By Rose Franklin
Few fictional characters have attained the level of fame that British writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has held for over a century. The eccentric detective was first introduced to readers in the late 1800s through a series of short stories and novels that quickly captivated British and American audiences, whose interest persisted long after Doyle ceased writing new tales. Today, the character’s popularity still has not waned. Several recent adaptations have helped to bring Sherlock Holmes’s adventures into the twenty-first century by reimagining the characters and situations in a contemporary setting. Among these is the award-winning television series Sherlock. Broadcast on the BBC in the U.K. and PBS in the U.S., Sherlock depicts Doyle’s sleuth as a modern-day “consulting detective” who investigates cases in London with the aid of his flatmate, John Watson. In keeping with the original stories, Sherlock’s Holmes relies on logic and meticulous observation – along with the aid of today’s forensic science – to solve the mysteries he confronts.
In the episode “The Hounds of Baskerville,” Holmes sets out to investigate a report of a monstrous creature, confident that he will uncover a truth far less astonishing than the rumors surrounding the case. The episode is loosely based on Doyle’s novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. In the original text, the monster is frightening because it initially seems to suggest the existence of a supernatural force that undermines Holmes’s scientific worldview. Sherlock changes this by positing from the start that the monster has been created by modern-day scientific means, thus transforming the story to reflect contemporary fears. In the end, however, the episode, like the novel, presents a human being as the story’s true monster. When all of the facts are uncovered, blame for the atrocities associated with the creature rests not on modern science, but on an individual who abuses that science to further his own ambition.
In the original story, Holmes is asked to investigate the death of Sir Charles Baskerville, whose estate, Baskerville Hall, is supposedly cursed. Legend says that a spectral hellhound has haunted the family ever since an ancestor made a deal with the devil (Doyle 14-17), and, though Sir Charles’s death has officially been attributed to a heart attack, “the footprints of a gigantic hound” have been found near the body (26). Holmes’s investigation ultimately reveals that no such creature exists; the illusion of one has been created as part of a scheme to murder Sir Charles and his son, Sir Henry, for their wealth. The television episode retains this basic plot structure but also diverges significantly from the novel.
One of the most striking differences is that the modern-day Baskerville is not an estate but an army base where research on biological and chemical weaponry is conducted, and the monstrous hound has supposedly been created through genetic engineering. At the beginning of the episode, Holmes and Watson speak with a young man named Henry Knight who believes he has encountered the monster. Years ago, according to his story, the monster killed Knight’s father, who “was always going on about the things they were doing at Baskerville” (“Hounds”). Knight claims that he has recently returned to the location and has seen the hound’s footprints in the spot where his father died.
The change from a supposedly supernatural monster to one created by scientific means is significant because, as scholar Jeffrey Jerome Cohen notes, monsters often represent cultural fears. In his article “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” Cohen states that “[t]he monster is born only at [a] metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment” (4). Cohen also argues that, as cultural concerns shift, monsters evolve to reflect those shifts. A monster must always be analyzed anew “against contemporary social movements or a specific, determining event” (5). In other words, a monster that embodies a certain fear in one text may be used in a later text to represent a different, more contemporary fear. This is exemplified by the way Sherlock adapts the rumors surrounding the purported existence of the monstrous hound. Stories that feature supernatural creatures do continue to interest contemporary audiences, but “The Hounds of Baskerville” taps into more salient concerns regarding the possibilities posed by genetic engineering.
As in Doyle’s novel, Holmes disproves the story initially given to explain the monster’s origins. Again, however, Sherlock revises the story to reflect a contemporary fear. Whereas the monster in the original story turns out to be an ordinary dog painted with phosphorus (Doyle 225), a series of clues leads the modern-day Holmes to discover that the beast is a hallucination produced by a “new deliriant drug” created in the 1980s – an endeavor known as Project H.O.U.N.D. (“Hounds”). Research on the drug was shut down in 1986, but Holmes ascertains that Dr. Frankland, one of the scientists working on the project, has been covertly continuing to develop the drug at Baskerville. On the night Henry Knight’s father was killed, he discovered Frankland experimenting on the moor, and Frankland murdered him to prevent him from exposing his activities. Knight himself was under the influence of the drug, which takes the form of a gas that is dispersed in the air, and the monster he saw when he witnessed the murder was a hallucination.
The conjecture that monsters are being genetically engineered at Baskerville is disproven, but the facts that Holmes uncovers do, to an extent, validate the fears that underlie the rumors surrounding the military base. The work that Dr. Frankland has illicitly continued at Baskerville has frightening implications. The aim of Project H.O.U.N.D. was to develop “an anti-personnel weapon to totally disorient the enemy using fear and stimulus” (“Hounds”). Furthermore, the drug that was created had unintended effects on test subjects; as Holmes finds, “[p]rolonged exposure drove them insane” and “made them almost uncontrollably aggressive” (“Hounds”). The threat posed by the existence of such a compound is manifold. The possibility that such a weapon could be utilized in warfare raises concerns in and of itself, but the nature of the weapon is particularly frightening. Not only does it heighten suggestibility and produce hallucinations that render the subject unable to trust his or her own perceptions of reality, but it also induces long-lasting effects that involve a loss of control of one’s own mind and behavior. Baskerville may not be engineering and losing control of “[r]ats as big as dogs … and dogs the size of horses” as many believe (“Hounds”), but work is indeed being performed by Frankland that the public is not entirely unjustified in fearing.
Sherlock makes it clear, however, that the blame lies with Dr. Frankland himself, not with the research facility as a whole or with science in general. Project H.O.U.N.D. was officially suspended when researchers realized the horrific effects that the drug had on test subjects. Frankland, however, had become obsessed with the project by the time it was shut down, and, still convinced that it is possible to make the drug a viable weapon, continues to illegally work on developing it on the moors around Baskerville. When Knight, affected by repeated exposure, is driven to the point of suicide, Holmes attempts to reason with him and, explaining his findings, asserts, “It wasn’t an animal … Not a monster. A man” (“Hounds”). The deliriant created by Project H.O.U.N.D. may be frightening, but Frankland himself – not the science or technology that he employs to achieve his ends – is ultimately exposed as the culprit behind Knight’s father’s murder and Knight’s own suffering. In adapting Doyle’s novel to a twenty-first century setting, “The Hounds of Baskerville” plays on and reflects contemporary fears regarding the implications of modern-day scientific and technological research. As in the original text, however, unchecked human obsession and ambition prove to be more monstrous than either the hound itself or the method used to produce it.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Regents of the University of Minnesota, 1996, pp. 3-25.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Hound of the Baskervilles. Grosset and Dunlap, 1902.
“The Hounds of Baskerville.” Sherlock: Season Two, written by Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat, and Steve Thompson, directed by Paul McGuigan and Toby Haynes, Warner Home Video Inc., 2012.