THE WINNING SHOT
Arthur Conan Doyle was the master of the short story. I have been recently reading his short story collections and right now I’m in the middle of “The Unknown Conan Doyle: Uncollected Stories” The volume I have is the original edition edited by John Michael Gibson and Richard Lancelyn Green. It is also available in trade paperback from the Cambridge Scholars Publishing Classic Texts, but without the Gibson and Green introduction and the original print date of the stories.
Doyle reused and developed plots, ideas and scenes throughout his writing career and the Sherlockian will find many nuggets of interest. For example, “Our Midnight Visitor” (1891) takes place on the isle of Uffa. Watson mentions “the singular adventures of the Grice Patersons in the island of Uffa” in “The Five Orange Pips” (also 1891) and Sherlockians have long speculated where it was located. “Our Midnight Visitor” places it on the western side, two miles off-shore, of the island of Arran (Scotland). There are no Grice Patersons in "Our Midnight Visitor", but there are mysterious doings.
The story I want to talk about is “The Winning Shot” (1883), a 28-page story told in the first person by Lottie Underwood that slowly builds in mystery and horror. Lottie, her friends and family are spending the autumn holidays at Colonel Pillar’s place at Roborough on the edge of the Dartmoor wilderness. Lottie and her fiancé Charley take an after dinner stroll onto the moor, as young lovers do, to a small pool backed by “two great columns of rock”. Looking up, both are frightened: “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 the 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.”
A scene that stayed with Doyle and was reworked to greater effect in “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1901-1902): “And it was at this moment that there occurred a most strange and unexpected thing. We had risen from our rocks and were turning to go home, having abandoned the hopeless chase. 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.”
The man who frightened Lottie and Charley was Doctor Octavius Gaster of Sweden, who it turns out, has had as many “remarkable explorations” as “a Norwegian named Sigerson”. Gaster had “a long, thin face of ghastly pallor, the effect being increased by its contrast with the faring 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.” It is a detail Doyle later gave to Hugh Boone: “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.” (The Man with the Twisted Lip”, 1891)
Gaster relates one of his adventures. A friend, Karl Osgood of Upsala, and he started a trading venture at Cape Blanco, escape attack from Moors by putting out to sea in a canoe and drifted to the Canary Islands. “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 that made up for by the blood that you would lose!’
“He laughed at my words, caught the knife from by belt, cut them off and eat them; and he died.
“’Eat what?’ asked Charley.
“’His ears!’ said the stranger.” Doyle would rework the sea-going mutilation in “The Cardboard Box” (1893).
Gaster is invited to stay at Colonel Pillar’s and soon becomes part of the household. Besides his strength and knowledge of far-off lands, he shows powers of mesmerism over a fierce bulldog. Lovecraftians will be interested in his reading a book in Arabic: “It treats of the days when mind was stranger that what you call matter; when great spirits lived that were able to exist without these coarse bodies ours, and could mould all things to their so-powerful wills.” Lottie finds a newspaper cutting that caused Gaster much merriment detailing the death of the captain of a Swedish steamer from heart disease the day after having a fight with the ship’s surgeon, calling him a necromancer and devil-worshipper.
As the reader will suspect, Gaster declares his love for Lottie, Charley punches him, and Gaster leaves Roborough swearing revenge. An older Doyle might have told this story more economically, but he is very effective in writing in a first person female voice and in building suspense. He would not forget the outré touches he gave “The Winning Shot” and use them again for Sherlock Holmes.