A Case of Witchcraft

This blog is an extension of the book of the same name: a novel published by MX, available on the Net and through bookshops.

Tag: Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes and the Sermon on the Rose.

The incident occurs in The Naval Treaty, and is surely one of the most memorable (and the strangest) in the Canon. In the middle of an investigation, Holmes suddenly starts philosophizing about a rose that he’s seen in the garden.

“‘What a lovely thing a rose is!’
“He walked past the couch to the open window and held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green. It was a new phase of his character to me, for I had never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.
“‘There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,” said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.’”

Chronologists variously date this story to 1887 or 1889; my own preference is for 1888. But the point is a complicated one. The events certainly took place after those of the case known as The Sign of the Four (1887, by my reckoning), in the course of which Holmes recommended to Watson a notorious atheistical work: Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man – a controversial book in its day, rather as The God Delusion is now.

There is nothing explicitly Christian about Holmes’s sermon on the rose, so it probably pre-dates The Boscombe Valley Mystery (June 1889), in which he sounds very Christian indeed, telling a dying man, for example, that “you will soon have to answer for your deed at a higher court than the Assizes.”

I think that in The Naval Treaty we see Holmes on the very threshold of his conversion. The speech assumes that there is a supernatural creator, whom Holmes does not yet call God, but only Providence; and argues that the creation gives us evidence about this being’s character. His argument is that the flower is so perfectly designed to give pleasure to human beings that it proves benevolence in the unknown creator.

One obvious problem with this argument is that the moss-rose is not a wild flower, but one that has been selectively bred by many generations of gardeners for the precise purpose of giving pleasure to human beings. If its beauty proves anything, it proves than human beings are skilful, rather than that Providence is benevolent.

Holmes elsewhere shows a dislike of wild Nature, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he would choose what is really a man-made flower rather than a natural one. Nevertheless, his argument could be applied to wild flowers, too – and indeed to other natural formations which can be extremely beautiful. Out in splendid countryside surely everyone must sometimes experience an indistinct feeling that “Whoever is responsible for all this is admirable!” So that part of the argument (just about) works, I think — although ‘admirable’ is not quite the same as ‘benevolent’.

However, Holmes merely assumed that “Whoever” must be a transcendent God. Yet Darwin had already proved that Nature alone, without God, was quite capable of producing all the complex life-forms that we see about us. Flowers, for example, have evolved to attract insects: their forms and their patterns are shaped for that purpose. The most obvious answer as to why flowers are attractive to us would seem to be because we and insects have a good deal in common – they are cousins of ours, after all!

So why did Holmes, who was no fool, fail to see this?

Well, I think that it was a case of wishful thinking. In The Cardboard Box (which I date to August, 1888) Holmes had exclaimed: “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.” The human suffering which he saw in the course of his work distressed him deeply, and he wanted there to be something beyond the visible world which would make sense of it all. The dominant religion of his day, Christianity, offered an attractive solution: that a benevolent God had created the world, and would provide an afterlife in which all injustices would be put right.

My experience of people who are under the influence of cocaine is that they are prone to talk very freely about ideas that seem attractive to them, and cannot be made to consider the case against such ideas. (This is rather different to the effect of cannabis, which seems to make people more open-minded.) We know, of course, that the late 1880’s were the years in which Holmes’s cocaine-addiction was at its worst. I suggest that it was a combination of cocaine and wishful thinking which inspired his sermon on the rose.

These ideas are explored in more detail in my novel, A Case of Witchcraft, which you should definitely read!

Don’t forget, dear readers, that the paperback of “A Case of Witchcraft” is available here on the British Amazon site; and the Kindle version here.

Our American cousins may buy the paperback here, and the Kindle version here.

Sherlock Holmes, Jesus, and me.

Dr. Dan Andriacco is a scholar and a gentleman who wrote a rather magnanimous review of “A Case of Witchcraft”, in which he said lots of nice things, but expressed some polite distaste for my “hasheesh-smoking, socialist Holmes”, and his non-literal view of God. Dr. Dan recommended to his readers the alternative vision of a Christian Holmes as described in An Opened Grave by L. Frank James, in which Holmes examines the evidence for the Resurrection and finds it to be entirely convincing. Dan, who is Communications Director for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, concludes his article with the catchy phrase: “Different Holmes for different folks.” Yes, Dr. Dan: that does seem to be how it goes.

In the case of Jesus, as in that of Holmes, all that we have is a bunch of stories. These stories occasionally contradict one other — and, in sundry places, contradict both the known facts of History and the laws of Nature.

As generations of would-be biographers have discovered, the materials in both cases are quite silent about many interesting aspects of their heroes’ life and thought. We hear next to nothing of Jesus’ childhood, for example, and even less of Holmes’s – which has prompted all manner of theorizing from the reasonable to the fruit-loopy about what might have gone on in their formative years. Their sex-lives are, famously, not described: although we may reasonably infer that both men were celibate as adults, the evidence does not rule out unrecorded liaisons – whether with Mary of Magdala or with Mrs. Hudson, or even (as some have more scandalously suggested) the “beloved” St. John or the “dear” John Watson! Large areas of both Holmes’s and Jesus’ intellectual life are likewise hidden from us.

And so it is that widely-divergent interpretations of Jesus become possible: that Fascists can worship a Fascist Christ and Liberals a Liberal one, for example, just as gay Christians tend to think of Jesus as gay. It’s like looking down a well and seeing one’s own reflection.

Is it possible to get past these projections of one’s own personality and see Jesus as he really was? In my short lecture, A Witch Looks at Jesus, I tried to do just that, using techniques of evidence-gathering and rational deduction that I’d learnt when young from reading Conan Doyle. The result was the blurry likeness of a credible human figure, but not one much like me or anyone that I particularly admired. He looked to me like a deluded cult-leader: a man who actually believes that he’s a special person with awesome powers, when in reality he’s got nothing but the faith of his followers to make him seem like that. We have seen many such in recent times: one thinks of Father Divine, the Reverend Moon, or David Koresh – but perhaps some of these were knowingly fraudulent. Jesus was sincere, I think. He was nonetheless gravely mistaken. He expected the Day of Judgment to come very soon: it did not. He expected to be raised from the dead: he was not.

I looked at the evidence for the Resurrection in a Holmesian way, and the obvious conclusion was that there had been deliberate deception on the part of St. Peter. His motive was that he wanted to take over the cult and keep it going, for his own benefit. So he hired a look-alike (probably Jesus’ brother James) to impersonate the dead leader, at some carefully stage-managed appearances to the disciples in Galilee. (Click the link above if you’re at all interested in this matter, dear reader.)

I hope that this is not offensive to any of my readers: I say it not to cause offence, but simply because it’s what I concluded from looking dispassionately at the evidence, without any preconceived idea that Jesus had to be right about everything. I am quite certain that Sherlock Holmes would have come to the same conclusions, had he studied the evidence.

The Sherlock Holmes of my novel has in fact done so; and, as a consequence, he cannot call himself a Christian. He’s got nothing against Christianity, and in general is quite well-disposed towards it; he just doesn’t think that it can possibly be true. Based on the evidence in the Canon (as described in my previous blog “On the Religious Opinions of Sherlock Holmes”) I wove a back-story about him becoming a Christian and then losing his faith again. Like him, I had spent time in Sudan, and I could imagine how the Islam of that land would have affected him. From reading about Tibetan Buddhism, I could imagine interesting dialogues between Holmes and the Lamas. I wove the story of his travels together with that of his spiritual journey, imagining the things that Dr. Watson doesn’t tell us.

Other versions of Sherlock Holmes as homo religiosus are imaginable, but I have given you mine – and it seems very lifelike to me!

As to the other matters raised by Dr. Dan: in 1899, “hasheesh” was not only legal, but had recently been declared harmless by an official British government report; a few intellectuals and Bohemians, like Mr. Crowley and Miss Reid, were known to smoke it. There really was a shop called Lowe’s, in Stafford Street, which was noted as the best place for respectable people to buy the drug. It seems more likely to me than not that Holmes would have used it occasionally – and his trip to Trowley is one of those occasions.

And Holmes isn’t a thorough-going Socialist in my book: he just says that some socialist policies seem sensible enough to be worth trying, which is not an unreasonable thing to for an intellectual of the 1890’s to think. Socialism was pretty much the big idea among progressive intellectuals at that time; it’s an idea which appeals to a rational mind. The problems with it are not seen until it’s tried in the real world; and, at the time, it had not been tried. My Holmes also believes in the Monarchy and the Empire, let us not forget; and by modern standards he’s pretty sexist. But he wants to ameliorate the condition of the poor, and he’s not averse to doing so by taxing the rich. In that he is a typical British intellectual of his period, a figure like Bertrand Russell, Karl Pearson, or H.G. Wells.

My version of Holmes isn’t particularly like me; although there are some overlaps. I think, for example, that Holmes had Asperger’s Syndrome, as do I. That gave me some insight into his inner life, that came in useful when writing the book.

I set out not to make a Holmes in my own image, but a credible human Holmes who could have done the things that he did in the Canon. Do my readers think that I have succeeded? Please comment and tell me.

Don’t forget, dear readers, that the paperback of “A Case of Witchcraft” is available here on the British Amazon site; and the Kindle version here.

Our American cousins may buy the paperback here, and the Kindle version here.

Witchcraft and the Victorians.

In my novel, Sherlock Holmes sets out to investigate an apparent case of witchcraft in the year 1899, and naturally seeks to discover what scholarship can tell him about what is, to him, a rather obscure subject. What exactly would he have found in the writings of the period?

The Victorian age had seen a re-evaluation of witchcraft. Charles McKay’s famous book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”, published in 1841, followed the standard Enlightenment line that the whole thing had been nothing but “a cruel and absurd delusion”; but, as early as 1866, the great antiquarian Thomas Wright was arguing that there had been a real witch-cult among the mediæval peasantry, and that its origins could be traced far back into pagan times, in what the title of his book described as “The Worship of the Generative Powers.”

“It seems” (he wrote) “that Priapic orgies and the other periodical assemblies for Priapic worship were continued long after the fall of the Roman power and the introduction of the Christian religion. The rustic population, mostly servile, whose morals or private practices were little heeded by the other classes of society, might, in a country so thinly peopled, assemble by night in retired places without any fear of observation. There they perhaps indulged in Priapic rites, followed by the old Priapic orgies, which would become more and more debased in form, but through the effects of exciting potions… would have become wilder than ever.”

In 1891, Professor Karl Pearson gave a remarkable lecture, “Woman as Witch“, putting forward the argument that mediæval witches had worshipped, not a male Devil, but a female Goddess; and that this and other features of their worship suggested that it had originated in Neolithic times, before the rise of Patriarchy. In the following year, the President of the Folklore Society, George Laurence Gomme, published his “Ethnology in Folklore“, in which he suggested that, just as in India, it was possible in Britain to discern two main strata of popular antiquities: one derived from the Aryans, a relatively advanced conquering race; and the other tracing its origins to the more primitive pre-Aryan population whom these conquerors had subjugated. Witchcraft, he maintained, was essentially the old religion of the pre-Aryan people, surviving into historic times as a secret cult.

In 1893, the American Matilda Joslyn Gage, in her “Woman, Church and State”, took a line still popular with feminists, that witches had been wise women and healers, persecuted by a misogynist Church jealous of female power.

Most remarkably of all, the eminent folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland published, in 1899, a book called “Aradia: or the Gospel of the Witches“, in which he claimed to have found the witch-cult still flourishing in northern Italy, and to have obtained first-hand accounts of its beliefs and practices. His witches were poor peasants, criminals and prostitutes; they worshipped the Goddess Diana and her daughter Aradia with feasts and orgies at the time of the full moon. Exactly how much of Leland’s work is true, and how much is fantasy, is still the subject of scholarly debate.

Sigmund Freud, the father of Psychoanalysis, was also at this time inclined to believe in the reality of witchcraft. In January of 1897 he wrote to his friend Fliess, saying that he was “toying with the idea that in the perversions… we may have the remains of a primitive sexual cult, which in the Semitic East may once have been a religion (Moloch, Astarte). I am beginning to dream of an extremely primitive devil-religion, the rites of which continue to be performed secretly; and I now understand the stern therapy of the witches’ judges.”

Based on the scholarship of his time, Holmes would have formed the impression that witchcraft was a real and very ancient religion, which had involved the worship of a pagan Goddess with orgiastic rites; and which might (as both Freud and Leland suggested) have survived into his own day, among the lower orders of society. In my novel we see him going in search of such a cult. If you want to know whether or not he finds it, you will have to read the book!

Don’t forget, dear readers, that the paperback of “A Case of Witchcraft” is available here on the British Amazon site; and the Kindle version here.

Our American cousins may buy the paperback here, and the Kindle version here.

Reviewing my Peers: Three MX Authors.

The same box which brought me the complementary copies of my own novel also contained three other works, by fellow MX authors, of which I shall give you a brief account.


Dan Andriacco’s “Baker Street Beat” is a slim volume of Holmesian writings of various kinds. The stand-out piece here is the excellent pastiche, “The Peculiar Persecution of John Vincent Harden”, which is very much in the manner of the original stories. I also enjoyed the time-travelling play “The Wrong Cab”, in which a modern American private eye becomes Holmes’s partner in a grisly mystery set in the Chamber of Horrors; and “Reichenbach Pilgrimage”, which gives a good account of what there is to be seen at the second most famous place in the Canon.
I have to take issue with Dan over his essay on “Writing the Holmes Pastiche”, however, since his rules would disallow any Holmesian fiction not written from Dr. Watson’s point of view, containing real historical characters, and having the word “Case” in the title! They are good enough rules if one is trying to produce an exact imitation of the original stories, I suppose; but some of us want to do something new with the beloved characters. For my part, I thought that it would be interesting to see Holmes at work without Watson, but instead trying to build a partnership with someone very different, to whom he could show another side of his personality; and I think that it comes off rather well, in my novel, when circumstances oblige him to team up with the young Aleister Crowley.

Gerard Kelly’s “The Outstanding Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes” is a very good imitation of Conan Doyle’s style and methods; the master himself would have been proud of some of these ingenious plots, and the characterization of Holmes and Watson is for the most part unobjectionable. As someone who has been doing a good deal of research into late Victorian manners and customs, however, I was aware of a few anachronisms, which might not disturb the common reader – the most annoying, to me, being Holmes’s extensive knowledge of the “Helvetica” typeface, which was not invented until the 1950’s. Also, there is a real ghost in one story – something that even the spiritualist Sir Arthur would not have allowed in the Sherlock Holmes universe. But people who like the Sherlock Holmes stories, and wish there were a few more of them, should certainly buy this book.

“Barefoot on Baker Street”, by Charlotte Anne Walters, is something very different. It is a hugely ambitious novel, which even describes itself as “epic” at one point. It tells us that, throughout the whole Canonical history of Holmes and Watson, there was another person present: a feisty criminal redhead who was intimately involved with both of them – and indeed with their enemy, Professor Moriarty.

The quality of Ms. Walters’ prose is… variable. To my mind it gets somewhat better as the novel goes on. Purist Holmesians will dislike this book for the liberties that it takes with our hero’s character, and indeed with his physical appearance – since Ms. Walters gives him, for some reason, eyes that are “perfectly brown, [of] a deep rich shade, full of intensity” (when everyone knows that Holmes’s eyes were grey). Students of the period might find it annoying that (for example) the heroine is said to be wearing a “bra” decades before such garments were in use.

But pedants such as myself are not really the target audience for a book such as this; it is aimed rather at a female readership that has for centuries delighted in the exploits of anti-heroines like Moll Flanders, Becky Sharp, and Scarlett O’Hara; and such readers may well enjoy the tumultuous adventures of the ruthless, sexy “Red”. It strikes me that this might make rather a good film. Directors take heed!

Don’t forget, dear readers, that the paperback of “A Case of Witchcraft” is available here on the British Amazon site; and the Kindle version here.

Our American cousins may buy the paperback here, and the Kindle version here.

The Religious Opinions of Sherlock Holmes.

The earliest evidence on this subject was given to the world in Chapter II of “The Sign of the Four” (written in 1889, but set in 1887 or 1888). There Holmes recommends to Watson a book which he describes as “one of the most remarkable ever penned”: Winwood Reade’s “The Martyrdom of Man”. Although the book is almost forgotten today, it was very famous in its time, having been denounced by no less a figure than Mr. Gladstone, along with other “irreligious works” such as the Biblical criticism of Strauss and the philosophy of Spencer. “The Martyrdom of Man” is basically a history of the world, including its religious history, from a secular, materialist point of view: it presents Jesus as a deluded fanatic. For Holmes to praise such a work was practically equivalent to declaring himself an atheist.

However, in the short stories which appeared from 1891 onwards, Holmes makes a number of comments which sound rather Christian. Most of these involve commonplace Victorian phrases such as “for God’s sake” (in the sentence “For God’s sake, Watson, say that you are not hurt!” from “The Three Garridebs”), and saying that he will do something “if God send me health” (in “The Four Orange Pips”). While phrases such as these do not necessarily imply any very strong or orthodox belief, they seem odd things for an atheist to say.

In “The Cardboard Box” (a story published in 1892, and set in 1888 or ’89), we find this remarkable passage: “What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.” This sounds like the language of someone who is not a Christian, but would rather like to be one.

The most explicitly Christian language occurs in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”, published in 1892, and set in 1889. At the end of the story, Holmes tells the guilty man, “Well, it is not for me to judge you”, adding, “I pray that we may never be exposed to such a temptation.” The man has only a few months to live, and Holmes tells him: “You are yourself aware that you will soon have to answer for your deed at a higher court than the Assizes.” After the man leaves, Holmes is silent for a while and then exclaims: “God help us! … I never hear of such a case as this that I do not think of Boswell’s words, and say: ‘There, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes.’”

After this it does not seem surprising for the Christmas story, “The Blue Carbuncle” (published in 1892, and set in 1890) to contain lines such as “it is just possible that I am saving a soul… Besides, it is the season of forgiveness.”
So it would seem that the atheist Holmes of 1887 had become a Christian by 1889. Did this conversion last?
The stories set after the Great Hiatus give us little data on this question, and what they do give us is rather confusing. On the one hand there are (in “The Three Garridebs” and “Lady Frances Carfax”, both probably set in 1902) a couple of passing references to “God”, which might be no more than figures of speech; on the other, there are stories which contain passages indicative of skepticism.

In “The Sussex Vampire”, published in 1921, and set either in 1896 (according to Baring-Gould) or 1901 (according to Brad Keefauver), Holmes dismisses the idea of the supernatural, saying: “But are we to give serious attention to such things? This Agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. This world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.”

Well, one might say, skepticism about ghosts and vampires is not quite the same as disbelief in God; but the skepticism goes further in a passage from “The Veiled Lodger” (published in 1927, and set in 1896):
“The ways of Fate are indeed hard to understand. If there is not some compensation hereafter then the world is a cruel jest.”

There is no confidence about the after-life here. Holmes seems to have returned to the state of agonized doubt that he expressed in “The Cardboard Box”.

The last word that we have on this subject comes in a story published in 1926, and set in 1898, “The Retired Colourman”. Holmes exclaims:

“But is not all life pathetic and futile?…. We reach. We grasp. And what is left in our hands at the end? A shadow. Or worse than a shadow — misery.”

My interpretation of the scanty data is that Holmes began as an atheist, then became a Christian (of sorts) in the late 1880’s, because he was troubled by the suffering in the world, and found some consolation in religion; but that later his natural skepticism reasserted itself.

These themes are explored in greater depth in my novel.

Don’t forget, dear readers, that the paperback of “A Case of Witchcraft” is available here on the British Amazon site; and the Kindle version here.

Our American cousins may buy the paperback here, and the Kindle version here.