|Welcome to Baskerville Hall, Sir Henry!
Have you ever noticed how many creepy houses there are in the Sherlock Holmes canon?
I didn’t – until I set out to prepare a talk on “Gothic Holmes” for the “Holmes, Doyle & Friends” conference later this month in Dayton.
Creepy houses, manors, castles, abbeys, convents, and monasteries have been staples of Gothic literature since The Castle of Otranto. In fact, the genre takes its name from the Gothic Revival style of architecture. The dreary domiciles in these stories contribute to the atmospheric shivers, just as the landscape and the weather do.
Dr. Watson evocatively describes the oldest part of Baskerville Hall, for example, as “a place of shadow and gloom.” No wonder Sir Henry is moved to say, “My word, it isn’t a very cheerful place.”
The Canon is full of not-very-cheerful places, adding to the Gothic air in a number of the Master’s adventures. Violet Hunter describes the Copper Beeches as “beautifully situated, but it is not beautiful in itself, for it is a large square block of a house, whitewashed, but all stained and streaked with damp and bad weather.” Holmes later refers to this case as “the mystery of the sinister house with the copper beaches in front of the door.”
Equally sinister are:
Charlington Hall in “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” – invisible from the road, “but the surroundings all spoke of gloom and decay;”
Tuxbury Hall, residence of the blanched soldier – “a house of shadows and mystery;”
Hurlstone Manor, ancestral home of the Musgraves – “a labyrinth of an old house” (and in Greek mythology, a labyrinth is not such a good thing);
Wisteria Lodge – “an old tumble-down building in a crazy state of disrepair;”
Birlstone Manor – a “long, low Jacobean house of dingy, liver-covered brick;” and –
The Haven, the bleak home of the retired colourman, Josiah Amberley – “like some penurious patrician who has sunk into the company of his inferiors.”
In the classic Gothic romance, the state of the house is often a metaphor for the family that owns it. No one can miss the double meaning of “The Fall of the House of Usher” as referring to both the physical and the metaphorical house. The strongest Canonical application of this trope is in “The Adventure of Speckled Band.”
Whereas the Baskerville clan seems to have improved from Sir Hugo to Sir Charles and Sir Henry (though Stapleton is a throw-back), Stoke Moran clearly reflects the decay of the Roylott bloodline. Four successive heirs to one of the richest fortunes in England were dissolute and wasteful, and “the family ruin was eventually completed by a gambler in the days of the Regency. Nothing was left save a few acres of ground, and the two-hundred-year-old house, which is itself crushed under a heavy mortgage.” So reported Helen Stoner. Dr. Watson describes Stoke Moran this way:
“The building was of gray, lichen-blotched stone, with a high central portion and two curving wings, like the claws of a crab, thrown out on each side. In one of these wings the windows were broken and blocked with wooden boards, while the roof was partly caved in, a picture of ruin.”