Though most of the facts were familiar to me, I had not sufficiently appreciated their relative importance, nor their connection with each other. [SILV]
As readers of the Sherlock Holmes adventures know, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a master of the short story. He wrote in many genres: mystery, horror, science fiction, adventure, romance and humor.
"The Winning Shot" was the first of three short stories Doyle had published in Bow Bells weekly magazine during his career, in the July 11, 1883 issue. In a June or July 1882 letter to his mother Mary (quoted in Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower and Charles Foley), Doyle wrote, "I have a wonderful story on hand 'The Winning Shot' about mesmerism and murder and chemical magnetism and a man's eating his own ears because he was hungry," and in a second letter to her as "a very ghastly Animal Magnetic vampery sort of tale."
The 12,000 word story is unusual in Doyle's oeuvre in that it is told in the first person by Charlotte "Lottie" Underwood. I will be discussing the story in detail (yes - there will be spoilers!), so if you would like to read it first, it is available in Uncollected Stories: The Unknown Conan Doyle edited by John Michael Gibson and Richard Lancelyn Green or you can read the text here at The Conan Doyle Encyclopedia.
Despite the opening statement
"I know that many people will always ridicule the supernatural, or what our poor intellects choose to regard as supernatural, and that the fact of my being a woman will be thought to weaken my evidence. I can only plead that I have never been weak-minded or impressionable, and that other people formed the same opinions of Octavius Gaster that I did,"
Lottie's story starts out as if it were a romance about her impending marriage to old Colonel Pillar’s son Charley of Roborough, Devon. Staying at the Colonel’s "merry household at Toynby Hall" during the Long Vacation that August along with Charley and Lottie were "Harry, Charley's younger brother, and Trevor, his bosom friend at Cambridge," Lieutenant Jack Daseby "fresh home from Japan in Her Majesty's ship Shark" who is engaged to Charley's sister Fanny, and Lottie's mother, "dearest of old ladies, beaming at us through her gold-rimmed spectacles, anxiously smoothing every little difficulty in the way of the two young couples, and never weary of detailing to them her own doubts and fears and perplexities."
Canonical connection: Sherlock Holmes spent part of the long vacation at college friend Victor Trevor’s home in Donnithorpe.
Doyle gives a wonderful word-picture of an evening at home with the characters vividly delineated before Charley and Lottie decide to take a stroll on the moor. Doyle places Toynby Hall on the southwest side of Dartmoor; Baskerville Hall will be on the northeast. Dartmoor apparently held a long fascination with Doyle and the moor gives "The Winning Shot" some of its elements of mystery. Almost twenty years later, the moor became a character of its own in The Hound of the Baskervilles [HOUN].
From "The Winning Shot":
"Above us towered two great columns of rock, between which the water trickled to form a deep, still pool at the bottom. This pool had always been a favourite spot of Charley's, and was a pretty cheerful place by day; but now, with the rising moon reflected upon its glassy waters, and throwing dark shadows from the overhanging rocks, it seemed anything rather than the haunt of a pleasure-seeker…. I have already mentioned that the pool by which we were standing lay at the foot of a rough mound of rocks. On the top of this mound, about sixty feet above our heads, a tall dark figure was standing, peering down, apparently, into the rugged hollow in which we were.
"The moon was just topping the ridge behind, and the gaunt, angular outlines of the stranger stood out hard and clear against its silvery radiance.
"There was something ghastly in the sudden and silent appearance of this solitary wanderer, especially when coupled with the weird nature of the scene."
Doyle reworked the scene to great effect in Chapter 9 of HOUN:
The moon was low upon the right, and the jagged pinnacle of a granite tor stood up against the lower curve of its silver disc. There, outlined as black as an ebony statue on that shining background, I saw the figure of a man upon the tor. Do not think that it was a delusion, Holmes. I assure you that I have never in my life seen anything more clearly. As far as I could judge, the figure was that of a tall, thin man. He stood with his legs a little separated, his arms folded, his head bowed, as if he were brooding over that enormous wilderness of peat and granite which lay behind him. He might have been the very spirit of that terrible place. It was not the convict. This man was far from the place where the latter had disappeared. Besides, he was a much taller man. With a cry of surprise I pointed him out to the baronet, but in the instant during which I had turned to grasp his arm the man was gone. There was the sharp pinnacle of granite still cutting the lower edge of the moon, but its peak bore no trace of that silent and motionless figure."
The description of the stranger will sound very familiar to a Sherlockian:
"Weird as his appearance had been when we first caught sight of him, the impression was intensified rather than removed by a closer acquaintance.
"The moon shining full upon him revealed a long, thin face of ghastly pallor, the effect being increased by its contrast with the flaring green necktie which he wore.
"A scar upon his cheek had healed badly and caused a nasty pucker at the side of his mouth, which gave his whole countenance a most distorted expression, more particularly when he smiled."
This is Holmes’ description of Huge Boone from "The Man with the Twisted Lip":
"His appearance, you see, is so remarkable that no one can pass him without observing him. A shock of orange hair, a pale face disfigured by a horrible scar, which, by its contraction, has turned up the outer edge of his upper lip, a bulldog chin, and a pair of very penetrating dark eyes, which present a singular contrast to the colour of his hair, all mark him out from amid the common crowd of mendicants, and so, too, does his wit, for he is ever ready with a reply to any piece of chaff which may be thrown at him by the passers-by." [Emphasis added.]
The stranger is Swedish Doctor Octavius Gaster, a traveler lost on the moor. Despite his appearance, Charley is intrigued by the man and invites him to stay at the Hall. On the way back Gaster relates how he and Karl Osgood of Upsala went on a trading venture in Cape Blanco (Ras Nouadhibou on the west African coast which has been called Cap Blanc by the French, Cabo Blanco by the Spanish and Cabo Branco by the Portuguese) who had to flee on a small boat in the night when the local Moors came to kill them.
"There was no country where we could hope for food nearer than Canary [the Canary Islands], and for that we made.
"I reached it alive, though very weak and mad; but poor Karl died the day before we sighted the islands.
"I gave him warning!
"I cannot blame myself in the matter.
"I said, 'Karl, the strength that you might gain by eating them would be more than made up for by the blood that you would lose!'
"He laughed at my words, caught the knife from my belt, cut them off and eat them; and he died."
"Eat what?" asked Charley.
"His ears!" said the stranger.
The gruesome scene of a small boat on the ocean and severed ears would become the climax of Jim Browner’s confession in "The Cardboard Box":
"At last I saw them hire a boat and start for a row, for it was a very hot day, and they thought no doubt that it would be cooler on the water. It was just as if they had been given into my hands. There was a bit of a haze, and you could not see more than a few hundred yards. I hired a boat for myself, and I pulled after them. I could see the blur of their craft, but they were going nearly as fast as I, and they must have been a long mile from the shore before I caught them up. The haze was like a curtain all round us, and there were we three in the middle of it. My God, shall I ever forget their faces when they saw who was in the boat that was closing in upon them? She screamed out. He swore like a madman, and jabbed at me with an oar, for he must have seen death in my eyes. I got past it and got one in with my stick, that crushed his head like an egg. I would have spared her, perhaps, for all my madness, but she threw her arms round him, crying out to him, and calling him `Alec'. I struck again, and she lay stretched beside him. I was like a wild beast then that had tasted blood. If Sarah had been there, by the Lord, she should have joined them. I pulled out my knife, and - well, there! I've said enough."
Given what we later learn about Gaster, the reader may well wonder who actually cut off and ate Karl’s ears.
Gaster joins the gathering for (a non-aural) dinner and, as Lottie writes:
"Whatever Doctor Octavius Gaster might be physically, he was certainly a social success.
"By next day he had so completely installed himself as a member of the household that the Colonel would not hear of his departure.
"He astonished everybody by the extent and variety of his knowledge. He could tell the veteran considerably more about the Crimea than he knew himself; he gave the sailor information about the coast of Japan; and even tackled my athletic lover upon the subject of rowing, discoursing about levers of the first order, and fixed points and fulcra, until the unhappy Cantab was fain to drop the subject.
Canonical connection: Here Gaster sounds very Holmes-like:
"Our meal was a merry one. Holmes could talk exceedingly well when he chose, and that night he did choose. He appeared to be in a state of nervous exaltation. I have never known him so brilliant. He spoke on a quick succession of subjects - on miracle plays, on medieval pottery, on Stradivarius violins, on the Buddhism of Ceylon, and on the warships of the future - handling each as though he had made a special study of it. His bright humour marked the reaction from his black depression of the preceding days." - The Sign of Four
Lottie also relates an incident illustrating Gaster's "quiet power about everything he said and did":
"Trevor had a remarkably savage bulldog, which, however fond of its master, fiercely resented any liberties from the rest of us. This animal was, it may be imagined, rather unpopular, but as it was the pride of the student's heart it was agreed not to banish it entirely, but to lock it up in the stable and give it a wide berth.”Canonical connection: Victor Trevor’s bull-terrier froze onto Holmes’ ankle as he when down to college chapel one morning.
One day, the Swede hears the dog and wants to see it.
"He's rather a nipper," said Trevor, with a mischievous expression in his eye; "but I suppose you are not afraid of a dog?"
"Afraid?—no. Why should I be afraid?"
The mischievous look on Trevor's face increased as he opened the stable door. I heard Charley mutter something to him about its being past a joke, but the other's answer was drowned by the hollow growling from inside.
The rest of us retreated to a respectable distance, while Octavius Gaster stood in the open doorway with a look of mild curiosity upon his pallid face.
"And those," he said, "that I see so bright and red in the darkness—are those his eyes?"
"Those are they," said the student, as he stooped down and unbuckled the strap.
"Come here!" said Octavius Gaster.
The growling of the dog suddenly subsided into a long whimper, and instead of making the furious rush that we expected, he rustled among the straw as if trying to huddle into a corner.
"What the deuce is the matter with him?" exclaimed his perplexed owner.
"Come here!" repeated Gaster, in sharp metallic accents, with an indescribable air of command in them. "Come here!"
To our astonishment, the dog trotted out and stood at his side, but looking as unlike the usually pugnacious Towzer as is possible to conceive. His ears were drooping, his tail limp, and he altogether presented the very picture of canine humiliation.
"A very fine dog, but singularly quiet," remarked the Swede, as he stroked him down.
"Now, sir, go back!"
The brute turned and slunk back into its corner. We heard the rattling of its chain as it was being fastened, and next moment Trevor came out of the stable-door with blood dripping from his finger.
"Confound the beast!" he said. "I don't know what can have come over him. I've had him three years, and he never bit me before."
I fancy—I cannot say it for certain—but I fancy that there was a spasmodic twitching of the cicatrix upon our visitor's face, which betokened an inclination to laugh.
Of course Jack Stapleton [HOUN] and Jephro Rucastle [COPP] both had a way with vicious canines.
There are a couple of passages in the story that give the Sherlockian with an interest in H.P. Lovecraft pause. Gaster is frequently reading a book he keeps hidden from the others. One day Lottie and Charley come upon Gaster before he can secret the book.
Later, Lottie spies Gaster reading a newspaper clipping which he finds very amusing. "There was something horrible too in this mirth of his, for though he writhed his body about as if with laughter, no sound was emitted from his lips." Gaster leaves the room and the clipping behind which Lottie reads."Ah, Gaster," said Charley, "studying, as usual! What an old bookworm you are! What's the book? Ah, a foreign language; Swedish, I suppose?"
"No, it is not Swedish," said Gaster; "it is Arabic."
"You don't mean to say you know Arabic?"
"Oh, very well—very well indeed!"
"And what's it about?" I asked, turning over the leaves of the musty old volume.
"Nothing that would interest one so young and fair as yourself, Miss Underwood," he answered, looking at me in a way which had become habitual to him of late. "It treats of the days when mind was stronger than what you call matter; when great spirits lived that were able to exist without these coarse bodies of ours, and could mould all things to their so-powerful wills."
"Sudden Death in the Docks.—The master of the bark-rigged steamer Olga, from Tromsberg, was found lying dead in his cabin on Wednesday afternoon. Deceased was, it seems, of a violent disposition, and had had frequent altercations with the surgeon of the vessel. On this particular day he had been more than usually offensive, declaring that the surgeon was a necromancer and worshipper of the devil. The latter retired on deck to avoid further persecution. Shortly afterwards the steward had occasion to enter the cabin, and found the captain lying across the table quite dead. Death is attributed to heart disease, accelerated by excessive passion. An inquest will be held to-day."
And this was the paragraph which this strange man had regarded as the height of humour!
An Arabic grimoire, necromancy: could Gaster have been reading the Necronomicon some forty years before Lovecraft invented it?
Mrs. Underwood tells her daughter she thinks Gaster is in love with Lottie and events come to a head. One evening, Lottie is waiting for Charley in an arbor but the doctor shows up instead, declaring his love to the horrified woman. She tries to leave, but Gaster forces himself upon her. Just then Charley shows up and punches Gaster in the face. Gaster flees and life returns to normal at Toynby Hall.
On the eve of Lottie and Charley’s wedding was a marksmanship contest between the Roborough volunteers, of which Charley was the captain and best shot, and the Plymouth regulars, the match to take place at the Roborough shooting-range on the moor itself.
The contest is even and the last shot, potentially the winning shot, belongs to Charley. Earlier, the couple had seen Gaster in the crowd of spectators and now as Charley takes aim, Lottie, standing between two Devon farmers, sees Gaster in a trance-like prayer staring at a space halfway between Charley and the target. One of the farmers says of Gaster’s manner, "Blessed if he bean't foamin' like Farmer Watson's dog—t' bull pup whot died mad o' the hydropathics." (Is that what happened to John H. Watson’s own bull pup in A Study in Scarlet?)
Meanwhile, Charley hesitates to shoot because he sees a figure in front of the bull's-eye. Assured by his teammates and the crowd that no one is there, Charley pulls the trigger and wins the contest. When his fellows go to congratulate him, they find him dead. While brain-fever is not mentioned, like Percy "Tadpole" Phelps in "The Naval Treaty," Lottie becomes ill and does not recover until "I found myself in the sick-room at Toynby Hall, and learned that three restless, delirious weeks had passed since that terrible day."
The story ends with this paragraph:
"Within a fortnight after writing this narrative, my poor daughter disappeared. All search has failed to find her. A porter at the railway station has deposed to having seen a young lady resembling her description get into a first-class carriage with a tall, thin gentleman. It is, however, too ridiculous to suppose that she can have eloped after her recent grief, and without my having had any suspicions. The detectives are, however, working out the clue.—EMILY UNDERWOOD."
Doyle uses length to build a believable world with real people and then slowly reveals the preternatural or supernatural underpinnings that are waiting to be exposed to the observant. In 1884, he thought of including "The Winning Shot" with "The Captain of the Pole-Star," "John Barrington Cowles," "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement" and others in a collection called Twilight Tales.
"You see," he wrote to his mother, "it would have a double meaning---not only as being tales suitable for the gloaming, but as a treating of the strangle twilight land between the natural and the absolutely supernatural…"
That collection never came into being and the story became one Doyle’s forgotten works until 1982. Why? Perhaps because so many of the story's elements were revised, reused and improved upon in later endeavors. For Sherlockians, there are overlaps minor (a college friend named Trevor with a biting dog, severed ears on the ocean and a Watson with a bull pup) to major (the Dartmoor setting, a mysterious stranger standing on a rocky prominence silhouetted against the moon and a pale, scar-faced antagonist) that make this good eerie tale doubly worth reading.
Note to Charles Prepolec, editor of the Gaslight series of supernatural Holmes stories and its contributors: If there hasn't been one already, there’s a pastiche waiting to be written about the young Holmes and Watson in 1883 on the trail of the missing Lottie Underwood and Necronomicon-toting Octavius Gaster.