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Have You Ever Thought About Ghost Stories?

This post is planned to be published before season 4 of Sherlock is released.

So recently, I’ve just finished reading the full Sherlock Holmes canon as an extension of my BBC Sherlock obsession, looking to further my knowledge and scope on the area. You can thank my latest obsession with the TJLC Explained videos on YouTube for this, which led me to as much meta (essays etc.) on historical and narrative context as to her video meta analysing the show.

One such meta claimed ghost stories are gay stories, and that was the one that really took me further away from the show and the original canon, and took me towards the actual tradition the canon came from. As in, now it’s not even about Sherlock Holmes; it’s about every narrative corresponding to the genre, the period that so much as reflects that tradition, and about queer coding within that setting and genre.

Through this meta, I’ve discovered Benson and M.R. James, both of which are writers that Sherlock writer Mark Gatiss is a fan of, I have plans to read Carmilla, and I’ve recently read Jekyll and Hyde. As well as all this, I have also discovered Rosamund Marriott Watson, because she has been referenced by Sherlock writer, Steven Moffat, when he announced in a real newspaper that John and Mary’s child carries a similar name to her:


Rosamund Marriott Watson was a poet, although I haven’t read much of what she’s written so far. The Bird-Bride is one of the poems I have read, though, and there is some significance to it.

Some members of TJLC (The Johnlock Conspiracy) claim the reasoning behind naming the child after this poet is because her poetry reflect John and Mary’s situation: because they are set to have a rocky marriage in season 4, naming their child after a poet who commonly writes poems of marriage troubles is particularly telling.

All these expanded interests started with the show, extended to the canon, then extended again to the period and the genre. That was the starting point for this new interest, and they have led me into the territory of recognising particular metaphors that seem particular to the Victorian period. Metaphors like watermirrors, and keys, some of which have been explained by TJLC Explained. These first two are more major themes in TJLC, the latter being a more minor but no less important metaphor. It isn’t just BBC Sherlock or the original canon which holds these metaphors: I’ve seen them in the Benson story, A Tale of an Empty House (the title itself seems reminiscent of the Holmes story, The Adventure of the Empty House), and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Metaphors like this have some grounding in Freudian theory, as it has been said that at least water in dreams has a symbolic meaning that carries a message to conscious mind. However, Freudian theory wasn’t published until at least 1895, in the middle of Holmes and Watson’s relationship.

There are a fair amount of mirrors in BBC Sherlock’s Hounds of Baskerville. Three in particular stuck out to me. First, in Henry Knight’s kitchen, when Sherlock first suggests going out onto the Hollow, we see Henry and Sherlock both dressed in similar colours, especially blue, and in that same scene, there is a mirror image of Henry on the far left of the screen in at least two shots. Further to that, we see many circles (from lens flare) in this episode, and this indicates emotion. It can perhaps be concluded that this emotion is what links them as mirrors, especially as the both later suffer the same fear on the moor.

Later, when they go out on the Hollow, Henry brings up Sherlock and John’s relationship, relating it to that of his father and Frankland’s relationship. We can take this as a further mirror that Sherlock is meant to stand for Henry’s father, and Frankland for someone else. If we follow Henry’s comparison, we can conclude that Frankland is John, and that these relationships are linked because there’s something unspoken between both of them. But by the conclusion of the episode, we discover that Frankland killed Henry’s father for this secret, and that he stands not for John, but Moriarty: we know this because Sherlock sees him in the fog, before his mind clears and he sees Frankland. This probably indicates that Sherlock is afraid of his relationship with John because he’s afraid of Moriarty taking him away.

Second, there’s Louise Mortimer. She is seen on at least two separate occasions wearing a different red dress, and then when Henry starts hallucinating that he’s being chased by the dog, we see a flash of red eyes, and the mirror is broken ― literally. And we see her, not the hunter but the hunted, and Henry is revealed as the monster. Dr Mortimer never believed him, and perhaps condescended him in the session we saw with them together. But she also told John, “You’re only a nutter if you’re wrong,” so perhaps she had knowledge or suspicions beyond what we knew. In the original canon, she definitely did, but she kept it to herself for the sake of the man who eventually attacked her, who in this version is Henry himself. So in both versions, she is perhaps not a mirror for the hound, simply connected to him. And in fact, Frankland, who is seen frequently hanging about with a watchful eye, interrupts her conversation with John in order to avoid exposure.

The final mirrors were the Cross Keys innkeepers mirroring John and Sherlock, especially in the scene when they and Lestrade were interviewing them. We first see Sherlock through a mirror beside which John is seen staring, though not perhaps at Sherlock as it at first appears, and then two separate mirrors aligning Sherlock with Billy the chef, and John with Gary (the Scot). Rebekah from TJLC Explained has said that they are the version of John and Sherlock who are together because they openly communicate with each other.  It’s obvious from the chefs glances at his partner that this isn’t just verbal communication, although John and Sherlock too communicate this way. The Cross Keys couple also mirror John and Sherlock through clothes, but in lighter colours.

We first see Sherlock in the mirror making coffee, but the mirror seems to be behind John, and we assume he’s staring at Sherlock. If he isn’t, the implication is that he appears to be more aware of Sherlock than he really is, and this could extend to their relationship too, and how they feel for each other. Then, we see John drinking the coffee to humour Sherlock, to make him feel better about their recent fight. The fact that these mirrors come so soon after Sherlock’s attempts to push John away is particularly telling: it says that they need to communicate more, to be honest about how they feel about each other. Sherlock gives John the coffee as what John assumes is a peace offering and what is really an experiment; they’re not there yet. But at least John is trying.

Through analysing this show and other narratives, I’m working towards being a better writer myself. And in fact, this isn’t my first time studying Victorian literature. I’ve also read a ghost story by another Victorian writer with the last name James, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. I fondly remember learning to craft a Jamesian sentence. You start with what’s called a meta-reflection, which is actually an impression. Then you move it forward with an action. And finally, you slow the pace with a conclusion that combines impression with true action.

For example: ‘A figure ー as if conjured by the light that burst across the sky ーsuddenly appeared, and I stood stock still has he came towards me, his ghostly pale flesh visible through an almost completely unbuttoned shirt, his dark eyes boring into me, punctuating each step with a pause before continuing until my back pressed against the hard wall and my heart fluttered in my chest.’

The above sentence is of my own making, but it is following the Jamesian sentence structure. 

Meta-reflection: “A figure ー as if conjured by the light that burst across the sky ー”
Action: “suddenly appeared, and I stood stock still has he came towards me”
Conclusion: “his ghostly pale flesh visible through an almost completely unbuttoned shirt, his dark eyes boring into me, punctuating each step with a pause before continuing until my back pressed against the hard wall and my heart fluttered in my chest.”
James, and Victorian writers in general, are said to have been fans of long, complex sentences, and James was a obvious example of this trend. Frequently, he also liked to use complex punctuation such as dashes and semicolons too, but he also frequently extended sentences with commas, as I have done here.

Ghost stories, like novels, like fanfiction, were the time’s underappreciated literary form. According to the above link, “We are part of the long tradition of women writing and being told their writing is not real and does not matter, that the things we love and value are worthless and foolish, for so long that we even begin to believe it.”

And this is something I’ve believed for a while, but I also believed myself capable of proving myself good enough anyway, though I’ve not believed my own skill level to be “there yet”. Although the above link is about fanfiction, as is my accompanying remark, how do you think novel writers or ghost story writers of the past felt? Not good enough? But even if so, they still followed their passion, because they needed to, at least for themselves. If ghost story writers added queer code, or anything else apart from the norm, it’s because they needed to subvert the norm, to write something that they saw themselves reflected in, as I do. So I will continue to think about these underappreciated art forms, and to learn from them. Because, I believe, I am one of them.