VNS – Genre Collision
Our second assignment examines how well one of my favourite living authors, Neil Gaiman, copes with crossing over the work of two of my favourite dead authors. A Study in Emerald takes Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mythos (for want of a better word) and crosses it with Lovecraft’s own Cthulhu Mythos–specifically it is a spin on the early Holmes story A Study in Scarlet.
As pointed out in the assignment, this is an odd story. For a start, it is very similar to a DC Comics Elseworlds tale–the heroes are villains, and the villains heroes.
The narrative proceeds as normal for a Watson narrated Holmes adventure, until it is revealed explicitly that one of the two murderers is actually Watson, and the other (revealed in the final line) is our own dear Holmes. It is no stretch of the imagination to then suppose that the Holmesian consulting detective is in all likelihood Moriarty (and we may ignore, for the sake of the story, the fact that Moriarty was far older than Holmes, yet if A Study in Emerald follows Scarlet‘s premise, the detective would still be fairly young). There being no obvious opposite number to Watson from the Holmes canon, our military-doctor-turned-narrator character in Emerald is unique to the Gaiman vision, and a necessary plot device to advance the illusion that we are reading a Holmes story.
As a Holmes pastiche, this story is excellent. Indeed, familiarity with the Holmesian canon is almost a prerequisite, otherwise it wouldn’t work. You need to know the relationship between Holmes and Watson, and have a passing knowledge of A Study in Scarlet to appreciate it.
However, this is Vacation Necronomicon School, and so we must view things through a Lovecraftian lens. As a Mythos story it doesn’t sit quite right.
The story appears in the collection Shadows Over Baker Street, an anthology of stories where the world of Sherlock Holmes collides with the world of the Cthulhu Mythos. I have this anthology, as well as Neil Gaiman’s own Fragile Things in which it also appears.
In the introduction Gaiman reveals he had misgivings about the project, saying he “suspected there was something deeply unpromising about the setup: the world of Sherlock Holmes is so utterly rational … while Lovecraft’s fictional creations were deeply, utterly irrational, and mysteries were vital to keep humanity sane.” (my emphasis)
And here I think is the problem with this story as Mythos; the mystery has been stripped from it. Throughout Lovecraft’s work his Mythos creatures are kept firmly in the shadows. Those who seem them in their full fury are driven mad and die shortly thereafter. But in A Study in Emerald they are immediate, real, and accepted without insanity.
We have the dead body of an Old One, we have an encounter with Queen Victoria (an Old One who conquered Britain 700 years prior to the story), and we have coins bearing the visage of these dread creatures, yet everyone goes about their life as normal. Where is the insanity? People dread and fear them, sure. But they now seem reduced to mere aliens, normalised even. They are simply biological, albeit a different biology from ours.
Maybe, if the Elder Gods ever conquered this reality, this is how things would be. But that’s not Lovecraft, and it’s not really Mythos. The quintessential “otherness” of these things is lost, and that’s telling.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The story is great. It is well-written, the hints and in-jokes are superb, I love the work of Neil Gaiman, but as a Lovecraftian tale it is lacking. There are stories within Shadows Over Baker Street which succeed far better in combining Mythos with Holmes (my personal favourite being Caitlin R Kiernan’s The Drowned Geologist).
Perhaps what is elementary is not necessarily Eldritchmentary…