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According to Wikipedia (section "Technique" in the Wikipedia page for the famous Sherlock Holmes story "The Hound of the Baskervilles"; emphasis mine):

The novel incorporates five plots: the ostensible 'curse' story, the two red-herring subplots concerning Selden and the other stranger living on the moor, the actual events occurring to Baskerville as narrated by Watson, and the hidden plot to be discovered by Holmes. Doyle wrote that the novel was originally conceived as a straight 'Victorian creeper' (as seen in the works of J. Sheridan Le Fanu), with the idea of introducing Holmes as the deus ex machina only arising later.

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My question is in two parts, which I think are related enough to be in the same post:

  1. Where did Doyle write this about "The Hound of the Baskervilles"?
  2. What does it mean to be a "straight Victorian creeper"?

2 Answers 2

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“Creeper” is a shortened form of “flesh-creeper” meaning “something which makes your flesh creep”, that is, a horrifying story. This was current slang in 1901:

flesh-creeper A ‘shocker’ or ‘blood’ or ‘dreadful’: 1887, Baumann: † by 1930.

Eric Partridge (1970). A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, p. 286. New York: Macmillan.

Doyle used “creeper” in letters to his mother and to his editor (quoted below) without glossing it, so he must have been confident that his recipients would know what he meant.

The word “straight” is due to the Wikipedia editor Esmond.pitt, who seems to be using it to mean “not a Sherlock Holmes story”. That is, The Hound of the Baskervilles was first conceived only as a supernatural (or quasi-supernatural) horror story, and later (but still at a fairly early stage of composition) Doyle added Sherlock Holmes as the hero. This is clearest in Doyle’s letters to Greenhough Smith, his editor at The Strand Magazine, quoted below. The first letter asks for £50 per thousand words, and does not mention Holmes, but the second asks for double the rate on account of it being a Holmes story. There is a similar pattern in Doyle’s letters to his mother: the second mentions Holmes but the first does not.

The word “Victorian” is also due to the Wikipedia editor (despite appearing inside quotation marks) and does not correspond to anything Doyle wrote. Of course Doyle would not be expected to use this term so soon after Victoria’s death in January 1901: it’s only with substantial hindsight that we can see that there was a shift in style and subject between Victorian ghost stories and twentieth-century supernatural horror.

Sources

Unfortunately Doyle was not in the habit of dating his letters, making it hard to establish a reliable timeline. These are in approximate chronological order.

  1. Letter from Doyle to his mother, from the Royal Links Hotel in Cromer, Norfolk:

    A line to you, dear old Mammie, to say that I have had much good out of my 2 days here, where I have slept soundly at last. All goes well in every way. On Tuesday I give a dinner at the Athenaeum Club. My guests are the Langmans, Major Griffiths, Sir Francis Jeune, Winston Churchill, Barrie, Anthony Hope, Norman Hapgood, Cranston (of Edinburgh), Gosse the Critic, & Buckle (Editor of the Times)—rather a good team, I think.

    Adieu, my dear—Excuse this short scribble. Fletcher Robinson came here with me and we are going to do a small book together ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’—a real Creeper.

    Arthur Conan Doyle (1901). Letter to Mary Doyle. In Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower & Charles Foley, eds. (2007). Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters, p. 477. London: HarperPress.

    Lellenberg et al. date this letter to March 1901, but Christopher Frayling (p. xv) says the dinner at the Athenaeum was on Tuesday 30 April 1901, and that the weekend in Cromer was 27–28 April, based on Doyle’s account book.

  2. Letter from Doyle to Herbert Greenhough Smith, the editor of The Strand Magazine:

    I have the idea of a real creeper for the ‘Strand’. It would run, I think, to not less than 40,000 words. It is just the sort of thing that would suit you, full of surprises, and breaking naturally into good lengths for serial purposes. It would be called ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. There is one stipulation. I must do it with my friend Fletcher Robinson and his name must appear with mine. I hope that does not strike you as a serious bar. I can answer for the yarn being all in my own style without dilution, since your readers like that. But he gave me the central idea and the local colour and so I feel his name must appear. I shall want my usual £50 per thousand for all rights if you do business. Let me know at the Reform Club … Let me have Paget† if you take it.

    Arthur Conan Doyle (1901). Letter to Herbert Greenhough Smith. Quoted in Christopher Frayling, ed. (2001). The Hound of the Baskervilles, p. xv. Penguin.

    Sidney Paget, illustrator of the Holmes stories in The Strand Magazine.

    Frayling says that this was also written from the Royal Links Hotel, so if he is right it must have been on 28 April 1901.

  3. Letter from Doyle to Greenhough Smith:

    The price I quoted has for years been my serial price not only with you but with other journals. Now it is evident that this is a very special occasion since as far as I can judge the revival of Holmes would attract a great deal of attention. If put up to open competition I could get very particular terms for this story. Suppose I gave the directors the alternative that it should be without Holmes at my old figure or with Holmes at £100 per thou. which would they choose? … Holmes is at a premium in America just now.

    Arthur Conan Doyle (1901). Letter to Herbert Greenhough Smith. Quoted in W. W. Robson, ed. (1998). The Hound of the Baskervilles, xviii. Oxford University Press.

    Robson says that this must have been written early in May 1901, as publicity material for the novel mentioning Holmes appeared in Tit-Bits on 25 May 1901.

  4. Letter from Doyle to his mother, from Rowe’s Duchy Hotel in Princetown, Devon:

    Dearest of Mams, Here I am in the highest town in England. Robinson and I are exploring the moor together over our Sherlock Holmes book. I think it will work splendidly—indeed I have already done nearly half of it. Holmes is at his very best, and it is a highly dramatic idea—which I owe to Robinson. We did 14 miles over the moor today and are now pleasantly weary. It is a great place, very sad & wild, dotted with the dwellings of prehistoric man, strange monoliths and huts and graves. In those old days there was evidently a population of very many thousands here & now you may walk all day and never see one human being. Everywhere there are gutted tin mines. Tomorrow we drive 6 miles to Ipplepen where R’s father lives. Then on Monday Tuesday Sherborne for cricket, 2 days at Bath, 2 days at Cheltenham. Home on Sunday the 9th. That is my programme. My work will proceed all the better …

    Arthur Conan Doyle (1901). Letter to Mary Doyle. Quoted in Frayling, p. xxii.

    Robson says (p. xii) that this letter was written on 2 April 1901, but that’s not consistent with Doyle’s “Home on Sunday the 9th” as 9 April 1901 was a Tuesday. Frayling says that the 2 April date “must have been based on a misreading” of the postmark by Doyle’s authorized biographer John Dickson Carr, and suggests 2 June 1901 as a more likely postmark (the letter having been written the day before, Saturday 1 June).

  5. Article by J. E. Hodder Williams, 1902:

    Dr. Conan Doyle fully intended at the time that he wrote the last of the “Memoir” series that he would do no more such stories, and the lapse of six years with many very tempting literary offers failed to shake his resolution. He believed himself, rightly or wrongly, that his inferior was obscuring his better work, and that he should not permit himself to be tempted by money to write what his literary conscience disapproved. That was his ideal; but ideals are difficult things to preserve. His falling away from it was brought about in this fashion. With his friend Mr. Fletcher Robinson he found himself at Cromer, where a long Sunday was spent together in friendly chat. Robinson is a Devonshire man, and he mentioned in conversation some old county legend which set Doyle’s imagination on fire. The two men began building up a chain of events, and in a very few hours the plot of a sensational story was conceived, and it was agreed that Doyle should write it. When he came to working out the details, he found, however, that some masterful central figure was needed, some strong man who would influence the whole course of events, and his natural reflection was: “Why should I invent such a character when I have him already in the form of Holmes?” So Sherlock Holmes came back into the Strand Magazine, and the public has shown that during an absence of six years they have not entirely lost interest in him.

    J. E. Hodder Williams (1902). ‘Arthur Conan Doyle’. In The Bookman, April 1902. arthur-conan-doyle.com.

  6. Bertram Fletcher Robinson, 1905:

    One of the most interesting weeks that I have ever spent was with Doyle on Dartmoor. He made the journey in my company shortly after I told him, and he had accepted from me, a plot which eventuated in the ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’. Dartmoor, the great wilderness of bog and rock that cuts Devonshire at this point, appealed to his imagination. He listened eagerly to my stories of ghost hounds, of the headless riders and of the devils that lurk in the hollows–legends upon which I have been reared, for my home lay on the boarders of the moor. How well he turned to account his impressions will be remembered by all readers of ‘The Hound’.

    Two incidents come especially to my recollection. In the centre of the moor lies the famous convict prison of Princetown. In the great granite buildings, swept by the rains and clouded in the mists, are lodged over a thousand criminals, convicted on the more serious offences. A tiny village clusters at the foot of the slope on which they stand, and a comfortable old-fashioned inn affords accommodation to travellers.

    The morning after our arrival Doyle and I were sitting in the smoking-room when a cherry-cheeked maid opened the door and announced ‘Visitors to see you, gentlemen’. In marched four men, who solemnly sat down and began to talk about the weather, the fishing in the moor streams and other general subjects. Who they might be I had not the slightest idea. As they left I followed them into the hall of the inn. On the table were their four cards. The governor of the prison, the deputy governor, the chaplain and the doctor had come, as a pencil note explained, ‘to call on Mr. Sherlock Holmes.’

    One morning I took Doyle to see the mighty bog, a thousand acres of quaking slime, at any part of which a horse and rider might disappear, which figured so prominently in The Hound. He was amused at the story I told him of the moor man who on one occasion saw a hat near the edge of the morass and poked at it with a long pole he carried. ‘You leave my hat alone!’ came a voice from beneath it. ‘Whoi’! Be there a man under ‘at?’ cried the startled rustic. ‘Yes, you fool, and a horse under the man.’

    From the bog we tramped eastward to the stone fort of Grimspound, which the savages of the Stone Age in Britain, the aborigines who were earlier settlers than Saxons or Danes or Norsemen, raised with enormous labour to act as a haven of refuge from marauding tribes to the South. The good preservation in which the Grimspound fort still remains is marvellous. The twenty-feet slabs of granite – how they were ever hauled to their places is a mystery to historian and engineer – still encircle the stone huts where the tribe lived. Into one of these Doyle and I walked, and sitting down on the stone which probably served the three thousand year-old chief as a bed we talked of the races of the past. It was one of the loneliest spots in Great Britain. No road came within a long distance of the place. Strange legends of lights and figures are told concerning it. Add thereto that it was a gloomy day overcast with heavy cloud.

    Suddenly we heard a boot strike against a stone without and rose together. It was only a lonely tourist on a walking excursion, but at sight of our heads suddenly emerging from the hut he let out a yell and bolted. Our subsequent disappearance was due to the fact that we both sat down and rocked with laughter, and as he did not return I have small doubt Mr. Doyle and I added yet another proof of the supernatural to tellers of ghost stories concerning Dartmoor.

    Bertram Fletcher Robinson (1905). In The Sunday Magazine of The New York Tribune, November 1905. Quoted by Paul Spiring. archive.org.

1

Le Fanu was "an Irish writer of Gothic tales, mystery novels, and horror fiction."

I have personally seen many references to such stories being "creepers" and in specific, because they

make your flesh crawl/creep

to make someone very worried or frightened:

In other words, Doyle at first conceived of this as horror novel in the Victorian style, and then made it into a Sherlock Holmes story.

(I note that he may have called it a "real creeper" or a "genuine creeper" instead -- this turns up when I search and would be more plausible since he was, of course, a Victorian.)

1
  • This is a reasonable answer to the second half of the question (what does "creeper" mean in this context), but it would be improved by some supporting references: was the word "creeper" used in this meaning at that time?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Mar 14 at 10:19

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