A winter’s night, a desolate moor. In an old manor house, two weary book reviewers warm themselves before a roaring fire.
Myrth: (rubs hands together) Stephen, I’ve just returned from a trip. Or was it a dream? A memory? A house? A moor? A cave? No. It was “a shining thing. Numinous. A beast in the darkness. Like those mysteries of the ancient past...Holy monsters grinning in the torchlight.” It was my second read of Adam McOmber’s Hound of the Baskervilles.
Stephen: I too, Myrth, have just returned—from what felt like an impossibly vivid dream. However, my best wool pants are quite stained with bog-water. I lost my footing crossing the infamous Grimpen Mire. That was no dream. We’ve been somewhere, Myrth. I’d like to talk about it.
M: Well, get your pipe and deerstalker cap, Stephen, because here we find ourselves, not unlike a gathering in Baskerville Hall, awaiting the reveal of the conversation as we are having it!
S: (whips out houndstooth deerstalker, sets pipe between teeth) The reveal! The waiting feels very good in this novel. Although waiting isn’t the word...Rather it is McOmber’s timely inversion of Arthur Conan Doyle’s formula. McOmber makes it clear, writes it directly— “Mysterium Tremendum. Mystery as Revelation.” On the surface I was waiting for a materialist unraveling à la Doyle, while a cross-current of impossibly sexy rose-colored light carried me somewhere quite different. This novel leaves you in a place where you cannot stay, yet will always be there for you. I’m trying not to spoil anything—
M: For the most part, Stephen, I agree. However, I see it as less of an inversion and more as an invocation of Doyle’s formula as a vehicle for transcendence. (strokes beard thoughtfully)
S: I think that’s right. Now, let’s play hardball. Tell me about McOmber’s prismatic rendering of Beryl Stapleton. Please.
M: Oh, Stephen! (grips heart) Beryl Stapleton! Asserter that to solve a mystery is to kill it! The ungraspable she! We meet her in the natatorium, which has got to be one of the sexiest grottos I’ve read of. Although I’m firmly in John Watson’s point-of-view, in his skin, clawing my way across the moor, it is Beryl Stapleton who seems the story’s true champion. She is the embodiment of Mysterium Tremendum. (gestures with pipe) How did she strike you, Stephen?
S: (examines fingernails) For me, Beryl was the last sheath of material bounding the ineffable core of this novel. Also, I found her wildly attractive in ways I don’t fully comprehend.
M: Would that I could with a hex ward her on, comprehension or none, Stephen—ahem. There were some other characters which I found more difficult to wrap my head—or should I say faceless expanse of lacquered oak—around. Your thoughts on the mannequin?
S: The mannequin’s entrance was a breath of strange wind—at that moment I knew I’d fallen into something wild. Until the mannequin’s debut, I had no expectations beyond this being an erotic tale in the universe of Sherlock Holmes. There was nothing impossible about the mannequin, but the melding of bizarre Victorian prophylactic technology with the uncanniness of puppets—particularly a faceless one, with an ivory cock—widened the field of possibility, without quite shattering the tropes and expectations of Doyle’s universe. Also, simply, it was an odd and distinct pleasure to visualize this character. I’ll not forget it.
M: Nor will I forget the faceless uncanny one, Stephen, I assure you. (leans back in chair, packs pipe)
S: (scratches scalp, skews deerstalker) I’d like to talk about the rose-colored core of this novel, but I don’t want to curate readers’ experience. This stuff is slippery. Shucks, I’ll try. McOmber makes something new of the hound. Doyle’s hound is an amalgam of phosphorus, legend, an actual dog—a pawn in Jack Stapleton’s scheme to capture the Baskerville Estate. McOmber’s is—well—“a dog and a man and a wound,” and it is none of these things.
M: Or all of them, Stephen. Both/and! McOmber’s hound rises from a fissure in the depths of us all; forges a pathway into the land of “rose-colored light”—a land of yes and expansion. The hound is a hound, a man, a wound, is transcendence itself—pure desire unpoisoned by shame and repression, a haven for the queer and for queers. McOmber’s hound is a new vessel for mystery. Mystery as revelation, mystery as ecstasy.
S: (visibly excited) This novel is a triumph of ecstasy and eroticism over reason. And doing this by turning a rationalist materialist substrate inside out, with care, is a nice thing to see.
M: More than nice, Stephen! Radical! There’s a level of subversion at work here, which gives this erotic and ecstatic space a deeper sense of triumph. That this space spawns from the history of Hugo Baskerville and the patriarchal weight of Baskerville Hall lends it that much more power. It is not just sex and joy, but sex and joy borne out of pain, oppression, and repression. Let’s talk Hugo Baskerville.
S: Indeed! And this is what makes it a warm novel. It is not a brilliant flash bookended by darkness—it is sustained illumination. But yes—Hugo. (takes pipe out of mouth, throws into fire). McOmber’s Hugo is complicated. As with the hound, as with Beryl, Hugo’s character is revealed over the arc of this thing. A delightful kind of slow-looking. He was not a good man, i.e. he kidnapped people, imposed illegitimate authority over others. His relationship with the hound... all I can say is that McOmber expanded these classic characters in surprising ways. What think you of McOmber’s Sherlock, Myrth?
M: Just as I loved to love Beryl Stapleton, I loved to loathe Holmes—an abhorrent, aloof incarnation of reason, deduction, reduction. And his cold dismissal of Watson’s writings, feelings, and passions… McOmber’s Holmes uses mystery for power over Watson and others (“[Holmes] ...allowed me to see and yet not quite see”) rather than for ecstatic revelation.
S: Yet McOmber allows Sherlock flashes of tenderness towards Watson.
M: Yes—these characters are cared for, even the grotesque Hugo Baskerville.
S: Agreed—what gives the novel depth is the care and nuance brought to bear, characters included. Yet this novel is playful, and wild. One might hear a brief description of a book like this and think it cartoonish, but that would be a serious mischaracterization of Hound.
M: (huffs) Such a deduction belongs to the clockwork universe of Doyle. In McOmber’s daring transformation of the tale “all [the] old truths come undone”—
S: (dreamily) and we arrive gazing up at a rose-colored sky in a land that is “the protection we seek.”
M: It’s true. “This [is] not...the love described by our fathers and mothers, the love asserted by the age. No. This love [is] a daring thing, as bold as the new century.”
Stephen adjusts his trousers. Myrth spreads her toes in the firelight. Two book reviewers slip into one reverie—their own hound, a rose-colored place behind the eyes. Myrth lights her pipe. The smoke from its bowl curls into Beryl Stapleton, rising, obscuring an oil portrait of “the great detective.” The pink glow of the coals expands from the hearth. Our reviewers feel safe, and warm, and held.
Myrth Killingsworth‘s fiction recently won the tiny journal’s climate change contest and appeared in Issue 84 of The Cafe Irreal. She is a MFA candidate at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she serves as an Asst. Managing Editor for Hunger Mountain. Myrth lives in northern New Mexico and is currently working on a novel about electronic dance music and mushroom mycelium.
Stephen Welter is a writer of curious fiction living in Northern Vermont, whose work is influenced by his background in geochemical and sensory science. He is currently working towards an MFA in creative writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.