Genre Collision

Monday’s assignment concerned Lovecraft’s response to another writer’s mythos-based story, and it’s true that the Cthulhu mythos lends itself to a sort of literary “riffing.” Most writers of horror or weird fiction have tried their hands at some tale involving the Old Ones, and even popular writers have not been immune to this practice.

Today’s story is by Neil Gaiman, who is by no means a stranger to mainstream popularity. It’s an odd one, too – even by Lovecraftian standards. It’s difficult not to be skeptical with the premise: a story that combines the Cthulhu mythos with the world of Sherlock Holmes? It sounds like the sort of mash-up one sees in amateur fan fiction, not the 2004 Hugo Award winner for best short story, and yet…it’s also oddly compelling.

The in-jokes have added punch if you have more than a passing interest in Sherlock Holmes, but I don’t think encyclopedic knowledge of his many Baker Street adventures is necessary to enjoy the narrative.

Your assignment today is to discuss any aspect of this story you’d like – pro or con, praise or censure, anything you’d like to elucidate or argue. (Pardon me for leaving the field wide open, but there were too many avenues to choose here – and I trust your collective judgment, as well as the many individual perspectives you have. I also did not want to introduce any “spoilers” for those who have yet to read it.)

Reading: Neil Gaiman’s A Study in Emerald (PDF)
Task: 300 words or less on any aspect of this story

About Headmistress

Sarah L. Crowder, current headmistress of Vacation Necronomicon School, was once a pupil at the prestigious Miskatonic Academy for Girls -- though she did not graduate, as the school closed under mysterious circumstances shortly before her studies were completed. She spent many years contemplating both the arcane arts and hidden dimensions of commonplace life, and now lends her talents to our little online haven for workaday scholars.
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14 Responses to Genre Collision

  1. Borrowind says:

    Also available as an audio book on Audible. Until recently it was free, and the file may still be floating around the Web in that form, but it now costs $4.30:

    The story is also available in the _Shadows over Baker Street_ anthology of Lovecraft/Holmes mashups and remixes:

  2. Resa says:

    I seem to have babbled on longer than I should have about the efficacy of mashups and cross genre stuff in general. This is a hard story to talk about without spoilers!

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  4. Borrowind says:

    My completed assignment, “The Case of the Purloined Prose”:

  5. Nina says:

    I enjoyed this story. It was fun. And superficially, the two genres have a lot in common. Arthur Conan Doyle structured his stories as elaborate flashbacks-within-flashbacks. Usually Watson is writing the story long after it’s happened, and his flashback tells how a client comes to see Holmes and tells a story set even farther in the past. Holmes investigates, and the solution to the story usually elicits another flashback of events taking place long ago in South Africa or Mormon Utah, leading to the events that led to the crime. Lovecraft also likes this sort of structure: it gives the illusion of a lot of time passing even in a short story. And we know that Conan Doyle, in real life, believed in fairies and ectoplasm. So: is this story a true melding of the genres?

    Although Conan Doyle believed in fairies, Sherlock Holmes did not. He had an unshakeable faith in the power of reason. And in this story we see an alien overlord defeated by a clever Holmes-like character. This is a story where reason and human virtue is victorious over green slime. How Lovecraftian is that? I would argue that the alien angle in this story resembles pulp science fiction, but in no way resembles Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s aliens do not invade by brute force and rule humans- humans barely register to them. Humans choose to react to them in various ways, but those ways are completely voluntary: you succumb and become a slave, you fight and go insane. It’s your choice. The only thing that’s crystal clear is that reason and human virtue will get you nowhere. I can only imagine Sherlock Holmes being able deal with the Elder Gods with the help of a large dose of cocaine.

  6. Borrowind says:

    “So: is this story a true melding of the genres?”

    No, they’re both using ancient structures of the English novel that you can see clearly in the first ever English novel (and also the first horror novel) which appeared in the 1500s, _Beware The Cat_ (I published a Lovecraftian tweaking and modernising of it last year). This form of story-telling structure probably goes back even further, into folklore and into the mists of the ancient British Isles.

    “in this story we see an alien overlord defeated by a clever Holmes-like character”

    Did you read the story? Isn’t what’s interesting about Gaiman’s story that it’s completely the other way around?

  7. Headmistress says:

    Apologies for my tardy response here…

    @Borrowind – thanks for the audio info & the anthology link. I just found out about that collection (meant to link to it above, but it slipped my mind), as I originally read the story in “Fragile Things.”

    @Resa – AvP definitely used some Lovecraftian ideas – the director has admitted that “At the Mountains of Madness” was an influence. I particularly enjoyed your quote on Steampunk: “What better way to repulse nameless horrors from beyond the stars, or the anomie brought on by modern society, than with good manners and tea?” Ah, well. I may have rough manners, but at least I have tea!

    @Borrowind – Please forgive my internet-based vulgarity, but I did indeed LOL at your response. (I should not admit that I imagined all of Sherlock’s dialogue in Jeremy Brett’s voice, either…but I did.)

    @Nina – I think you touched upon the thing I found hardest to believe, too – that Elder Gods would deign to rule humans, at least in any way resembling a benign way (even superficially). You know the old saying, of course: “We can only pray to be eaten first.”


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  9. Paul says:

    Tardy once more, my efforts at considering what is an excellent Sherlock Holmes story, but perhaps not a great Mythos tale…

  10. Headmistress says:

    @Paul – One very small correction [spoiler alert!]: the narrator in the Gaiman story is an existent Holmes character. By the initials at the end, we can assume that he is Moriarty’s henchman Sebastian Moran (though his military rank is different). Other than that, I cannot disagree. Something essential is missing when “otherness” is lost.

    Thank you!

  11. Lynn says:

    Quick note on the Gaiman story: I loved the reveal, the skillful twist that surprised me. I’m contrarian enough to love the flip side, the evil-twin goatee.

  12. Headmistress says:

    @Lynn – There is no shame in loving a good twist. I guessed the ending of “The Sixth Sense” about 30 minutes into the film…but I didn’t guess this one. (I have always wanted to go as my own evil twin for Halloween – complete with goatee – but as my partner said last year, “Everyone will think you’re playing the good twin.”)


  13. Kit says:

    I found “A Study in Emerald” to be an interesting exercise in what-if, of a familiar fictional universe as seen through a fun-house mirror. The known is rendered strange, much as Lovecraft’s own fiction does to scenic seaport villages and university towns.
    Though in many ways the story is non-Lovecraftian in tone — the narrator and protagonist are both alive and sane at the end of the story — the reversal of everything the reader knows puts us in the place of a Lovecraftian hero. Though not driven mad by the twist in the story, I felt a visceral jolt when I realized the full extent of the reversal — that the eyes through which I was seeing the story were those of a stranger.
    Knowing that called everything I thought I knew about the story universe into question. Despite the story’s failures as pastiche, it succeeds in delivering a most Lovecraftian shock.

  14. Headmistress says:

    @Kit – I like that interpretation, that it’s the reader (not the protagonist) who gets the horror of realization at the end of the tale.


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