29 April 2011
Book Review: The Horror of the Heights & Other Strange Tales, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
This book slowed me down. No, let me amend that comment: this book brought my reading to a screeching halt. I just couldn't finish it. I couldn't motivate myself to pick it up and keep reading. Every time I saw it, I heaved a sigh and thought, "Maybe I'll take some time to read this evening." And every evening I found a good reason not to. It took me something like four weeks just to get halfway through, and then I gave up. I skimmed a bit more and decided it wasn't worth the effort. I want to point out for the record that I'm not a slow reader. I read Lord of the Rings in 18 days. I read Anna Karenina in 8 days. I read Moby Dick in one week. I can pack in a well-written book in good time. It just has to be interesting.
This book is not interesting.
I would have liked to enjoy it. The title is pretty fun. The book is actually a collection of short stories by Conan Doyle, and the title of the entire book is taken from the title of one of the stories. What is more, I like Conan Doyle. I read feverishly through Sherlock Holmes in my teens and still appreciate the quality of the stories. These just...aren't the same. For one, the writing has too much of that "stodgy Victorian" sound to it. It could be argued that the writing in the Sherlock Holmes stories is similar, but the characterization of Holmes and the warmth of Dr Watson's voice make the stories highly readable. These are just mediocre short stories that have little to set them apart.
What is more, these stories embrace the mysticism and spiritualism toward which Conan Doyle leaned in his later years. Where Sherlock Holmes used practicality and logic to find tangible explanations to the crimes that confronted him, the characters in The Horror of the Heights all face unnatural, intangible problems for which there are no practical solutions. Yeah, it's a collection of Victorian horror stories, so I should have figured that out. Yeah, horror leans toward the supernatural, for which reason I usually avoid it. I'm not a fan of non-living, beyond-the-dead crap coming after people. I'm not one to be content with a solution that requires magical elixirs or mysterious incantations. These things make for unsatisfying mysteries, as far as I'm concerned.
On a slightly unnecessary tangent, I also want to point out that the most distinguishing feature of this book (for me, at least) is that everyone had three names. It seemed like in almost every story I read, the characters were saddled with this ridiculous collection of names. It wasn't just John Cowles. It was John Barrington Cowles. It was John Vansittart Smith. It was William Monkhouse Lee. It was John McAlister Ray. I'm being halfway facetious here, but it got to be a little silly after a while. Then again, this is a collection of short stories written by a man named Arthur Conan Doyle, so perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. My point, however, is that in a group of stories that aren't very good it's hard enough to keep up with the characters (because it's hard enough to care about any of the characters). Add to the mix longer-than-average names, and you have a recipe for confusion.
It's entirely possible that I'll pick this up at some point in the future -- since I bought the book without bothering to consider its contents -- and enjoy some of these stories. Faced with the pressure of reading cheesy 19th-century horror stories in one week, however, I just couldn't make it through. As noted above, I couldn't make it through it four weeks. I won't dismiss it entirely as a bad book. I'll just note that you should know what you're getting into before reading (or buying) it. If you want Sherlock Holmes, fling this away from yourself in a hurry; you'll receive nothing but disappointment from it. If you want a bit of nonsensical Victorian horror, though, this might be more your thing.
Year of publication: [latest publication, from Fall River Press -- yeah, that Fall River...] 2010
Number of pages: 334