“Sherlock Holmes and the Curse of Cthulhu” by James G. Boswell: Review

“The bumps grow in size, moving beneath the surface of the skin on Lestrade’s face. They gather above his left cheekbone, pushing against his eye. It bulges out of its socket before popping out completely. Lestrade doesn’t react as blood streams down his face with his eye dangling from a sinewy cord. The bumps move up and out from under the envelope of his collapsed eyelid, revealing themselves to be tiny black beaks with small, tube-like feet. They snap open and shut, making disgusting noises and letting out shrill, bird-like chirps. Lestrade says something else in the same nonsensical gibberish. Then he stands up and walks around his desk toward where Watson sits. Watson presses himself against his chair, trembling and nauseated at what he sees, paralyzed by fright.”

Synopsis: When Sherlock Holmes is kidnapped by his evil counterpart, Moriarty, Sherlock’s friend and partner Dr. John Watson sets out on the difficult task of retrieving him. Along the way, he is pulled into a world of supernatural terrors which humanity was never meant to experience. Meanwhile, across the globe, Irene Adler and her husband Godfrey seek a mystical amulet and encounter horrors of their own.

Ah yes, Holmes and Cthulhu, the peanut-butter and jelly of pulp fiction! My father introduced me to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work at a young age (I had rapidly outgrown the literature which was deemed “age-appropriate” for me at the time), and it still holds a special place in my heart. I value the appropriate use of fine deduction, and can never resist a good mystery. In my later years, I discovered H.P. Lovecraft’s weird fiction and was similarly hooked. The two go together quite well: in one case we have a detective who is emblematic of the power of the human mind, capable of solving any problem; in the other, we are presented with eldritch beings of incomprehensible power and purpose, beings who are unknown and unknowable to our fragile psyches. We can ask the classic question: what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Boswell manages to combine these two schools of thought into an intriguing adventure of the pulp variety.

Boswell’s short novel/novella (at 160 pages it’s probably more than a novella… I’m terrible with this classification…) splits our narrative into three parts: the first narrative follows Sherlock Holmes as he is kidnapped by Professor Moriarty, his arch-nemesis, and dragged across the world; the second narrative focuses on Dr. John Watson as he attempts to follow in Sherlock’s footsteps and track down his imperiled friend and partner; lastly, the third narrative concerns Irene Adler (whom Sherlock refers to as “the woman”, and one of the few people who ever bested him intellectually) and her husband Godfrey as they seek out the Amulet of Omniscience and Omnipresence in Japan. While the first two are linked in purpose, the third narrative seems thoroughly out of place. What does Irene’s journey have to do with the main stakes of the story? All eventually becomes clear, but for most of the text it feels somewhat confusing and out of place. I’ll leave it at that to avoid any sort of spoiler. While the titular character is Holmes, I feel it’s safe to say that Watson’s narrative is the most prominent/important, and that the crux of the story is the hunt for Holmes. Holmes’ chapters seem to be more for suspense-building/establishment of stakes, and Adler’s chapters are just completely isolated from the rest of the plot. That being said, all were enjoyable in their own way, and I felt the voice of the characters was quite well-done. The borrowed characters felt right in the way they were portrayed.

The Lovecraftian elements of the story are varied. Cthulhu, a great, unknowable, and all-powerful entity from beyond the stars is central to the plot, though “how” is only revealed much later. Tropes such as madness, cults/cultists, curses, forbidden knowledge, hallucinations, and “the other” are all employed periodically and in typical Lovecraft fashion. For those unfamiliar with Lovecraft beyond recognizing the octopus-headed Cthulhu, he introduced the world to the concept of “cosmic horror” (interchangeable with “Lovecraftian Horror”). Prior to Lovecraft’s body of work, the Horror genre typically focused on the idea of terror from Humanity encountering the “unknown”; concepts such as ghosts, vampires, were-creatures, the things that go bump in the night. To this day, these things inform our definition of Horror. Lovecraft opened up an entire new school of thought on the concept of terror: rather than focusing on the unknown, he introduced beings and phenomena so alien as to be unknowable, things Humanity could never possibly come close to understanding. Lovecraft introduced the concept of things so alien that they wore away at one’s concept of reality, causing one to become unhinged. While I am not afraid to say that I find the personal politics of the man repugnant (Lovecraft was a rabid racist in life), Speculative Fiction (Science-Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror) owes an enormous debt to him for the concepts he presented in his work. Boswell makes judicious use of Lovecraftian tropes, peppering them in throughout the text. The unsettling descriptions of these events were a pleasing homage to the body of work they drew inspiration from, and it is clear Boswell is passionate about it. It was certainly odd, because at times I forgot about the “weird” element of this fiction entirely, only to have it come out of nowhere and smack me in the face. This is “creepy” horror, not “jump-scare” horror (if that makes any sense); Boswell stays true to the roots of his inspiration by making the horror elements a “slow burn”. There is no slasher jumping out of the bushes here, only a subtle descent into unease.

My main gripe with this text is the use of deus ex machina. For those not familiar with the concept, it’s a literary device where something swoops in and suddenly and improbably solves an unsolvable problem. I am not a fan of it at all, and don’t like to see it in any of my media, be it literature, television, film, or video games. I won’t go into detail on the use of this device in Boswell’s text, as it would completely spoil the entire story. Suffice it to say that the story could have probably been resolved in any number of other ways, and I would have been considerably more satisfied. I am also uncertain Irene Adler’s POV chapters were necessary to include at all; I’d have much preferred the focus had been entirely on Watson’s journey, and for Adler to have had an entire story with her as the protagonist (I actually enjoyed her narrative thread the most! I just didn’t feel it had a place in this particular story). As it stands, it felt like both narratives were somewhat weakened by the inclusion of the other, which was a little disappointing.

Overall, despite my few criticisms, I did find the story enjoyable and pleasant to read overall. Boswell has a fine grasp of language, and does an excellent job in paying homage to two authors whose work has had an enormous impact on my life. The Voice felt authentic for all characters, and elements of Holmesian Mystery and Cosmic Horror were very well-incorporated throughout the entire tale. It’s a fast and easy read with a great flow, perfect for a Summer evening, and I urge you to give it a chance (it’s also very inexpensive!).

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Happy Reading!

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