TITLE: Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu: The Adventure of the Deadly Dimensions
AUTHOR: Lois H. Gresh
GENRE: Historical, Horror, Mystery
PUBLISHED: July 4, 2017
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
Given the popularity of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, it is no surprise that the two would someday meet. Sherlock Holmes/Cthulhu Mythos crossovers exist, though none 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 judgment 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 might 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 thus to 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 world-building 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. Take this excerpt for example:
The night murmured. Leaves tossed themselves to the wet cobblestones of Baker Street. The overhead lamps leaked a yellow that made the raindrops spark like fireflies. It was good to be back with my dear friend, Sherlock Holmes, even if I was only visiting for the evening, and soon would return to Mary and our newborn son, Samuel.
I peered pensively from the window, as was my custom. Holmes smoked his pipe and riffled through the newspapers. despite my mood, I felt at home with the dense smoke, the crackle of the paper, and Holmes’s derisive snorts as he scanned the articles.
“Why, look at this, Watson,” he said. “Four more are dead in the East End. …” He paused. “Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard has no comments about possible suspects.”
“Yes, I’ve been following the case.” I flipped back my coat-tails and settled into the armchair across from Holmes. Though the warmth from the fireplace seeped through my damp clothes and into my skin, I shivered slightly. Holmes pursed his lips, then tapped his pipe twice on the stem and puffed. releasing the smoke in curls, he crossed his legs. He was excited by the mysterious events in the area of London he visited when desperate for opium. I knew his excitement meant he would have no need for the needle and drugs he kept hidden in the mahogany box under his desk.
“What do you make of it, then?” he asked.
Compare the above with this excerpt, taken from The Hound of the Baskervilles, probably the most well-known, and therefore most widely-read, of the canonical Holmes stories:
Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table. I stood upon the hearth-rug and picked up the stick which our visitor had left behind him the night before. It was a fine, thick piece of wood, bulbous-headed, of the sort which is known as a “Penang lawyer.” Just under the head was a broad silver band nearly an inch across. “To James Mortimer, M.R.C.S., from his friends of the C.C.H.,” was engraved upon it, with the date “1884.” It was just such a stick as the old-fashioned family practitioner used to carry—dignified, solid, and reassuring.
“Well, Watson, what do you make of it?”
Note how quickly the excerpt from Hound gets to the “What do you make of it?” question, compared to the except from Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu. Note, too, how descriptive the excerpt from the novel is, whereas the one from Hound is shorter and to the point. This seems to indicate that the novel is not going to follow the canon very closely, but if the reader focuses on the dialogue alone, the style of the novel actually matches Doyle’s style quite well - not right on the nose, to be certain, but close enough.
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. It was not until I reached Chapter 8 that I realised what the author is trying to do, and only when I read this excerpt:
… For the unfortunate souls living in the East End, like the boy in the MEAT building, every day was a nightmare of hunger, filth, poverty, disease, and death. The Ripper had chosen his territory well, for here no one helped a stranger in danger or in need. …
Here, life itself was a form of death. People didn’t seek adventure or intellectual stimulation. They’d be happy to be in my shoes, eating meat pies and taking boring walks. I felt spoiled and privileged striding alongside Sherlock Holmes.
Self-awareness of the kind presented in the excerpt 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 have, inevitably, a particular hard line that, 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 one 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.
Overall, Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu: The Adventure of the Deadly Dimensions is an entertaining enough 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.