The Mystery
Of Cloomber

Arthur Conan Doyle
During the first in an apparently non-ending series of Afghan wars --- namely, the one that ran from 1839 - 1842 --- Major-General John B. Heatherstone of the British Queen's Army surrounded a squad of "Afrisis and Pathans," forced them into a cul de sac, and attacked.

As he was advancing, an ancient Buddhist monk appeared from a cave, held up his hands, and cried, "Men of blood, this is a place for prayer and meditation. Desist, lest the wrath of the gods fall upon you."

Heatherstone replied, "Stand aside, old man. You will meet with a hurt if you don't get out of the way."

    It was not a time to stick to trifles, so I passed my sword through his body ...

Poor old Heatherstone. Little did he know. One does not meddle with Afghani holy men, much less run them through with the sword, even in the heat of battle. Even in the 19th Century. We reserve those pleasures for the 21st Century.

Later that night, a man "dressed in Asiatic costume" appears to the soldier and lays a curse on him. For he has

    committed this day the foulest sacrilege and the greatest crime which it is possible for man to do. You have slain one of the thrice blessed and revered ones, an arch adept of the first degree, an elder brother who has trod the higher path for more years than you have numbered months.

From that day until he dies forty years later Heatheringstone is cursed. Every hour of every day, from above his head, he hears "a sharp, tinkling sound, like that produced by an empty glass when flipped by the nail, only louder and more intense." And no matter where he goes, no matter where he tries to hide, the tinkling sound comes to remind him of his heinous deed.

§     §     §

The Mystery of Cloomber appeared in 1889. It is an interesting take on British colonialism, as well as gothic novels. At a time when the English were at their most powerful, Doyle gives us a semi-spiritual piece, the nut of which is don't be messing about with religions, sects, prophets, and foreign deities that you know nothing about. They'll invariably come back and bite you on the ass. Even when you are in the Queen's service in the wilds of the Afghanistan.

It makes little difference that the writing is filled with the usual awkwardness from a hundred years ago: the characters are constantly falling into swoons, uttering oaths, and ejaculating, Moreover, Conan Doyle has his divines a bit mixed up. Ghoolab Shah is the murdered Buddhist mystic, but he has a Hindu/Muslim name. And his avengers appear at Cloomer in red fezzes with a spirit of vengeance which would be more than alien to most followers of the Buddha.

§     §     §

Conan Doyle's language may be arcane, the religious symbols all messed up, but he is a facile writer, and knows how to keep our interest. He is thus wise enough to change narrators in mid-stream: four appear in this brief novel.

One of the most charming is Israel Stokes, coachmaster to the haunted Heatherstone. Most of the action of The Mystery of Cloomber occurs in the "Wigtownshire" region of Northwest Scotland, so Stokes speaks in a heavy Scots accent. Stokes is illiterate, and dictates the statement that appears here to Rev. Matthew Clark. But it is wonderfully revelatory, a self-portrait of a sullen lout, who spends much time wondering about (and spying on) his reclusive retired employer.

He reports that Heatherstone is a "lang, thin, dour man wi' grey hair and a face as brown and crinkled as a walnut." When he goes to work at Cloomber, he says that it was "a great muckle house," but that his work was "mair fit for an auld wife than for a grown man."

What Doyle gives us in Stokes is a diverse and diverting view, contradicting or underscoring much of what we have read before his appearance. Heatherstone's wife is a shadowy figure, but Stokes tells us that she is "as thin and white as a ghaist, and many's the time as I've come on her and found her yammerin' and greetin' all by hersel'." The maid and the cook?

    I speered o' the hussies in the kitchen whether they kenned what was amiss wi' the family, but the cook she answered me back that it wasna for her tae inquire into the affairs o' her superiors, and that it was naething to her as long as she did her work and had her wages. They were puir, feckless bodies, the twa o' them, and would scarce gie an answer tae a ceevil question, theough they could clack lood enough when they had a mind.

This style of writing is enough to make the reader grieve that the style known as "dialect writing" has been condemned to an untimely grave by the politically correct literary types. (Indeed, one of our favorite novels of the last year was Buddha Da which may have lost not a few readers because of its musical and fanciful Scots).

Doyle has created a wonderful character, one out of Bobby Burns or Chaucer. In his direct way, when Stokes hears the strange sound that haunts the general, it scares him enough to cause him to give notice. At that point, our fanciful tale suddenly gets grounded in the reality of a peasant cynic, a Falstaffian type who may have many failings, but falsity (about others) is not one of them.

§     §     §

Hesperus Classics seems hell-bent on offering a vast collection of obscure writings from famous authors, all of 100 pages or so.

Along with this shipment of Arthur Conan Doyle's Mystery of Cloomber we received The Return by Joseph Conrad and The Frozen Deep by Wilkie Collins (of The Moonstone fame).

We wish we could say that we were grieved that these last two have fallen from the must-read list, but after sampling them, we now know too well why they've gone missing.

Conrad's novel rambles on and on about a very unappealing, unlovely, undemonstrative, gauche turn-of-the-century upper-class couple who should have stayed as far away as possible from the written page.

Collins' work falls victim --- as Conan Doyle's does not --- to the ridiculous stylistic twitches and gambols that were so popular in the tawdry novels of those tawdry days. Only Conan Doyle, as we know from some of his other, more famous works, soldiers on.

--- Marie Anne Dalton
Send us e-mail


Go Up     Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH