25 October 2016

The Gothic Terror of the Devil's Foot

Counting down: it's day 2 of Halloween Week 2016, and we are moving on to the mysterious and gloomy land of Cornwall.
That is were Sherlock Holmes and John Watson engage in a scientific experiment that almost costs them their lives. I'm talking about The Adventure of the Devil's Foot, a short story which was written by Arthur Conan Doyle and published in 1910. 

In the Devil's Foot, Holmes and Watson go on vacation in a fictional hamlet in Cornwall. But their lazy and melancholic existence is soon interrupted (much to Holmes' excitement) when a family tragedy shakes this small and peaceful community. The circumstances surrounding the case are so incredible and terrifying and defy all logic that the ones involved see no other way but to suspect a supernatural culprit. But Holmes doesn't believe in the supernatural, and is determined to solve the case the good old fashioned way:

"I fear, said Holmes, "that if the matter is beyond humanity it is certainly beyond me. Yet we must exhaust all natural explanations before we fall back upon such a theory as this."

I love this line. And I love that Dana Scully said almost the exact same thing in season 9 of The X-files.  Great minds do think alike.

The Devil's Foot is a fantastic little story, with an intriguing family drama and some great scares. I love the atmosphere that Conan Doyle creates. He depicts the Cornish landscape as a truly mystical place, with artefacts left by ancient peoples that give speak of this place history. It's almost as if the past and the present exist side-by-side. The atmosphere is very, very reminiscent of that in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

"On the land side our surroundings were as sombre as on the sea. It was a country of rolling moors, lonely and dun-coloured, with an occasional church to mark the site of some old-world village. In every direction upon these moors there were traces of some vanished race which had passed utterly away, and left as its sole record strange monuments of stone, irregular mounds which contained the burned ashes of the dead, and curious earthworks which hinted at prehistoric strife."

And just like in the Baskervilles, we have a family that is being tormented by some unseen and mystical evil. The details of their deaths are so gruesome and defy all logic. And while this story in scary by itself, it wouldn't be as effective if it were set in, say, downtown London. The isolation and the grey, barren landscape give this story some much needed touch of loneliness and paranoia.

The Devil's Foot was the first Holmes story that I found scary. And it wasn't because of the atmosphere. It was because of one particular scene. In his attempt to solve the case, Holmes decides to conduct an experiment on himself, and on poor unsuspecting Watson. What unfolds during those short minutes can only be described as damn good horror.

The resolution is rather disappointing but it doesn't make the story any less scary or compelling. I'm giving it a 4 out of 5 stars. 

This is the first and only Holmes story that I'm featuring on Halloween Week 2016 (*sadface*). But if you like more horror to go with your Holmes, you can read my review of The Adventure of the Creeping Man, on Book Bloggers International.

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