Fear of the Dog: Superstitious Civilization in The Hound of the Baskervilles
The Hound of the Baskervilles, United Artists, 1959
by Eric D. Lehman
A placard at a recent political rally read: “What do we want? Evidence-based science. When do we want it? After peer review.” This image quickly made the rounds on the internet, highlighting an unfortunate problem with public policy. It also highlighted the confusion that reasonable people sometimes feel in the face of “non-scientific” thinking. When we find educated humans in this supposedly civilized age believing superstitious nonsense, promoting obvious falsehoods, or running away from invisible enemies, we are puzzled. After all, those who can reason and use science are civilized, and those who cannot are animal-like barbarians. Right?
Our confusion about this topic goes back as far as civilization itself, and has been a source of some of the greatest literature of our age. Often the story involves the lesson that barbarians are people, too, but sometimes we get the reverse, that civilized people are just as violent or irrational as we suppose barbarians to be. One critically overlooked gem in that tradition is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most complex and serious effort, The Hound of the Baskervilles. It explores the opposing forces that govern human life, usually described as a battle that pits science and civilization against superstition and nature. However, this assumption that nature and the supernatural are in league, or are indeed the same thing, seems to negate the very points Conan Doyle is so cleverly making. As Holmes himself is so quick to point out, the supernatural does not exist in his calculations. It is rather civilized human’s sustained tendency toward irrational belief that Conan Doyle sets up as the central issue of Hound of the Baskervilles.
When we first hear Dr. James Mortimer’s description of his brief physical sighting of the hound, he believes it to be a large black calf, an image which brings to mind the beast of Revelations and perhaps the god Baal in the Old Testament. Conan Doyle backs this up by telling us that Rodger Baskerville, father of the villainous entomologist Stapleton, was the “black sheep of the family.” However, the reader is being deceived in the way that the peasants and Sir Charles are. The peasants see the “demon” and Mortimer says that it “could not possibly be any animal known to science.” Of course, by the end we find out that it can be identified, and that these sorts of preconceptions come from our tendency toward metaphor and association. It “feels true,” and so both characters and readers don’t look into it any further.
Conan Doyle works on our prejudices in another way, too, by setting his novel on the “primitive” landscape of the moors. We are told: “When you are once out upon [the moor’s] bosom you have left all traces of modern England behind you, but, on the other hand, you are conscious everywhere of the homes and the work of the prehistoric people. On all sides of you as you walk are the houses of these forgotten folk, with their graves and the huge monoliths which are supposed to have marked their temples.” The escaped convict Selden, who is described as being “a wild beast” and having “a terrible animal face” could represent civilization’s fear of the return to a primitive stage of humanity. Linguistically, we yoke all these words together: “prehistoric,” “nature, “wild,” “beast,” “animal,” “supernatural,” and “superstition.”
Conan Doyle set the novel in such a place to draw both the reader and the characters out of reason and skepticism, if only briefly. The fog threatens Holmes’s plan and Sir Henry’s life, in fact it is “the one thing on earth” that could. The Grimpen Mire is a sort of primitive place within an already primitive place, allied with the supernatural and considered to be an enemy of Holmes and order. In this arena, irrational thought might actually defeat Holmes’s machine-like, scientific mind. But primitive nature in the form of the Grimpen Mire also swallows Selden and Stapleton into its depths, spelling doom for agents of science and agents of superstition alike.
Stapleton is an entomologist, an apparent champion of scientific thought who can fight with Holmes on his own level. This long-lost Baskerville, though he does not actually believe in the supernatural, encourages superstitious belief at various points in the text. While remaining a “skeptical scientist,” he nevertheless tells Watson, “Queer place, the moor” and then “the peasants say it [the howl] is the Hound of the Baskervilles calling for its prey. I’ve heard it once or twice before, but never quite so loud.” He creates the Hound for the very purpose of promoting superstition, and furthermore shows the peasants the beast from a distance. The encouragement of this way of thinking, through Stapleton’s words and actions, shows how men of reason use superstition for their own purposes. It is a useful tool of civilization, a way to create phantom fears or prejudices. It is a mean of control. Stapleton is an agent of what we might call “superstitious civilization,” creating the “demon” with phosphorous, and most of the people in the novel, both educated and not, proceed to believe in it.
The actual hound is often noted as primitive nature’s champion, taking vengeance on the civilized. However, the domesticated, civilized dog doesn’t actually hurt anyone; the fear of the “demon” is what killed Sir Charles and Selden. Sir Henry must travel around the world, not because of any bodily injury, but because he has been frightened out of his wits. If characters had been physically killed by the hound, the story might make be more gruesome and interesting, but Conan Doyle purposefully avoids this. Stapleton and the domesticated hound are not agents of nature, they represent civilization’s belief in the supernatural, our tendency toward superstitious thought. If Stapleton had succeeded in killing Sir Henry, the people on the moor and perhaps even the police would have believed that the curse of the family was at fault, not a physical beast.
Conan Doyle demonstrates how superstitions and legends such as the ghastly death of Sir Hugo become accepted by civilized people, even by a scientist like Dr. Mortimer. He tells Holmes that “there is a realm in which the most acute and most experienced of detectives is helpless.” But his superstitious fear is subsequently proved to be wrong; his own prejudicial obsession with the physical aspects of the primitive blind him to reason. In this story we have three scientists: one using superstition for his own purposes, one falling into superstition despite his training, and one able to resist both temptations and stand against superstitious civilization.
That exception is of course Conan Doyle’s great detective, always an opponent of the unscientific explanation, the “spirit world,” ghosts, devils, or miracles. He tells Watson, “I presume nothing.” His persistent questioning of every piece of information forms the basic tenet of science. When presented with the “facts” of the case, he tells Dr. Mortimer that the story of the demon hound would be interesting “to a collector of fairy tales.” Indeed, like so many he cannot help his skeptical sarcasm from bursting forth, saying, “I have hitherto confined my investigations to this world… In a modest way I have combated evil, but to take on the Father of Evil himself would, perhaps, be too ambitious a task.” Holmes shrugs his shoulders as he makes this statement, and he only thinks that fighting “the Devil” might be too ambitious a task. Holmes continues his sarcastic tone when he tells Mortimer that “a devil with merely local powers like a parish vestry would be too inconceivable a thing.” His sarcasm comes from his frustration with superstitious, unscientific modes of thinking, and we can see this inevitable lack of patience in a hundred thousand debates every day.
In one scene Dr. Watson and Henry Baskerville see a figure on the hill against the moon. Watson tells us, “He might have been the very spirit of the place.” He then describes the unknown person as “the unseen watcher, the man of darkness.” Fear is built up around this terrifying figure…who later turns out to be Sherlock Holmes, the representative of science. Watson tells us shortly before he discovers the man’s identity, “Was he our malignant enemy or was he by chance our guardian angel?” We might see Sherlock Holmes as an angel of science, but there are many educated, civilized people among us who cannot or choose not to take his advice.
Indeed, Conan Doyle himself was either fooled by or used other peoples’ superstitions in later life, when he became an advocate of spiritualist séances. And though he created the avatar of scientific detection, this educated author was himself fooled by “fairy photos.” This failure only proves the point of The Hound of the Baskervilles – that both the belief in the supernatural and the precepts of science are elements of civilization. Perhaps it will always be so. Politicians and pundits, dictators and rabble-rousers will find falsehoods convenient. Others may simply fall into what “feels true” because searching for peer reviewed facts is hard. And finally, sadly, there seems to be something in the human mind that bends toward unsupported speculations, that prefers the irrational over what can be proved.
The hope of many in the 19th century was that the reason and science championed by Sherlock Holmes would drive away the demons of superstition, weak reasoning, and unverified beliefs. Over a century later, the jury is still very much out.
About the Author:
Eric D. Lehman teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Bridgeport and his work has been published in dozens of journals and magazines. He is the author of twelve books, including Shadows of Paris, Homegrown Terror, and Becoming Tom Thumb. Follow him @afootinconnecticut, and visit his website at www.ericdlehman.org.