It’s Wednesday, so that means it’s time for another weird fiction discussion to begin over at LibraryThing.
Review: “The Adventure of the Death-Fetch”, Darrell Schweitzer, 1994.
You don’t have to try very hard, if you read fantastic fiction, to find Sherlock Holmes stories which go beyond Arthur Conan Doyle’s rational framework for the character. I’ve already done posts on three such works.
This one is, kind of, barely, also a kind of a Cthulhu Mythos story.
This is a twice-told Sherlock Holmes story.
Our narrator is a 19-year old college student visiting relatives in England over Christmas break. The relatives know Dr. John Watson, and he’s staying with them.
One night, a few days before his death, Watson tells just the narrator a story. It’s a Sherlock Holmes case never documented. That’s because Holmes made Watson promise, on pain of their friendship, that he would never write it down.
Many Christmases ago, around the turn of the twentieth century, a Miss Abigail Thurston runs up to Holmes in the street to ask for help. Her father has bolted himself in his room and won’t come out. He also keeps an elephant gun nearby and has smashed all the mirror in his room.
Her father is none other than famed explorer Sir Humphrey Thurston.
Holmes agrees to make a call on Sir Humphrey with Miss Thurston and Watson.
On the way over, they see Thurston on the street, and Holmes gives chase but loses him.
When they visit Thurston, he confirms he has not been out of the room. He’s also dressed differently than the man on the street.
He gives us the true account of his earlier life before he married and became a famous explorer: desertion from the British Indian Army, travels in Asia and Australia, murder and robbery. Finally, he fell in with Hawkins, a man who fancied himself the reincarnation of pirate Edward Teach. He was on the search for a treasure, a winged dog made of jade, on the Plains of Leng. He needs Thurston to read an old Burmese map to find the treasure. Through hardship and murder most of the expedition dies.
Despite the mention of Leng, there are no further Lovecraftian elements unless you want to consider the dog as somehow being a Hound of Tindalos.
Anyway, Thurston managed, through guile, to escape Hawkins and thought Hawkins died but now he thinks Hawkins is back. He’s received letters from something like Hawkins – a corpse animated by the priests of Leng, skin flayed from his face, his heart ripped out and a inextinguishable fire put in his hollowed out chest. (Presumably this is communicated through the letters since Hawkins and Thurston have not yet reunited.)
Thurston rightly thinks a death fetch, a figure identical to him, is coming to kill him. He saw it in mirrors before he removed them from the room.
Holmes won’t admit to the possibility of anything supernatural even though the earlier sighting of someone looking like Thurston on the street is consistent with Thurston’s account.
The death-fetch shows up and does kill Thurston, moments after his daughter and Holmes and Watson leave the room. Near Thurston’s body is the jade idol he spoke of looking for in Leng.
The story ends with the college student narrator receiving the dog idol in the mail back in America.
The story nicely undercuts expectations. Holmes exhibits no occult knowledge. He does not defeat a supernatural menace. Holmes realizes he cannot – and will not – operate in the supernatural realm thus his very firm admonition to Watson – on pain of ending their friendship – that the matter be suppressed.
There is one amusing reference to Indiana Jones too.