MICHAEL S. COLLINS takes a look at Arthur Conan Doyle’s ground-breaking The Horror of the Heights
The Horror of the Heights, an early 20th century horror tale by Arthur Conan Doyle, has one of the greatest last lines in all of horror. But to speak of it now, in the manner of those who write Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd, would be to not only spoil the piece, but to rob it of its context. The Heights is a modern (by its time) tale of a pilot who finds something troublesome high up in the clouds and meets his maker.
It is a curious tale of Elementals striking upon the mere mortals who stumble into their lair. It is, if you will allow, a prime example of a Lovecraftian universe story, from before HP Lovecraft even began to write. Here we have creatures of some sort living over 40, 000 feet above the ground, which can only be stumbled upon by curious and doomed peoples with monoplanes. [40, 000 feet is twice the horror for William Shatner, incidentally…]
Not only does Conan Doyle invent Lovecraftian horror (though one could claim they were both inspired by the more macabre of Arthur Machen’s works), he also decides to play with the tropes of the found footage genre. For this tale is told in the excerpts of a blood-stained diary (I love that, not only is the diary found, it’s blood-stained!) found torn and lost in a field in the middle of nowhere, England.
“The Joyce-Armstrong Fragment was found in the field which is called Lower Haycock, lying one mile to the westward of the village of Withyham, upon the Kent and Sussex border..he caught sight of a flat, canvas-backed book, which proved to be a note-book with detachable leaves, some of which had come loose and were fluttering along the base of the hedge. These he collected, but some, including the first, were never recovered, and leave a deplorable hiatus in this all-important statement. The note-book was taken by the labourer to his master, who in turn showed it to Dr. J. H. Atherton, of Hartfield. This gentleman at once recognized the need for an expert examination, and the manuscript was forwarded to the Aero Club in London, where it now lies.”
We can see even within this introduction (and how Holmesian that the piece is called a fragment) that Doyle is working within the context of how academics wrote horror at the time. Think of M.R. James. They start by explaining how the facts were ascertained by learned colleagues and institutions, so as to give a verisimilitude of truth to the spooky goings on. Here in, Doyle shows that he is a great fan of the short horror story, as he can work not only with its tropes, but also poke gentle fun at them, and casually use things (such as the “found footage” style of narration) which would become clichés and stereotypes, long after his death, thanks in no small part to his own work.
The man Joyce-Armstrong finds that curiosity most certainly killed this particular cat. Though given he narrowly escapes the first encounter, and then returns to the air to find them again, one can’t say he wasn’t given ample warning! Even if he was prone to taking a shotgun with him, how do you think a shotgun would do against Cthulhu? Spoiler warning: not very well.
Arthur Conan Doyle was on record as much preferring his own horror and ghost tales to the works of the great detective, and there is verve to much of his written horror. But one certainly feels that the horror helped the detective tales come along, and the detective tales helped improve the horror. You can prefer one genre to the other, but you can’t have The Dying Detective without the story it directly succeeded.