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In Brief:The Other Game Is Afoot

Sunday, December 19, 2004; Page BW13

What a perverse literary life Sir Arthur Conan Doyle led. He turned on his own greatest creation, Sherlock Holmes, and mistakenly rated his baggy historical novels as his best work. And despite being educated by the Jesuits, trained to the medical profession and drawn to what could be discovered by the powers of reason alone, Conan Doyle ended up traipsing from one seance to another; believing in fairies; and quarreling with his old friend Houdini, a decided skeptic toward all things occult. There was no arguing with him; he would make sweeping rhetorical pronouncements about the certainty of whatever latest whim had taken hold of him, then accuse doubters of bad faith.

The Captain of the "Pole-Star": Weird and Imaginative Fiction, edited by Christopher and Barbara Roden (Ash-Tree, $46), shows that, at least literarily speaking, the supernatural was not an entirely new phase in Conan Doyle's development. Here are ghost stories, science fiction and horror stories, including the title piece, about a voyage to the far north on a boat captained by a man with "a curious way of twitching his limbs." It doesn't take long for the narrator to note in his journal, "My deliberate opinion is that we are commanded by a madman."

But there are no stories in this book about mediums or Ouija boards. In their introduction, the Rodens note that after Conan Doyle became infatuated with spiritualism (a reaction to the death of his son Kingsley in World War I), he virtually stopped writing fiction. Perhaps this is just as well: One shudders at the thought of the hyper-rational Holmes being infected by his gullible creator's late-breaking beliefs.

-- Dennis Drabelle


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