This is a wonderfully nostalgic collection of 15 short stories which instantly transport you back to the age of empire, where men with handlebar moustaches and frock coats investigate uncanny happenings which have gels in crinolines swooning into their soup. They aren’t simply written in the style of the great Victorian and Edwardian detective novels – many of these pieces are over a century old and were, no doubt, shocking and provocative at the time. These days, they feel quite quaint and even a little naïve – but several are entirely successful in cranking up a creepy atmosphere or spinning a genuinely unsettling mystery.
The collection includes stories by Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and HP Lovecraft, as well as many less famous but equally skilled writers. Some set their stories in the colonies – where a loudmouth sahib could by cursed by a fakir – or in the bosom of the landed gentry in the English countryside, where no one dare spend a night in a particular bedroom for fear of what stalks the sleeper.
Sometimes the mystery is solved by the ‘Sherlock’ of the story, but in other cases the uncanny events remain ambiguous; the tale being recounted by one who was there as a warning for anyone who might dabble in the unknown. More often than not, the supernatural element is scoffed at by naysayers but it remains the only explanation. If you must have every clue examined and explained then these stories are probably not your cup of lapsang souchong; there are few unambiguous endings.
Some of the writing is ridiculously frilly by today’s standards, but very often it’s elegant and subtle. The Unspeakable Awfulness may not be directly described, but you get the feeling that it’s skulking in the shadows, just out of sight. Taken together, this anthology reads like a series of spooky campfire stories. Not entirely serious, certainly nothing to give you nightmares (and no graphic violence), but deliciously eerie all the same.
If you enjoy the style of the original Sherlock books, or oblique, 19th century gothic horror, then this collection should suit you. Just make sure you have a log fire blazing in the hearth; the heavy drapes are firmly shut, and there’s a spare candle in case they all mysteriously blow out…
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Supernatural Sherlocks by Nick Rennison is available as an ebook and paperback
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