My Patreon patron John Miller asks…
Did HPL read Sherlock Holmes, and what did he think of this character and these stories?
The young Lovecraft certainly read the Holmes tales. As he recalled for Alfred Galpin, in a letter of 27th May 1918…
As to ‘Sherlock Holmes’ — I used to be infatuated with him! I read every Sherlock Holmes story published, and even organised a detective agency when I was thirteen, arrogating to myself the proud pseudonym of S.H. This P.D.A. [Providence Detective Agency] — whose members ranged between nine & fourteen in years, was a most wonderful thing — how many murders & robberies we unravelled! Our headquarters were in a deserted house just out of the thickly settled area…
That would be around 1902/3, the period in which a revolver was constantly carried in the pocket (sans ammunition) and a 99-cent spy-glass was newly on hand. Handcuffs, magnifying glasses, false beards and piercing whistles were also features of the P.D.A. We might suppose that the boys modelled themselves on the Baker Street irregulars, a group of boys found in the Holmes tales. But there may well have been other similar inspirations. He was also at this time reading Railroad man’s Magazine and the early Munsey proto-pulps. Lovecraft himself mentions…
Nick Carter and Old Sleuth, dear to the small boys of other generations, and studied almost invariably without knowledge or consent of the reader’s parents!
A list that Lovecraft made for Moe, recalling the multifarious concerns of the year 1900, includes… “Is Doyle going to write any more Sherlock Holmes books?”. Which suggests Lovecraft was also avid for Holmes in that year too.
The tales also spurred Lovecraft to a sustained period of writing, perhaps his first, as he told Kleiner on 2nd February 1916…
I used to write detective stories very often, the works of A. Conan Doyle being my model so far as plot was concerned.
As I’ve pointed out, the Holmes tales have plenty of gothic elements in them. They are not pure paeans to rationalism and scientific deduction.
In 1918 Lovecraft assumed he had read all of the Sherlock Holmes tales, but a footnote in the new edition of the Galpin letters itemises what he had read by 1927: three collections (Adventures, Memoirs, Return), three novels (Scarlet, Four, Hound) and two unnamed “mediocre” stories appearing circa 1908. I assume these were the 1908 tales “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge” and “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans”. This shows that Lovecraft would have been up-to-date to summer 1908, but after that lost touch with the figure.
Which was rather a pity, as he missed the rest of the tales included in the book collections His Last Bow (1917) and all of the tales in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927). Therefore it would be a mistake for future scholars to assume that the young Lovecraft had read “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot”; “The Valley of Fear”; “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” or any other of the Case-Book tales.
What he did read may have had some later influence on Lovecraft’s ‘decadent’ phase. In the glimpses we have of this we sometimes sense Lovecraft as a figure not unlike Holmes in his limp ‘down-time’ periods behind the blinds at Baker Street. One might also see touches of this incorporated in “The Hound”, with both languid drug-taking and distant echoes of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” being woven into Lovecraft’s hilarious self-parody.
The boyhood Providence detective band appears to have faded away by 1905, and Lovecraft’s early interest in local ‘crime and grime’ did not continue. For instance he later remarked that as an adult he never read the “police reports” section in newspapers. Though one can see that he kept a ‘watching brief’ open on political crime, as evidenced by tales such as “The Street” (1919). He would also revisit local thuggery in his “The Terrible Old Man” (1920). Later in his life he sometimes took notice of ‘small crimes’. Crimes which may have been ‘petty’ in the eyes of the police, but which meant a lot to those involved. Such as the case of the missing stamp (recently detailed in an episode of the Voluminous podcast), a ‘missing cow’ hunt at Wilbraham, or of curiously missing cats on College Hill. In the latter case Lovecraft strongly suspected a local cat-poisoner, but it seems he did not do as far as to don a deerstalker and investigate Sherlock-style.
He saw, but was very disappointed by, the Sherlock Holmes movie of 1922. This movie did not, it seems, spark a Holmes revival among American boys. Lovecraft’s friend and fellow-writer Whitehead, a close observer of American boy-culture in evening clubs and summer-camps, remarked in a 1922 essay on the…
fact that there is just now growing up a generation of readers for whom the Doyle of ‘Sherlock Holmes’ is an obsolescent figure.
There is some indication that the adult Lovecraft read Doyle’s non-Holmes tales at the end of January 1925. In the 1925 Diary we hear…
home & read Meynell & Doyle
The listing of his library, made at his death, included Doyle’s collections Tales of Long Ago, and Tales of Twilight & the Unseen. (Doyle’s output in the weird line is surveyed in Wormwood #31, “The Dark and Decadent Dreams of Doctor Doyle”).
In September 1925 he told his aunt he intended to see the new movie of Doyle’s “The Lost World”, because it had become a ‘cheap-ticket show’ at the Strand. He notes the original novel had “charmed” him “some fifteen or more years ago”, which would put the reading at circa 1907-10.
We definitely know he borrowed Doyle volumes from the weird collector and friend Paul Cook, in summer 1929…
I am now about to go over the weird short stories of A. Conan Doyle — as many as I could round up in W. Paul Cook’s private library. Some of them I know, some of them I’ve read & forgotten, & some of them I seem never to have seen at all. It is quite possible that my opinion of Doyle as a weird writer will measurably increase within the next week or so!” [Later] “in the Doyle collection Cook lent me I recognised many of the old familiar tales, though there were a few I had not seen before. Doyle doesn’t affect me as powerfully as he did 25 or 30 years ago. In those days I got a real shudder out of things like “J. Habakuk Jephson”, “John Barrington Cowles”, “The Ring of Thoth”, & so on, but now I seem to sense the mechanics & the essential naivete. Doyle lacks some vague quality of mystical potency which Blackwood & Machen & De la Mare possess. But he is a good author for young readers, & I can see why he impressed me so strongly in the golden age of the 90’s & early 1900’s.
The latter point dates Lovecraft’s Doyle reading before 1900, into the later 1890s. The 1929 reading was undertaken for his survey of supernatural literature. I get the sense that the later Holmes stories (“Devil’s Foot”; “Valley of Fear” etc) were not included and thus remained unread. The Doyle volumes concerned were, surprisingly, then unavailable in the Providence Public Library. Which may perhaps be another indication of Doyle’s fading-away as a presence in American culture.
Lovecraft knew of Doyle’s well-publicised credulous spiritualist dalliances with everything from ectoplasm-exuding seance fraudsters to bottom-o’-the-garden fairy photography. Lovecraft knew from Houdini exactly how such fraud thrived, ghoulishly preying on the recently bereaved and mourning. He derided…
the cunningly doctored reports of “occult” phenomena popularised by men like [Sir Oliver] Lodge, [Conan] Doyle” (Lovecraft letter to Long, 1930).
To his aunt he lamented the loss of a fine writer to such malign forces…
What a writer Doyle was before he went to seed as a dupe of the spirit-mediums!
“The Problems with Solving: Implications for Sherlock Holmes and Lovecraft Narrators”, Lovecraft Studies #42-43 (Autumn 2001, double-issue).
“Elementary, My Dear Lovecraft”, Lovecraft Annual #6 (2012). (Detailed detection of possible Holmes influences on Lovecraft’s fiction).
The Robert H. Waugh Library of Lovecraftian Criticism, volume 3, reportedly has an essay on “the influence of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on several Lovecraft tales”.
And see also the vast industry involving the creation of Holmes / Lovecraft mash-ups, something the young Lovecraft and his band of boys would no doubt have been rather delighted to learn about.
John J. Miller said:
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