The Adventure of the Crawling Horror; In Which I Get Snarky

I bought a fiction anthology called Dark Detectives last week. It was an impulse buy. It’s edited by Stephen Jones and published by Titan Books, who also publish the Mammoth series as well as a bunch of Lovecraftian anthologies.

Dark Detectives, as you might have guessed from the name, is a roundup of fictional detectives who investigate occult and paranormal mysteries. To my disappointment, the actual purpose of the book seems to be to reprint seven linked pieces by Kim Newman. The rest of the book is padded with various other reprints, some of them historical.

Jones provides a long foreword in which is gives one version of the history of the occult detective. I liked that. And the book contains a story by William Hope Hodgson which I also enjoyed for historical reasons.

The book reaches its nadir with a story by Basil Copper, who updated a character invented by writer, editor and publisher August Derleth. Derleth is an interesting person best remembered for publishing Lovecraft. The background of the Derleth character in Dark Detectives is mildly interesting because it foretells the days of fan-fiction before we gave it that name. And Copper’s attempt to create a pastiche shows all the weaknesses inherent in that particular form.

(Let me be fair. Derleth was a good writer and wrote well beyond creepy horror and detective fiction.)

Basil Copper was a journalist and writer, and apparently some of his original work is good, but the story in Dark Detective is a disappointment nearly from the first paragraph.

Derleth was a Sherlock Holmes fan. When Arthur Conan Doyle announced that he would write no more Holmes stories, Derleth wrote to him asking if it were true. Doyle answered the letter; it was true. Then Derleth asked if Doyle would allow him to write some Holmes stories. The reply; a resounding No.

Derleth then did what all good writers (and many fifteen-year-olds) do when confronted with this kind of obstacle. He invented a consulting detective of his own. Solar Pons, whose name means Bridge to the Sun (such humility) is, like Holmes, a consulting detective. His associate, close friend and chronicler is a medical doctor, Dr. Parker. He has a motherly housekeeper named Mrs. Johnson. He rents rooms in London, and he has a reclusive brother named Bancroft. He smokes a pipe. As you can see, he is nothing at all like Sherlock Holmes.

Basil Copper wrote the story in this anthology, “The Adventure of the Crawling Horror,” in 1979, which might explain some of my issues with it, but the problems go deeper than the sheer dated-ness that haunts some of the stories in this book.

In “The Adventure of Crawling Horror” Holmes is visited by—oh, excuse me, Pons!—Pons is visited by a mean-spirited, miserly man who is terrified by a thing that haunts him whenever he goes walking out on the marshland that surrounds his isolated, creepy old house. The thing that frightens him is not, thank goodness, an enormous hound, but a human figure, glowing with a bluish light, that disappears and reappears. Despite the name of the story, the thing does not crawl anywhere. If anything, it seems to hop, disappearing from view and reappearing in another location moments later. I guess “The Adventure of the Hopping Horror” just wasn’t as scary.

The old man lives with his fiftyish niece, and is a skinflint, but he seems genuinely terrified by the apparition, which, he says, has been seen by his niece as well. Soon Pons and Parker are on the train to the marshes.

Let’s review the elements:  creepy, isolated old house? Check. Atmospheric setting? Check. Gossipy village? Check. Mysterious village doctor who loves to tramp on the moors? Check. Voluble drunk who drops clues? Check. A polite young Colonial visitor to the village? Check. If the reader doesn’t figure out what the apparition is as soon as the cast of characters is introduced, they’re just not trying. It’s elementary. Trust me, elementary, and we know that because Copper makes Pons say “Elementary” seven or eight times.

This is not a straight-up copy of a Holmes story or novel. It’s more like a salad of various Holmesian elements, plot, characters, etc, tossed together in a big old bowl. I got tired of “elementary,” true, but my favorite line of the story came from Parker when he said the plan was “… brilliant in its very elementariness.” A brief list of other words and phrases I got tired of: “tenting his fingers,”  “bleak,” and “he laughed (or smiled) deep in his beard.”

What does that even mean? A beard can obscure the mouth, but beards generally only cover part of the face, so a laugher or smiler cannot hide himself deep in the thicket of his beard*. I might have accepted “he smiled deep in his beard,” but we got both of them, and they’re bad.

“The Adventure of the Crawling Horror” is pulp. “Pulp” as a signifier, goes back to the early 1900s, and certain people, including me, gulped down these knock-offs like crazy in the 1970s because they didn’t know any better. From the distance of years, I read Copper’s “revising” of the Pons oeuvre as a cynical updating of Derleth’s own fantasy wish fulfillment, the closest he could come to writing stories featuring his fictional idol, Holmes.

It is my least favorite story in the book so far, and the book is generally a disappointment. If there’s one that’s worse, I’ll get back to you.

*Although now I want to write something where a character “turned and bolted into thicket of his beard.”

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