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The True Story behind "The Hound of the Baskervilles"

The True Story behind "The Hound of the Baskervilles"

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"Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!" exclaims Dr. Mortimer at the end of the first installment of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES that appeared in the STRAND magazine on August 1901. Readers who had waited impatiently for eight years for a new Sherlock Holmes adventure were not disappointed.

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES is only one of four novel length Holmes's stories, yet it is perhaps the best remembered and best loved of all the Sherlock Holmes's adventures. The powers of the supernatural apparently pitted against the cold, deductive logic of the world's greatest detective stir strong feelings even in today's readers.

In the August 28, 1964 installment of PEANUTS, Linus just finished reading THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES which Charlie Brown says is one of his favorite books. "It's isn't one of my favorite books," thinks Snoopy, "I don't care for any story where the dog comes out second best."

This is one of the few times the famous beagle was wrong. The Hound from Hell became as popular and as well known as Sherlock Holmes himself. In fact, just the mention of one of these characters usually calls to mind the other.

It is an atypical adventure for the Baker Street sleuth. He appears infrequently and does not take central focus in the story. Unknown to many readers is that Doyle's story was inspired by a true incident that had become legendary. Like many great writers, Doyle twisted the original facts somewhat for dramatic effect and was able to indulge in his own fascination with the spirit world in creating a moody mystery with a thrilling climax.

In the short preface to THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, Conan Doyle wrote: "My dear Robinson, it was to your account of a West Country legend that this tale owes its inception. For this and for all your help in the details, all thanks."

Bertram Fletcher Robinson was a writer who was a friend of Doyle's. Shortly after his return from the Boer War, Robinson invited Doyle to visit him at Ippleton in Devonshire. Supposedly, Robinson had been working on a story about the moor based on a 17th century legend with a demon hound. Doyle who had killed off Sherlock Holmes in "The Final Problem" was faced with a public outcry to produce more Holmes stories and quickly.

There is speculation that Doyle may have tried to adapt Robinson's story into a tale of Sherlock Holmes and that would explain why the great detective appears so little in the story. In the late Fifties, Doyle's son responded to such charges by stating: "Fletcher Robinson wrote not one word of the story. He refused my father's offer to collaborate and retired at an early stage of the project."

What all the sources agree on is that Doyle did indeed take a coach ride with Robinson over the moor to get the atmosphere of the place while Robinson recounted the story of Sir Richard Cabell, Lord of the Manor of Brooke. Lord Cabell was a man of well known evil repute. He was a very jealous man and one night he viciously accused his wife of having an affair.

Lady Cabell denied it. Enraged, Cabell beat her mercilessly. Somehow, she was able to break away from him and ran from the house, hoping to escape in the surrounding moors. The moors were a cold, desolate place. Lord Cabell caught up to her and in his enraged state killed her with one of his hunting knives.

Suddenly, a huge hound appeared. It was Lady Cabell's own faithful dog and it had followed the couple onto the moors. Seeing his mistress killed, the hound savagely attacked Cabell and after a fierce struggle, slaughtered the evil man. However, the hound itself had been fatally wounded by Lord Cabell's knife and in the morning the villagers found the poor animal lying dead beside his slain mistress.

According to local legend, the ghost of Lady Cabell's hound still roams the moors on the nights of the full moon, howling mournfully for its dead mistress. Another legend claims that on the night of Lord Cabell's death, black hounds breathing fire and smoke raced over nearby Dartmoor and howled around his manor house.

Lord Cabell's death took place in 1677. A small pagoda-like building called "The Sepulchre" was put over his grave to prevent him from returning to cause even more evil. "It is said that he will gnaw your finger if you venture to insert it in the keyhole of the locked door," wrote the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould.

Shortly after the publication of THE HOUND OF BASKERVILLE, Robinson began an investigation into an Egyptian mummy's curse and died of typhoid fever at the age of thirty-five. "...That is the way in which the 'elementals' guarding the mummy might act," said Doyle at the time. "I warned him against concerning himself with the mummy. I told him he was tempting fate by pursuing his inquiries, but he was fascinated and would not desist."

In 1959, Harry Baskerville who was then eighty-eight years old caused a minor stir by claiming that THE HOUND was primarily the work of Robinson. Adrian Doyle, Conan's son, disputed this claim by producing correspondence from Robinson. "It was Robinson who told my father about a West Country legend, but that was just about the extent of his contribution," said Adrian.

In Sir Arthur's preface to THE COMPLETE SHERLOCK HOLMES, he wrote, "Then came THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. It arose from a remark by that fine fellow whose premature death was a loss to the world, Fletcher Robinson, that there was a spectral dog near his home on Dartmoor. That remark was the inception of the book, but I should add that the plot and every word of the actual narrative was my own."

It has generally been assumed that the events of the story take place from Tuesday September 25th to Saturday October 20th, 1888 in the life of Sherlock Holmes.

When Conan Doyle had supposedly killed off Holmes in "The Final Problem" in 1893, there were people who wept openly and others who went to work wearing mourning bands. Readers implored Doyle, editors cajoled him, publishers tried to bribe him and some people even threatened him but Doyle refused to bring back the famous detective he had grown to loathe because those tales eclipsed everything else of value Doyle felt he was doing.

When he finally relented after eight years and released THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, he was careful to make sure the dates of the adventure took place before Holmes's death at Reichenbach Falls. He wanted it to be not a resurrection of his hero but merely a previously unpublished adventure.

The circulation of STRAND magazine which published the story in installments soared an additional 30,000 copies an issue beginning with the first installment in August 1901. The magazine could not print enough copies fast enough to meet the demand. Long lines formed so that people could purchase copies straight from the presses. (Those issues also had H.G. Wells's THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON also appearing in installments but it was apparent that it was the Holmes's story that was generating the extra readership.)

When THE HOUND was brought out in book form in 1902, it was issued in both England America at the same time and Holmes's fans again pressured Doyle for more adventures. Doyle finally surrendered and in 1903 released the first short story in a series of thirteen that would make up THE RETURN OF SHERLOCK HOLMES.

THE HOUND was a success everywhere. In 1907, a stage version of the story was performed in Germany with great acclaim. Even the Kaiser attended a performance. In 1916, a Spanish stage version was produced. On screen, the first movie based on THE HOUND was released by a German company in 1914. It was titled DER HUND VON BASKERVILLE and was so popular that six sequels were made. However, the sequels had nothing in common with Doyle's original story.

The first English language film based on THE HOUND was produced in 1921. When the hound of hell finally made his appearance, there was flickering hellfire bursting from him. The effect was achieved by scratching the flames on the negative of the film, frame by frame. There was another German film version in 1929 and another English version in 1932. Germany remade the film a third time in 1937 and a copy of this film was found in Hitler's private film library at Berchtesgaden.

For modern audiences, perhaps the best version was the American made production in 1939. Twentieth Century Fox brought together for the first time the acting team of Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson. It was considered the first Sherlock Holmes film that placed the character in the proper Victorian context. Although there are minor variations in the film from Doyle's original story, it captured the spirit of Sherlock with amazing accuracy resulting in another film made by Fox, THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, also featuring Rathbone and Bruce. The acting team would later recreate the HOUND story on a radio show.

Twenty years later, Hammer Films in England presented the story in color for the first time. With Peter Cushing as Holmes, the Hammer version added needless additions including a ruined Abbey with a sacrificial slab and a webbed hand on Sir Hugo and on Stapleton. By the way, this was the very first color film that featured the famous detective. (Peter Cushing later appeared in a television series on the BBC where he again played Holmes and in a two part episode again battled the hound from hell.)

In 1972, a made for television version for American television featured Stewart Granger as Holmes battling the demon dog. This version is little remembered by most film fans. Jeremy Brett as Sherlock struggled with THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES in an extended version of the 1988 Granada's television series.

Just recently in December of 2002, the BBC premiered a special version of the story with Richard Roxburgh (from MOULIN ROUGE) as Sherlock and the fabled hound done in CGI. U.K. based Crawly Creatures did the conceptual design and built the animatronic. The actual computer animation was done by Framestore CFC (who worked on DINOTOPIA) after they scanned in the animatronic and built the CG model from that scan. Scott Griffin, visual effects producer of Framestone, told Ryan Ball for ANIMATION MAGAZINE that "I would say that 90% (of what you see on screen) is actually animated digitally. There's lots of mauling and that was done using the animatronic head close-up where you need to get that interaction. But then all the chase work and menacing growling and all that we did digitally. We worked hard on the digitally animated fur, especially with the thing meant to be in ill health with sort of bloody and matted hair from falling in mud-just to give it that look of a sort of worn dog instead of having a nice fluffy poodle type thing ... It's big. It's very big. Very vicious looking, big teeth. If I saw it coming around the corner, I'd run a mile."

As the most physically action packed episode of Holmes and certainly the one that offers the most opportunity artistically, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES has been a favorite of comic strip and comic book writers and artists who have tried to adapt the story. From CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED to William Barry's short lived comic strip, MR. HOLMES OF BAKER STREET, it was the most frequently adapted Holmes story. In the Sherlock Holmes's comic strip of the mid-50s (written by Edith Meiser, a writer on the Sherlock Holmes radio show and drawn by Frank Giacoia a well known comic book artist who did some work for Marvel in the Sixties among numerous other credits), the adaptation is obviously inspired by the 1939 film in terms of visual staging. The newspaper strip was authorized by the Doyle Estate and had the input of the Baker Street Irregulars, the reknowned Sherlockian scholars. Before Malibu Graphics was absorbed by Marvel Comics, the company was planning reprinting this fast moving comic strip adaptation and I was going to provide an introduction to the collection.

There are many more stories to tell about THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES from the 1983 Australian animated adaptation (68 minutes long and available on video and DVD) which showcased Peter O'Toole as the voice of Sherlock Holmes to all the animated parodies like "The Hound of the Arbuckles" (1990 from GARFIELD AND FRIENDS) where Garfield the Cat dreams he is Sherlock Holmes after watching the film THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES on television. CHIP AND DALE RESCUE RANGERS had the episode "Pound of the Baskervilles"(1989) which was loaded with Sherlock Holmes references. Even Scooby Doo and the gang got involved with "Hound of the Scoobyvilles" (1983). SHERLOCK HOUND, the Japanese animated series from Japan where the regular Holmes's characters are actually canine characters deserves a separate column.

But for now, it is best to return to the library shelf and pull down the classic story itself and re-read how the demon hound is stalking the innocent Sir Henry Baskerville whose only salvation lies in the skills of Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson. It is a story worth re-reading and will obviously inspire many more film and animated adaptations in the future.

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  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a series of mysteries that the main character Detective Sherlock Holmes solved. The ordeals he went through with his loyal assistant Dr. Watson. Famous line ' Elemantary, My dear Watson!', he'd often say to the flabbergasted man.

    The Hound of the Baskervilles I think was one of his best works and the story line is full of suspenseful scenes as was his hallmark.

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading CDs books while growing up. If the story was based on real events (believable to an extent) then there still are remnanats of that landscape where they unfolded. It must be something to tour the areas depicted therein. Amazing work!


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