some ways, this novel does actually work, but in others, it does not.

I will start by looking at this from the Holmes side of the fence. Now, I must state here that I do not require or expect any non-canon Holmes material I engage with to strictly adhere to the canon. I appreciate it if it does, but I certainly do not mind if the story plays a little fast and loose with it. I think that’s part of the fun – and the appeal – of Holmes pastiches; after all, if I wanted to read something that adhered strictly to the canon, I would read the canon stories themselves.

One of the indicators I use for how closely a Holmes pastiche will hew to the canon is to look at the narrative style. Like any other writer, Doyle had quirks of his own that show up most clearly in the way the narrator (usually and most famously Watson, but occasionally Holmes) tells the story, and those are quirks that authors of Holmes homages and pastiches have tried to emulate ever since. Some authors are quite good at mimicking this tone, but there are plenty who are not quite so good. Some of the latter simply give up trying to mimic it and just go their own way (with varying results – though some are actually quite excellent), while others…well, struggle is the kindest adjective to use, I suppose.

Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu falls somewhere in between. If one were to compare the opening chapter of this novel with, for instance, the opening chapter of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which is arguably the most famous of the Holmes stories, the former comes off as far more more descriptive than the latter. The dialogue, however, matches very closely with what one might expect dialogue to read like in the Holmes canon.

This, I think, is what may throw off some readers who, like myself, are trying to pin down the novel’s style. Holmes and Watson sound very much like Holmes and Watson from the canon stories, but the rest of the narration seems to belie this. Because of this, it was not until I reached Chapter 8 that I realised what the author is trying to do: write a more emotional Watson, someone who was also intensely aware of his position and privilege in life. This is generally not a character trait readers associate with anyone from the Holmes canon, and so reveals, finally, how many degrees separate this novel from the rest of the canon. It is also, in my opinion, a rather pleasant surprise; clearly an attempt by the author to address the darker side of Victorian society that might have escaped readers of the Holmes canon (though readers of Dickens are likely already familiar with the unjust nature of Victorian society).

Fortunately, once the reader gets to this point, it is no great difficulty to accept this more emotional, introspective Watson – which is a good thing, I suppose, since Holmes is also somewhat more emotional in this novel than in the canon. This is only to be expected: after all, how the reader understands Holmes is generally shaped by Watson, since it is through the latter’s eyes, that the reader sees the former.

Another thing I look at when reviewing a Holmes pastiche is the plot. Though the mysteries in the Holmes canon are complex, they are always explainable. No matter how supernatural a case may seem (again, see The Hound of the Baskervilles), at the end of it all Holmes is able to explain every single element and clue in a rational manner.

I will now look at this story from the Cthulhu Mythos side. The difference between the Mythos and the Holmes canon mostly has to do with how creators approach the former versus the latter. As I mentioned earlier, any creator who uses the Holmes canon tends to have less room to play in, since fans of Sherlock Holmes have a lot of expectations. Even if the reader in question is not particularly strict about how the Holmes canon is adapted and used, he or she will, inevitably, have a particular hard line which, if crossed by the creator, invalidates the story’s relationship to the canon.

With the Mythos, however, the relationship can be much looser. Any creator playing with the Mythos need not include any of Lovecraft’s characters or settings in his or her story, though if he or she does so, then that is appreciated. But what readers do expect is that the work will adhere to certain specific themes: for example, that there are certain kinds of knowledge that are so far beyond the comprehension of ordinary humans that anyone who tries to acquire such knowledge will be driven mad. Another is that there are powers out there that view humanity as less than dust in the grander scheme of the universe, and so have no hesitation about crushing our species and our planet into oblivion, and nothing can save our species from them. So long as the creator incorporates these themes, then most readers are open to accepting any other modifications the creator may do to the Mythos.

And it is here, at the meeting point between the Mythos and the Holmes canon, that this novel runs into the most trouble. It does not seem that way at first, since the author takes care to introduce the Mythos elements slowly, but as the novel continues problems begin to emerge – most notably, how Holmes addresses the unexplainable, seemingly illogical events that occur. In the Holmes canon the reader takes significant enjoyment in seeing how Holmes explains away seemingly supernatural doings, but in this novel, anything supernatural is likely supernatural, and therefore something Holmes cannot rationalise away. It is, in a way, a good example of the adage “an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.”

As a reader familiar with both the Mythos and the Holmes canon, I went into this novel entirely aware that Holmes would be unable to explain anything related to the doings and workings of the Elder Gods. I hoped, however, that his superior intellect would allow his mind to encompass it, because attempting to rationalise the truly irrational is the surest way to madness (as anyone who has read Lovecraft’s stories will know). However, in this novel Holmes is seemingly impervious to the maddening influence of the Elder Gods, suggesting that the power of his logical mind actually protects him from them. This ought not to be the case, because in the Mythos the most logical characters are usually the first to break under the sheer weight of the truth presented to them, which is usually swiftly followed by a crushing despair at the realisation that the world is not what they have always believed it to be. In the tug between Holmes’ logic and the Elder Gods’ illogic, something has to give – and unfortunately, the novel is very muddled on this point.

Another issue that bothers me about this novel is how the author has used the Mythos without questioning its racist and classist underpinnings. Nowadays, more and more authors are beginning to realise that the Mythos is not as uncomplicated as creators used to assume (or wanted to assume), and therefore have begun to take steps towards addressing that, creating works that showcase the dark underbelly of Lovecraft’s politics, which are embedded throughout his work.

Unfortunately, this novel does not attempt to do any of that. While Watson’s thoughtfulness regarding his privilege is laudable, echoing as it does Dickens’ own interest in and concern for the conditions of the poor in Victorian London, the lack of any such thoughtfulness where the Mythos is concerned bothers me. This lack of awareness regarding the darker side of the Mythos is a blind spot with a lot of creators – though hopefully not a deliberate one, in the case of the author of this novel.

Overall, Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu: The Adventure of the Deadly Dimensions is an entertaining enough three-star read, even if the premise is rather gimmicky. I like the author’s take on Watson, writing him as more self-aware of his place and station in life, since it makes excellent commentary on the nature of his privilege, particularly when set vis-a-vis the living conditions of the poor in Victorian London, or even that of his own wife, Mary (nee Morstan).

However, this new approach to Watson (and through him, Sherlock Holmes) does nothing to remedy the question of how to make the Holmes canon play nice with the Cthulhu Mythos, and this novel does not do very well on that front – mostly in addressing how Holmes deals with the illogical nature of the Elder Gods. Some readers may find the storytelling serviceable enough for their tastes, though, so entertainment mileage will certainly vary.

Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu: The Adventure of the Deadly Dimensions is available from Amazon in a variety of formats; click on the title to find them all.

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