Thursday, April 19, 2012

"That Awful Abyss" - THE EMPTY HOUSE (3)

The Abyss of Hell, Botticelli, 1485.
"Holmes!" I cried.
 "Is it really you? Can it indeed be that you are alive?
Is it possible that you succeeded in climbing out of that awful abyss?"
Watson, of course, is referring to 'that dreadful chasm', The Reichenbach Falls. Both phrases, however, on Edwardian lips, conjured rather more than literal meaning.
"A Descent into The Maelstrom" Poe, 1841. 
To be full of dread and awe was to be frozen in Faustian terror and abyss is not nearly so charged today. 'Abysmal' exam results are simply poor. That moving underwater statue, Christ of the Abyss, is merely deeply submerged...unless, as a Christian, you respond to the inherent Biblical allusion. James Cameron's 1989 film feeds on a  modern audience's residual sense of something else way down there under surface meaning. 

Context is all. Living in a period involves participation in a language. I happen to have escaped an abyss called The Mediterranean (I almost drowned as a teenager) but I did not call it that. Nor do I believe in Dante's Hell but caught an un-nerving glimpse of it one Stratford night long ago.

Heading for the Abyss.
My vicarious Dantean guide to Hell was the actor, Eric Porter, long before his riveting Moriarty.

In 1968 Porter was at the RSC playing the title role in Marlowe's Dr. Faustus. I went (in truth) to witness Maggie Wright (Helen of Troy) become the first person to appear mobile and naked on the legitimate stage. I came away terrified by the vision of Hell and Porter's performance in the final scene. Read the final soliloquy sc.xiv, ll.27-84 here:

(or better still, click this link to listen to Dylan Thomas deliver the speech:
...and imagine: Porter stood alone on an empty stage - an almost colourless box lit with wan straw illumination. At the stroke of midnight the whole of the back wall opened like a drawbridge - myriad demons with elongated arms spilled out in a tsunami of hellish relish - engulfed the despairing Doctor, lapped him up with one awful tongue...and withdrew. Silence. Nothing.

I have never known an audience take so long to gather its wits. Shaken, we sat transfixed. One solitary clap broke the spell. We all needed the eventual standing ovation - it helped us edge back to the auditorium's terra firma from a virtual bottomless pit.

The willing suspension of disbelief is a tacit agreement to entrust the imagination to the fictitious creations of writers. We are pre-disposed to this by entering a theatre or picking up a novel. Even so, reality does not yield easily to  the virtual. A sure, skilful controlling hand must be apparent; and a solicitous concern for the welfare of reader or spectator.

I invite the reader to take a break in this lengthy post and watch an example of concern for one's audience. Click to watch the 4 minute curtain call given at the Shakespeare's Globe production of Dr. Faustus:

Doyle's readership was especially pre-disposed to believe in a returning Sherlock Holmes. Many of the thousands who had cancelled their subscriptions to the Strand in '93 and donned black armbands entered the new century with an unabated clamour for more stories.

 The writer's reluctance and extravagant demands are a matter of record. Hound and the succceeding short stories made him a very rich man and arguably the most well-known Englishman in the World.

This is no accident; nor may his success be attributed merely to the public's eager anticipation of more Holmes adventures. Doyle must and does keep his side of the bargain (the tacit agreement referred to above).

Far from writing with a careless lack of commitment, I mean here and in ensuing posts to illustrate the consummate skill and caring solicitude in Doyle's art which allows The Empty House to bridge The Great Hiatus with engaging ease. 

I have already drawn attention to Doyle's manipulation of time frames to close the tear in Time's fabric and banish the abyss of Holmes-less years. I move now to focus on his recourse to religio-literary allusion (here) and those of a  soci0-secular nature (in the next post).

Religio-literary Allusion.

The Empty House is an exercise in re-establishing continuity. The imagination must reach back to move forward. Plotting Holmes's delivery from the chasm is as simple as...providing theories on how the BBC SHERLOCK  fakes his death. No coroner has pronounced upon a body and the continuing threat to Holmes and Watson is reasonable cause to disappear. 

What requires more subtle artistic measures is the restoration of Sherlock Holmes as the public imagines him, within two authorial contexts: contemporary society and Doyle's other writings. It is no mean feat to revive a figure that had been as 'an airy nothing' for years and re-earth him with 'a local habitation and a name'. And this time round the creation is for the long term and must co-exist in harmony with everything else that pre-occupied Doyle's mind.

Foremost (in common with the Risen Christ) Holmes must be believably human. If killing Holmes is likened to the cutting of a man's life-threads by the Muses of Greek legend, regalvanization involves natural reconnections of invisible mending. I have already traced the graduated materialisation (first of Holmes; then of 221b) until he appears in full epiphany. This process is quietly underpinned by the lightest of allusion to the Resurrection.

(I treasure the few books my grandfather kept in a tin trunk by his bed. They include 'The Bible' and 'Pilgrim's Progress'. Part of the cultural fabric of Conan Doyle's age, even the unlettered knew these stories.) 

Neither writer nor reader could miss the parallel and those tempted to magnify Doyle's simple allusions  would do well to note the guidance of Hosea on Bunyan's title page:  

"I have used Similitudes", Hosea, 12.10.

Doyle's use of that easily drawn comparison can provoke serious misinterpretation. Samuel Rosenberg's 1974 analysis, Naked is the Best Disguise:The Death and Resurrection, is the classic example of distortion. (Click this link to open on a similar, far briefer example of losing focus on Doyle's writing purpose: ).

Given the common currency of Christian's journey and the Gospel stories, Doyle takes advantage of this cultural shorthand to impose a familiar shape on the events detailed in The Final Problem and The Empty House. The presentation of Moriarty in the former cast Holmes by implication as the one man who could defeat a character explicitly likened to Satan: 'the man pervades London'; 'the malefactor, some deep organising power which for ever stands in the way of the law, and throws its shield over the wrong-doer'; 'the organiser of half that is evil'; 'the central power'; hereditary tendencies of the most diabolical kind'.

The 'old master' (Valley of Fear) and the fallen Archangel Lucifer meet in EMPT's image of 'trees, Watson, which grow to a certain height and then develop some unsightly eccentricity...a sudden turn to good or evil." 

The purpose of such description is not to raise Holmes to the Godhead but to affirm his mortality and highlight the man's extraordinary human faculties. Philosophizing in The Boscombe Valley Mystery Holmes identifies himself as one of God's creatures (not His Son):

"God help us !" said Holmes after a long silence. "Why does fate play such tricks with poor, helpless worms? I never hear of such a case as this that I do not think of Baxter's words, and say, 'There, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes.'"

The BBC SHERLOCK flies in the face of Doyle's supremely human detective ( most fully realised in Brett's multi-faceted creation). Especially is this so in The Reichenbach Fall which offers images redolent of Eden (see My post on The Reichenbach Fall & Beyond ), Christ's Temptation (the scene on Bart's roof),the Crucifixion (Sherlock's leap) and the Sepulchre (John in the graveyard).

These scenes are riveting, well-acted and, by now, the strictly modern sense, though the mantra I Believe in Sherlock is no affirmation of the Holmes who risks life, limb and friend in Camden House. 


Fascinating how a modern audience responds to more explicit Christian symbolism than Doyle's readership required.

Far from dwelling on such imagery, Doyle's crowded imagination soldered the new story's language to other familiar similitudes, subtly weaving the figure of Holmes back into the centre of his readership's cultural tapestry.

The description of Camden House is Bunyon-esque in its chiaroscuro. More importantly (especially for Doyle's management of his imagination) is the unforced connection of 'that awful abyss' with two recent stories.

Mt. Misery, Dartmoor.
The first readers of The Empty House came to it fresh from the immensely popular Hound of the Baskervilles, primed, as it were, by the abyss of Grimpen Mire.

Such a mire had long haunted Doyle's imagination. As from a deep historical well he draws inspiration from 'The Hole of Cree', the centre-piece location in his 1888 novel, The Mystery of Cloomber.

 "...a scene of bleakness and desolation as can hardly be matched in any country.

Right away to the horizon stretched the broad expanse of mud and of water, mingled and mixed together in the wildest chaos, like a portion of some world in the process of formation. Here and there on the dun-coloured surface of this great marsh there had burst out patches of sickly yellow reeds and of livid, greenish scum, which only served to heighten and intensify the gloomy effect of the dull, melancholy expanse.

On the side nearest to us some abandoned peat-cuttings showed that ubiquitous man had been at work there, but beyond these few petty scars there was no sign anywhere of human life. Not even a crow nor a seagull flapped its way over that hideous desert.

This is the great Bog of Cree. It is a salt-water marsh formed by an inroad of the sea, and so intersected is it with dangerous swamps and treacherous pitfalls of liquid mud, that no man would venture through it unless he had the guidance of one of the few peasants who retain the secret of its paths.

As we approached the fringe of rushes which marked its border, a foul, dank smell rose up from the stagnant wilderness, as from impure water and decaying vegetation--an earthy, noisome smell which poisoned the fresh upland air.

So forbidding and gloomy was the aspect of the place that our stout crofter hesitated, and it was all that we could do to persuade him to proceed. Our lurcher, however, not being subject to the delicate impressions of our higher organisation, still ran yelping along with its nose on the ground and every fibre of its body quivering with excitement and eagerness.

There was no difficulty about picking our way through the morass, for wherever the five could go we three could follow.

If we could have had any doubts as to our dog's guidance they would all have been removed now, for in the soft, black, oozing soil we could distinctly trace the tracks of the whole party. From these we could see that they had walked abreast, and, furthermore, that each was about equidistant from the other. Clearly, then, no physical force had been used in taking the general and his companion along. The compulsion had been psychical and not material.

Once within the swamp, we had to be careful not to deviate from the narrow track, which offered a firm foothold.

On each side lay shallow sheets of stagnant water overlying a treacherous bottom of semi-fluid mud, which rose above the surface here and there in moist, sweltering banks, mottled over with occasional patches of unhealthy vegetation. Great purple and yellow fungi had broken out in a dense eruption, as though Nature were afflicted with a foul disease, which manifested itself by this crop of plague spots.
Here and there dark, crab-like creatures scuttled across our path, and hideous, flesh-coloured worms wriggled and writhed amid the sickly reeds. Swarms of buzzing, piping insects rose up at every step and formed a dense cloud around our heads, settling on our hands and faces and inoculating us with their filthy venom. Never had I ventured into so pestilent and forbidding a place."

This is but the approach to the Hole of Cree. 

"The Hole of Cree! What is that, then?"
"It's a great, muckle hole in the ground that gangs awa' doon so deep that naebody could ever reach the bottom. Indeed there are folk wha says that it's just a door leadin' intae the bottomless pit itsel.'"

"At last, after struggling through a grove of high bulrushes, we came on a spot the gloomy horror of which might have furnished Dante with a fresh terror for his "Inferno."

The whole bog in this part appeared to have sunk in, forming a great, funnel-shaped depression, which terminated in the centre in a circular rift or opening about forty feet in diameter. It was a whirlpool--a perfect maelstrom of mud, sloping down on every side to this silent and awful chasm.

Clearly this was the spot which, under the name of the Hole of Cree, bore such a sinister reputation among the rustics. I could not wonder at its impressing their imagination, for a more weird or gloomy scene, or one more worthy of the avenue which led to it, could not be conceived.

The steps passed down the declivity which surrounded the abyss, and we followed them with a sinking feeling in our hearts, as we realised that this was the end of our search."

I have quoted at some length because this is the original, fully realised abyss image as it formed in Doyle's mind and by the time the image resurfaces in the detective stories it has taken on as mythic a status as the Baskerville legend.

I have tried to demonstrate here that Doyle's central task with The Empty House was to re-animate the imagination of his readers not to deify Holmes. I think we are like the rustics of Cloomber - well impressed.

In the next post I shalI turn to Doyle's socio-secular allusions.
To go straight to Empty House (4) click HERE



  1. This is a very well thought out analysis of Empty House which i will really need to read a few times to take it all in. I love Dr Fautus as well! Interesting comparison there too. Doyle had several references to all things religion in his stories. One only has to look at Holmes's thoughts on the rose in Naval Treaty to see that. I shall re read this over the weekend and have a good muse on what you have so very cleverly written! :)

  2. Thank you for tsking the trouble to read a rather lengthy piece! You remind me to make the point that "the detective story" as a distinct genre was FORTUNATELY as yet in its infancy.hence the surprising imaginative depth and reach of the Canon.