I had mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows is a true chocolate and peanut butter moment, but on the other, one genre is anathema to the other. It works, but it shouldn’t. It betrays the beliefs of one, and yet still feels right.
I suppose I should elaborate with a weird aside—I hate the fact that Scooby Doo now includes actual supernatural elements. Both the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew TV shows have done the same thing.
To me, the core of their being was to demonstrate that the supernatural wasn’t real. If something seems supernatural, someone is trying to put one over on you, full stop. There’s always a person behind the rubber mask. Important message for kids, especially growing up in this day and age.
Sherlock Holmes is much the same way. The Hound of the Baskervilles is a prime example. Sherlock Holmes is about logic and reason. As the man himself said, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
And so James Lovegrove decided to make the impossible possible, and chucked him and Watson straight into the Cthulhu Mythos.
For the gamers out there, I’d recommend reading this if you’re running a Cthulhu by Gaslight kind of game, as it is set in 1880, though the next book (Sherlock Holmes and the Miskatonic Monstrosities) takes place in 1895 and the last book (Sherlock Holmes and the Sussex Sea-Devils) takes place after Holmes’ retirement in 1910, which is close enough to the usual era the game is played in.
He’s not the first to mash these worlds up, mind you. Fanfiction aside, Neil Gaiman wrote the short story “A Study in Emerald.” While he didn’t directly use Holmes by name, it was clearly a Holmes meet Mythos story (or a Moriarty meets Mythos story).
And yet, as stated earlier, it works. The idea of Conan Doyle’s ultimate detective coming to grips with the horrors of Lovecraft’s Mythos is undeniably appealing. But it wouldn’t work unless the author knew his stuff, and Lovegrove does.
First off, there’s how he establishes the conceit. This book begins with Lovegrove explaining how he’s loosely related to the Lovecrafts, and that by way of a distant relative passing away, some unusual manuscripts recently came into his possession. Those manuscripts having been written by one John Watson.
And so the book that is presented to the reader is supposedly not that of James Lovegrove, but rather the recovered works of Dr. Watson. The stories that appeared in the Strand Magazine were either the ones suitable for public consumption, or the truth was heavily massaged in the interests of the public good.
So right off the bat you have the actual author telling the reader that both Holmes and the Mythos are real, and what you’re about to read are the untold events of the great detective’s career. Not a bad way to establish verisimilitude.
Lovegrove captures Doyle’s style and Watson’s voice very well. Having read virtually every Sherlock Holmes story in the past, I could tell right away that it sounded close enough to pass.
In fact, in some ways, Doyle is better suited for telling a Mythos story than Lovecraft, who I always felt had an unnecessarily Byzantine style (you know, the kind of style that would use words like Byzantine and anathema and verisimilitude like they were everyday lingo).
Doyle was first and foremost a storyteller. This comes through in his other works as well, like when I compared Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth to Doyle’s The Lost World. And Lovegrove captures that style extremely well.
But Lovegrove captures the mystery and horror of the Mythos equally well, and weaves it into the lives of Holmes and Watson in very interesting ways.
We learn that Watson’s injury in Afghanistan (which lead to him coming home and meeting Holmes) wasn’t from a rifle at all, but what he saw there was so terrible, he convinced himself it was. And when that story is revealed later on in the book, it gave me many of the same feelings of wonder, exploration, discovery, dread, and terror that The Mountains of Madness gave me when I first read it. It works really well. Mostly.
I say mostly because the one downside of capturing Doyle’s voice so well is that there is a certain lightheartedness to it that could be argued to take away from the horror just a smidge (maybe there’s a point to Byzantine prose after all). It’s not a huge thing, but does make enough of a difference to notice. You read a Lovecraft story and there is a sense of dread hanging over you. You read a Doyle story, and there is a sense of adventure.
I don’t see this as a negative, merely something to be aware of. If you go into these books expecting to sleep with the lights on, that’s probably not going to happen. But you will have a darn good time.
The game is afoot! (or would that be atentacle?)