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Sunday
Mar032013

The Terror of Blue John Gap

The inspector entered it all in a large book and bowed me out with commendable gravity.  But I heard a burst of laughter before I had got down his garden path; no doubt he was recounting my adventure to his family.

                                                                                                                            Dr. James Hardcastle

I don't think that as a child I ever believed in unicorns.  Perhaps because their horns were clearly vestigial and served no purpose other than to distinguish them from the plainest of ponies; perhaps because young boys tend to cherish less delicate critters.  Mermaids, fairies, and other soft metaphors of femininity were likewise devoid of appeal.  Common is the child who will reject these earthbound fantasies for the beasts of beyond, for interplanetary spies and spectacles, for impossible odds and still more impossible evens.  But these gimcrack scenes have never attracted me, in no small part because I identified them long ago as shadows of our own melodramas, puppet theater for those who seek the actions but not the morals.  What did fill me with wonderment and joy, however, were the innumerable tales of what we have come to call, faute de mieuxcryptids.  And while I would now be unlikely to deem these creatures possible, some long neck, some claw's print, some unpalatable howl shattering a dark, clear night still revives a childhood fear.  Which brings us to this tale.  

Our hero will prove his mettle over the course of a few crazed months in the Derbyshire hills, but he shall pay dearly for this display of courage.  His name is Dr. James Hardcastle, "a man of a sober and scientific turn of mind, absolutely devoid of imagination, and most unlikely to invent any abnormal series of events."  Those of us who can enjoy Conan Doyle's genial phantasmagoria know that it is invariably from among such souls – the smug, the skeptic, the materialist – that his protagonists are selected.  Were incredible events to befall someone already mindful of phenomena beyond man's meager ken, we would have a corroboration, not a metamorphosis, and corroborations, as we know, do not stimulating literature make.  Thus for fairness and fairness alone we should present the man as he saw himself in advance of the happenings of the summer of 1907, which left livestock dead and local residents terrified:

How absurdly easy it is for a legend to arise in a lonely countryside!  I examined him as to the reasons for his weird belief.  It seems that from time to time sheep have been missing from the fields, carried bodily away, according to Armitage.  That they could have wandered away of their own accord and disappeared among the mountains was an explanation to which he would not listen.  On one occasion a pool of blood had been found, and some tufts of wool.  That also, I pointed out, could be explained in a perfectly natural way.  Further, the nights upon which sheep disappeared were invariably very dark, cloudy nights with no moon.  This I met with the obvious retort that those were the nights which a commonplace sheep-stealer would naturally choose for his work.  On one occasion a gap had been made in a wall, and some of the stones scattered for a considerable distance.  Human agency again, in my opinion.  Finally, Armitage clinched all his arguments by telling me that he had actually heard the Creature – indeed, that anyone could hear it who remained long enough at the Gap.  It was a distant roaring of an immense volume.  I could not but smile at this, knowing, as I do, the strange reverberations which come out of an underground water system running amid the chasms of a limestone formation.  My incredulity annoyed Armitage, so that he turned and left me with some abruptness. 

We suspect it is of no small coincidence that the panicked yokel, a staple of such stories, is called Armitage, but I digress.  What we have not mentioned is the "weird belief" itself, which I'm afraid may sound silly to modern ears so accustomed to dismissing rustic rumors.  Possessed of that typical British fortitude that immediately finds caves and lagoons fascinating, Hardcastle betakes himself into the breach – in this case literally, as he enters a canyon from where this mineral is harvested.  Something untimely will happen to his candle, as well as to the matchbox in his pocket, and James Hardcastle will spend an unforeseen period ("it may have been for an hour, it may have been for several") in moist, stony darkness.  And with the sense of sight entirely unavailable, it will be his other senses that will betray him, although betray may not quite be the right word.

Even if he will always be remembered for this magnificent creation, Conan Doyle's other works, apart from some lengthier subscriptions of mystical experiences, should not be ignored.  The world of Holmes and Watson enthralled us because their creator found a way to combine, in a most genteel partnership, the arrogance of science and the faith of the human soul.  The result was the most successful tandem in literary history; yet to have both currents converge, as they do upon the battlements of Dr. James Hardcastle, is perhaps too much for one mortal to handle.  Indeed, after the comeuppance of his cavernal visitation, Hardcastle becomes broken and emotional.  The caption to his hysteria may give away more than we should:

You can imagine that it was not long before I had shaken the dust ... from my feet and returned to the farm, cursing all unimaginative pedants who cannot conceive that there may be things in creation which have never yet chanced to come across their mole's vision.

Other pedants (please read me out of such a congregation) would consider the usually careful creator of Holmes, Watson, and a multitude of other riveting beings, and wonder at the cacophonous echo of "imagine" in this passage.  But then again, we are allegedly absorbing the tale of and by a man of science, and a shaken one at that.  A man of science who may have to choose between spreading "mad alarm over the whole countryside," and facing consignment in a house for those who spread mad alarms that turn out to be mere figments of their alarming minds.  And perhaps it may behoove us to recall that little aside about heaven, earth, dreams, and all our philosophies.   

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