Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Doyle, [Sir] Arthur Conan

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(1859-1930) Scottish-born UK writer, nephew of Richard Doyle. ACD is best-known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, but he was also a prolific writer of Supernatural Fiction. His early interest in the paranormal led him to psychic research – he attended Séances from 1879 and joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1893. He later converted to Spiritualism.

ACD's first published story is a Rationalized Fantasy, "The Mystery of Sasassa Valley" (1879 Chambers's Journal). This and other early stories written after his studies at Edinburgh University seem imitative of Wilkie Collins and R M Ballantyne (1825-1894). The Mystery of Cloomber (written ?1883; 1888), an early novel published only once he had become well known, is an Occult Fantasy, full of immature sensationalism, about a retired general from the Indian army who finds himself under assault by Indian Magic.

Two years as a ship's doctor turned ACD from an adventurous youth into a courageous man with a spiritual and physical zeal. He returned to writing in order to supplement his poor income as a general practitioner, and soon found it the more profitable career. His naval adventures provided plots for two significant stories: "The Captain of the Polestar" (1883 Temple Bar), where the captain is lured to his death by an Arctic wraith, and "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement" (1884 Cornhill), where ACD provided such a convincing explanation for the mystery of the Mary Celeste that many believed it. The best of these early stories were collected as The Captain of the Polestar and Other Tales (coll 1890; rev vt The Great Keinplatz Experiment 1894 US). ACD also showed a fascination for the Femme Fatale, which he linked to his interest in Mesmerism in two stories: "John Barrington Cowles" (1886 Cassell's Saturday Journal) and The Parasite (1894 Harper's Weekly; 1894).

The success of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and ACD's own desire to focus on historical novels, meant that he forsook supernatural fiction for some years, although his psychic researches continued and inspired a few stories – "The Brown Hand" (1899 Strand), "Playing with Fire" (1900 Strand) and "The Leather Funnel" (1902 McClure's) – while a passing interest in egyptology resulted in "The Ring of Thoth" (1890 Cornhill) and "Lot No 249" (1892 Harper's). He rarely allowed Sherlock Holmes to become involved in cases verging on the supernatural – Holmes was the ultimate sceptic – but, when he did, these were invariably Rationalized Fantasies, as in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-1902 Strand; 1902) and "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire" (1924 Strand).

During his lifetime ACD's supernatural fictions tended to be scattered through his collections, with the greatest concentration being in Round the Fire Stories (coll 1908) and The Last Galley (coll 1911). Of later collections the most relevant are Tales of Terror and Mystery (coll 1922) and Tales of Twilight and the Unseen (coll 1922), both of which have long since been subsumed into The Conan Doyle Stories (omni 1929). Lesser-known stories, of which a few are supernatural, were included in The Unknown Conan Doyle volume Uncollected Stories (coll 1982) ed John M Gibson and Roger Lancelyn Green. Two volumes dedicated to ACD's supernatural fiction are The Best Supernatural Stories of Arthur Conan Doyle (coll 1979 US) ed E F Bleiler and The Supernatural Tales of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (coll 1987) ed Peter Haining.

ACD was able to find an outlet for his fascination with Occultism in his Professor Challenger stories: The Lost World (1912) and its immediate sequel, The Poison Belt (1913), are early examples of Science Fiction. The later books, though, veered more toward the supernatural, especially The Land of Mist (1925-1926 Strand; 1926), which sees an older Challenger won over to Spiritualism, and "When the World Screamed" (1928 Liberty), which explores the concept of a living Earth. "The Maracot Deep" (1927-1928 Strand) begins by describing a scientific exploration of Atlantis; in its sequel, "The Lord of the Dark Face" (1929 Strand), Maracot invokes an ancient Atlantean power of Evil. This story was ACD's last, and he seems in it to have returned to the sensationalism of his early work. The stories were assembled in The Maracot Deep and Other Stories (coll 1929); this collection overlaps slightly with The Professor Challenger Stories (omni 1952).

ACD's conversion to Spiritualism led him to open the Psychic Bookshop in London in 1925, and he produced a number of nonfiction books on the subject, including The History of Spiritualism (1926 2 vols). He often championed cause célèbres, of which the most notorious concerned the Cottingley Fairies, a set of faked photographs of Fairies created in 1920 by two young girls; ACD believed the pictures genuine, and wrote about the case in The Coming of the Fairies (1922). Many of his own psychic experiences are recounted in The Edge of the Unknown (1930), his last book. [MA]

further reading: Memories and Adventures (1924), autobiography; The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1949) by John Dickson Carr; Conan Doyle: His Life and Art (1961) by Hesketh Pearson.

see also: Mark Frost.

[Sir] Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.