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Investigations

Cole Sternberg, honey, 2012, Courtesy the artist and KM Fine Arts. Via Artsy.

Hunting the Hound

A lifelong phobia is the result of a terrifying childhood incident. But the real culprit may be Arthur Conan Doyle.

It’s sometime in 1989, I’m seven years old, and I’m most likely in Tucson, Ariz., exploring an unfamiliar neighborhood. I’ve been on a little walkabout, perhaps with my cousin, perhaps not. But now I’m alone. And I’m running! Behind me, galloping at a terrific speed, is an enormous black dog—or at least it’s enormous to me. I turn to look at it, and it’s gaining on me. It has red eyes. In an instant the dog leaps into the air and knocks me down. Its huge paws pin me to the ground. It sniffs me with cruel indifference and barks and snarls a bit before, well, moving on.

The big scary dog memory has scampered around my brain attic for 28 years or so. I’ve had a phobia of dogs—science calls this “cynophobia”— for ages; even doggie pics on Tinder and Instagram can make me a little anxious.

My phobia of dogs isn’t as bad as it used to be, but let’s just say a permanent canine in residence might be a deal breaker for a long-term couplehood or roommate situation. Not loving dogs makes me a massive pariah in nine out of 10 social situations, which is more like a real-life Amy Schumer sketch than an actual problem. And I honestly wish I did love dogs. But how did this happen? How do seemingly innocuous murky memories permanently make us afraid of certain animals? And could fiction be to blame?

 

Arguably the most famous demon-dog story ever is Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. My elementary school’s library had an edition of the book with a cover like this: a black dog with red eyes standing in a green hoary mist, spittle oozing from its jaws, while the vague silhouette of someone in a cloak (Sherlock Holmes?) lurks in the background. I was totally captivated and scared shitless by the horrific power of this book, which is why I never finished reading it until after I got into watching the cartoon version of Ghostbusters. As an adult, I eventually became a super-fan of all things Holmes, but left The Hound on the periphery of my love for this rich fictional universe. Recently though, in rereading The Hound of the Baskervilles for the first time since I don’t know when, I started to worry that my fear of dogs and my exposure to this book were inexorably intertwined. Did I lose the ability to distinguish fact from fiction long ago?

At the start of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes and his partner Watson are presented with an archaic legend of a demon hound that has plagued a family for generations. Right away, Holmes is sure that there can be no such evil, supernatural dog, either in the past or the present. Which perhaps explains why Holmes initially doesn’t leave London. Instead, he sends Watson out to the countryside in his place. For a large portion of the novel (six of the 15 chapters) Watson is alone, sending letters back to Holmes about what he’s discovered, which makes the mystery simultaneously deeper and harder to grasp.

Investigating my own childhood memories started to feel pretty much exactly like sending Dr. Watson to do the job of Sherlock Holmes.

Opinions are mixed on how children and adults acquire phobias of specific animals, but there is usually there is some kind of childhood trauma involved. However, psychologists also believe that direct traumatic experiences aren’t the sole way we can become fearful. In 1977, Dr. Stanley Rachman authored a paper called “The Conditioning Theory of Fear Acquisition,” the notion that observed or reinforced notions of certain fears can, in fact, give rise to phobias. Reading or being told to fear something specifically might actually be enough to create a predilection to fearing a certain thing. When I spoke to a neuroscientist over the phone—Dr. Erin Falconer of Otsuka Pharmaceutical—she agreed with this idea and outlined for me something called the priming effect: “We’re more likely to attend positively to an experience if we’ve been primed to have a positive association with whatever that experience is…what we’re attending to greatly changes memory associations…and what if what you’re attending to also primes you for certain associations, everything can be affected by that.”

Maria Konnikova, a prominent psychology writer and a fellow-Sherlock Holmes super-fan, writes about the priming effect and how it relates to memory in her book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes:

Memory is highly imperfect, and highly subject to change and influence. Even our observations themselves, while accurate enough to begin with, may end up affecting our recall, and hence, our deductive reasoning, more than we think. We must be careful lest we let something that caught our attention, whether because it is out of all proportion (salience) or because it just happened (recency) or because we’ve been thinking about something totally unrelated (priming and framing)…

There’s an awful lot of suspicious recency with my scary dog memory and the exposure to my school’s copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles. For all I know, checking out this book and my supposed encounter with my own demon dog could have happened back-to-back. For a comparison between my childhood memory and the dangerous hound of Doyle’s, here’s a notoriously freaky passage from the novel:

A hound it was, an enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen. Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smouldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined in flickering flame. Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish, be conceived than the dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog.

My copy of The Hound probably featured this excerpt for the copy on the back cover. And from this time forward, I would live in sickening dread of having to go to the home of a friend or relative who owned a dog. The Dobermans owned by my Uncle Kevin in Sedona had red eyes, eyes that became redder when they barked; I was sure of it. When I was in high school, my best friend Ty’s dog almost certainly breathed fire. And as an adult living in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, in 2010, I was sure my roommate Theo’s Yorkshire terrier was going to destroy me. It sounds ridiculous, but just like the curse of the Baskervilles haunted multiple generations of that fictional family, my fear stayed with me from childhood through adulthood like an unshakeable phantom. If I turned around to look, I was sure I’d see that dog chasing me still.

 

The general public got its first exposure to The Hound of the Baskervilles 114 years ago. In August 1901, the Strand Magazine published the novel’s first installment. Because Sherlock Holmes had “died” in the 1893 short story “The Final Problem,” it had been eight years since a Holmes story had appeared at all. Fans were pumped: Like a dark knight rising, Holmes was back. But The Hound of the Baskervilles wasn’t a true resurrection story. Instead it was a flashback, described in its first printing as “Another Adventure of Sherlock Holmes.” Notably, this adventure was the first time Doyle presented Holmes as anything other than a contemporary fictional character in a contemporary setting: This story was deliberately retro; a Victorian tale published in 1901. In his 2015 book The Great Detective, Zach Dundas observes that “the infusion of the Gothic atmosphere isn’t the only significant development in the The Hound of the Baskervilles. With this novel, Conan Doyle makes an unwitting but critical alteration to the essences of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: he turns them into nostalgic figures.”

This leads me to a confession: As a grown-up, I’ve never really liked this book. Yes, I’m a 34-year-old semi-professional fan of Sherlock Holmes and all his related literary constellations, and this might sound crazy, but for years, I’ve maintained—often gesticulating while clutching a gin and tonic—that The Hound of the Baskervilles doesn’t deserve to be nearly as famous as it is. It’s just “not that good.” My reasons were the inverses of Dundas’s assertion about the nostalgia aspect: The Hound smacks of a sell-out story, something Doyle did because he could do it, not because he wanted to. In the introduction to the 2001 Penguin Classics edition of the novel, Christopher Frayling chronicles the history of the way the book was written: “Neither Fletcher Robinson [a pseudo co-writer] nor Conan Doyle thought of The Hound of the Baskervilles as a Sherlock Holmes novel at this early stage...” Additionally, Frayling outlines exactly how Conan Doyle initially pitched the story to the Strand Magazine, a British mystery magazine, and then later, when he decided to retroactively make it into a Holmes adventure, he re-pitched it and asked for double the money.

“I staunchly determined to put off reading the book until I could do so under just the right conditions. At the very least, I required a dark and stormy night.”

The Hound is also jarring structurally because it’s not set in Holmes’s London. Granted, while many of the Holmes stories feature him gallivanting around the English countryside, for most of this book we’re in or around Baskerville Hall, a sort of mashup of Castle Dracula and Downton Abbey. With dumb ponies wandering into bogs and mist fucking up everything, it’s more like the planet Dagobah from The Empire Strikes Back than it is the Victorian metropolis of the majority of Holmesian adventures.

How, then, could The Hound of the Baskervilles be the best and most famous Sherlock Holmes story to so many people? This used to incense me. As a literary critic and “serious” Holmes fan, I was sure I’d landed on the tale’s one elemental truth: It was only popular because it was popular. But this year in researching my feelings about The Hound, I read Zach Dundas’s The Great Detective, in which he convincingly draws a picture of Doyle and this journalist buddy Fletcher Robinson hanging out on a vacation to Dartmoor, basically telling ghost stories to each other. This makes it seem a little more organic and less like a sell-out story. The genesis of The Hound was just as Doyle said repeatedly: He was attempting to write “a real creeper.” So, one way of liking and embracing the popularity of The Hound is to remember it’s an excellent thriller, even if it’s not a great Sherlock Holmes story.

Nicholas Meyer—writer of numerous Holmes pastiches including The Seven Per-Cent Solution, director and writer of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and a sort of pen pal of mineconfirmed some of my suspicions. “The short stories are the true masterpieces…but I’ll never forget my first sleepless night with The Hound of the Baskervilles. I know Holmes was added into the story later now, but there’s something about it that keeps you turning the pages.” For Meyer and for me, this novel wasn’t necessarily representative of the overall brilliance of Sherlock Holmes, but it is a legitimately frightening page turner, which maybe is enough to certify it as a classic. In her essay “The Hound Isn’t the Point,” Sherlockian and mystery novelist Lyndsay Faye asserts that “we think we know such horrors do not exist. But we aren’t sure. And that uncertainty is what plagues us.”

 

In his book On Conan Doyle, Michael Dirda begins by telling us that he intentionally read The Hound of the Baskervilles in a certain way. “I staunchly determined to put off reading the book until I could do so under just the right conditions. At the very least, I required a dark and stormy night…” In 2012, my good friend Michael and I created a similar dark and stormy night situation for experiencing The Hound; all the lights off in his tiny Brooklyn apartment while we each clutched a Jameson on the rocks. We were watching the Benedict Cumberbatch version of the story for the show Sherlock, which, weirdly enough, deals with a false childhood memory. False childhood memory doesn’t play a role in the prose version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, but in the Sherlock version, the client who brings the case to Holmes and Watson is later revealed to have substituted a monster in his memory in place of murderous man. This scared the crap out of me. The notion that the Hound was imagined by a child was terrifying. In the pitch black of Michael’s apartment, after I jumped out of my seat for the umpteenth time and spilled my whiskey, he turned to me and said, “Hey, are you OK, man?”

I nodded. But the fact was, I was more frightened by my own mind than I was by the Hound of the Baskervilles, or rather I was frightened that my mind was my Hound of the Baskervilles. I realized I was in fact a little too comfortable with my fear. Like a family legend, it was something I was used to and therefore something I didn’t question. Did I create my own monster? Was my phobia fueled partially by a scary image of a dog, but also by a choice to keep on believing in a story that may have never happened?

Credit: Matthias Ripp

The “memory” of this dog-chasing incident is pretty much as I described it earlier, but over the years my mother has corroborated the details of it many times, albeit with some changes. Most recently, when I talked to her on the phone, Mom said I was chased by a large dog in an unfamiliar Tucson neighborhood while taking a walk one Thanksgiving. Like a big fish story, my mother’s version of this seems to grow more and more elaborate over the years. In early versions I was hysterical and inconsolable for days. Sometimes I was gone for hours, returning as a mess of snot and tears, eventually spilling the details amid groans and sobs. And then, in this very cotemporary phone chat, my mom said the incident took place at or around Thanksgiving, and that I was left alone by a cousin who should have been watching me. Coincidentally, the detail of my cousin was never mentioned before and bizarrely parallels the involvement of Sir Henry Baskerville’s secret cousin, Stapleton, who was the mastermind and true villain of the whole Hound conspiracy.

In her 2013 TED talk on false memories, memory expert Elizabeth Loftus asserts: “Memory works a little bit more like a Wikipedia page: You can go in there and change it, but so can other people.” When I spoke to Loftus over the phone last month, I asked her if my faulty memories could have been self-selected. “Of course you may have selected this memory,” she said. “Auto-selection does happen with false memories, though the suggestions from your mother certainly could have an impact, too.”

When I asked Loftus why I may have selected this memory, she politely declined to answer and told me the kinds of cases she gets involved with are “usually a little more high stakes.” We ended our call shortly after that. Basically, if Elizabeth Loftus is a real-life Sherlock Holmes and I was trying to hire her, she was booting me out of 221-B Baker Street for simply not having enough of a real mystery. Or at least not one that she could hope to solve for me.

As a backstory to the start of the novel, the previous (and late) tenant of Baskerville Hall—Sir Charles Baskerville—goes totally bonkers because the legend of the Hound looms large enough in his personal mythology as to be close enough to real. But the truth, as Holmes discovers, is there is no supernatural demon canine, merely a dog painted with phosphorous so as to glow in the dark and scare the crap out of dim-witted countryside folk and, potentially, local aristocracy. I love my mom and my late father, but there’s a chance that they helped support my phobia of this big scary dog because I wanted the memory of my own monster dog to be real.

Most of us are Watsons. We don’t question our memories and we cling to the stories we’ve told ourselves to justify the way we behave.

Climatically and seemingly faced with no options, Holmes blows the dog away with “five barrels” from his revolver. Here, The Hound of the Baskervilles has its scary monster cake and eats it, too: Holmes shoots and kills the monster, only to discover there was never a monster at all. And just because I’ve talked to a few scientists and done some homework, I have not become a brain expert anymore than Dr. Watson can suddenly become Sherlock Holmes. Nor have any of these experts handed me the intellectual equivalent of a loaded revolver, one capable of blowing away false or dubious memories. Like Watson, I’m on my own.

Right before the plot of The Hound of the Baskervilles begins, Holmes famously declares that Watson is not “luminous,” but that he can be a “conductor of light.” It’s a sort of backhanded compliment that also describes how many of our regular-person brains actually work. In Mastermind, Konnikova contrasts two ways of thinking and observing as “System Watson” and “System Holmes,” the former being most people, and the latter being, well, decidedly more awesome and efficient. For me the essential difference between these two thinking patterns is this: A Holmes brain has way fewer biases than a Watson brain.

Most of us are Watsons. We don’t question our memories and we cling onto the stories we’ve told ourselves over and over to justify the way we behave in the world. We tell ourselves stories all the time in order to solve mysteries we’re incapable of solving. We are not detectives. I may never solve the mystery of my personal Hound of the Baskervilles; I live in a world where Sherlock Holmes doesn’t exist. Instead, he’s an ideal my brain strives for, a Platonic form of intellectual acuity I may reach for, but never achieve. In all versions of this story, Watson is infinitely more frightened of the Hound than Sherlock is. And yet, The Hound of the Baskervilles may metaphorically be the most comforting Holmes story of them all, precisely because Watson is all alone in the dark for most of it.

I’m not sure if I care anymore whether the memory of my personal Hound was real or not. The hound of the Baskervilles in The Hound of the Baskervilles is both doubly real and doubly fake: It exists as a demon dog and a regular dog in the story. And its existence in our pop culture’s unconscious memory is the same: It’s a real dog and a demon dog. With that many permutations, its impact on me and so many others is tangible even if the beast itself might not be. These days, I’m not as fearful of dogs as I used to be and, as corny as it sounds, I think that’s because I’ve acquired a little bit of Watson-esque courage. When we’re navigating the swamps and bogs of our own minds and the creaking Baskerville Halls of our childhoods, we’re alone on those adventures, too. Frightened, trying to be brave in our own heads, and if we’re lucky, becoming accidental conductors of light.