Written by H.R. Knight
Published by Leisure Books
Imagine, if you will, that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the most famous detective of all time — Sherlock Holmes, got into his own sort of adventures during his time. Add to that the famous escape artist Harry Houdini, traveling the streets of London and fighting the forces of evil, and you’ve got yourself quite a cool concept to work with.
Such is the premise of What Rough Beast, the latest offering from H. R. Knight. Told from the perspective of Conan Doyle, this is the kind of fun, fast paced adventure/horror story one wishes most films could be nowadays. In fact, envisioning it as a film makes me wish that Hollywood paid a bit more attention to the horror fiction coming from the good folks at Leisure Horror, because if done right this one could be a blockbuster.
It’s the late 19th century in London, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is trying to relax and take some time off after killing off Holmes in his last story. To say the least the public is not thrilled with this conclusion to the detective’s great adventures, and they’re sure to tell him at every chance they get. His wife is bedridden in their home many miles away, but Doyle is forced to travel to London on business. While there he decides to take his son to a Houdini show to see if the artist is really all he’s billed as, and winds up involved in the man’s stage show when one of his tricks goes wrong.
After narrowly escaping a very public death, Houdini has his suspicions as to who is responsible for the attempted murder and enlists the help of Conan Doyle to prove his suspicions. This leads them to the house of medium Maximillian Cairo, who claims to be able to speak to the dead and invites the grief stricken to his home for séances in which he channels their dead love ones. Houdini successfully disproves the man’s showy display of contacting the dead, but Cairo is so upset by his actions that he invites all the participants involved back the next night for a real conjuring.
He promises to bring forth the god Dionysus, who is in control of both inspiration and violence according to Greek legend. Houdini, Conan Doyle, and the rest of the group witness something beyond the capacity for rational explanation, but Houdini still manages to break the circle that is supposed to keep the beast from our plane, unleashing it upon an unsuspecting London.
Soon the members of the group begin to be inspired beyond their usual capacity, which is shortly followed by their overwhelming desire to commit all manner of despicable acts. Conan Doyle and Houdini soon begin to suspect that Cairo has indeed called forth some beast, and they’re forced to discover the truth before all of London descends into madness and debauchery.
Unlike most wordslingers working today, Knight seems to have a wonderful sense of adventure in his writing. Events move so fast from start to finish that it’s almost impossible to take a break to set the book down. What Rough Beast has wonderfully drawn three dimensional characters, making it very clear that Knight has a deep respect for and knowledge of Holmes’ creator, as well as the incomparable Houdini. Essentially the events in this book serve as the catalyst for Houdini to go on the search for fake mediums the world over, a task he pursued until his death and has made him even more famous.
Along with his knack for a quickly paced adventure story, Knight also has a solid grasp on what makes good horror work as well. He never pulls away from the violence or debauchery caused by the beast, but somehow manages to maintain an almost innocent perspective through the eyes of the noble Conan Doyle. It gives the story as a whole the feel of good ultimately triumphing over evil, though the truth of the beast’s intentions and his ultimate goal is more complicated than it would first appear.
I wish I could say I was familiar with the writing and/or life of Conan Doyle, but sadly he’s one author I’ve never read anything by. After reading What Rough Beast and thrilling in the deductive reasoning Conan Doyle himself uses to figure out certain inherit mysteries, I’m going to have to go out and remedy that soon, and I can only hope the trials and tribulations of Sherlock Holmes are half as exciting and just downright cool as this book.
4 out of 5
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