A Tale of Sherlock Holmes and Lovecraft

This week, I’ve chosen to analyze A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman¬†as an example of a story related to our theme of myths and legends. I was immediately interested in this story because I love Neil Gaiman’s writing and I noticed that this short story is an adaptation that involves Sherlock Holmes, of which I’m a big fan. What makes this short story so unique is that it blends together multiple forms of mythology, with Sherlock Holmes and Lovecraft, two myths that you wouldn’t think fit together at first glance.

Upon further thinking, I came to realize that on its own, the stories and multiple adaptations of Sherlock Holmes can be considered a mythology; it is perhaps a more modern version of one and often contains nothing supernatural, but it’s somewhat of a legend, the creation of the ‘Sherlock Holmes’ character archetype that’s repeated in so many stories that it’s developed into a myth. Here, Gaiman adds an entirely new layer to this story by combining it with other mythology, which creates a sense of mystery.

Personally, I wasn’t aware that the other influence in the story was that of Lovecraft, something I only discovered when reading this Wikepedia article about the story to gain some knowledge of its context. This in itself was the most interesting aspect of the story to me, the intrigue behind the mystery of it. From the beginning we’re introduced to the unnamed narration and his genius Holmes-like friend whom he meets and immediately I wondered why neither of them were named explicitly. They go on to investigate the death of an apparently and green-blooded, non-human aristocrat with multiple extra limbs, in a similar way to the Sherlock Holmes story of A Study in Scarlet. Just as the narrator was, I was shocked by the melding of a normally non-fantastical story becoming one quite fantastical and darker so soon. Later on the two even visit the mysterious Queen, who is mentioned to have a name unpronounceable to humans and asked to investigate this case. The most surprising shock however, is not this, but the revelation of the killers, who are presumed to be ‘Sherry Vernet’ and ‘John (or James) Watson’, who killed the aristocrat because they claimed he was abducting and luring girls to corrupt them. This, in itself, is what I found most interesting about the story, and usually in Gaiman’s writing, that it turns usual archetypes and assumptions to be made about them on our heads.

When I first read the story, though suspicious, I assumed the narrator and his genius friend were Holmes and Watson, but as mentioned in the Wikipedia article (which I had to read for clarification after being so shocked at the end of the story), that they are the antagonists, Sebastian Moran and James Moriarty. So in this story the roles are reversed, with Holmes and Watson killing these ‘monsters’ and Moran and Moriarty trying to solve the crime and catch these monster killers. This in itself is a morally ambiguous outcome, as we ask ourselves which of them is the archetypal hero in this situation? The typical heroes who do kill instead of solve crimes, and yet kill these non-human creatures who’d harm others, or the typical villains who solve crimes, who are employed by the same non-human creatures. This blurs the lines on that subject, which is something I love in stories and is done so well here, showing how often a reader expects these sort of archetypes and distinctions between villain and hero when reading a familiar story like Sherlock Holmes, and how shocked we can be when this is deviated from.

The mystery regarding this story is also relevant in its format, which aids in the atmosphere of the piece, transporting the reader with that alone to the Victorian era. Additionally, the small Advertisements between the story weave in other myths, such as an ad for Dr. Jekyll’s special powders, which uniquely and subtly point to there being something otherworldly about the story. In fact, I thought the writing itself was generally subtle in this, slowly bringing in comments about the ‘aristocrats’ that the narrator isn’t very familiar with, and the subtle mentions of things non-human at the crime scene. In my opinion, that’s what makes thise story so effective — that it doesn’t shove these revelations in the reader’s face, it allows them to be interpreted.

Additionally, with regards to the typical shape of a story, like described in Kurt Vonnegut’s video, this story does follow it on surface level. The narrator starts at a low point, surviving something traumatic in Afganistan, to meeting his new ‘friend’, who brings excitement to his life and betters it. It does appear to get worse for a while, when the narrator, as an average guy, experiences the troubles of meeting the Queen and the murderer escaping, but this does become better again once the Queen is pleased by their work on the case. So, it follows the typical up, down, and then back up again format. However, on a deeper level, it’s morally ambiguous whether the ending is positive, since it throws the revelation that the murderer may indeed be the hero in some way.

Also, the archetype of ‘the Great Mother’ is personified in the Queen in the text, though the other archetypes, like the hero and villian, and even that of Holmes and Watson, are subverted here, as previously mentioned. Overall, the story seems to take a darker approach, more reminiscent to that of a myth. Still, or actually, because of this, I found the short tale extremely engaging to read.


One thought on “A Tale of Sherlock Holmes and Lovecraft”

  1. Great move in looking up the Wikipedia article. How often do we hear that in an academic context? But the article does give a good context and analysis to the story, and you extend that with your thoughts on archetypes and the shape of the story.

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