Why are some of us so attracted to tales of the supernatural? The easy answer is that we are fools. We believe in a world far greater and more profound than what senses may perceive, but are informed by a loud and rather unpleasant faction that there is no rational foundation for such a belief. Mired in delusions as were, it appears, countless generations of our elders, we have proceeded in stupidity through this life with the silly expectation of another life to follow, or at least a chance to break into that shadowy realm. We are told that we suffer from faith; we are told we deny history; and we are told that we should feel relieved that the religions of all states and empires past and present are nothing more than hardly distinct pebbles in a massive mosaic at once utterly fictional and utterly fraudulent. What the allegedly brave and intelligent pundits of such a strategy fail to see is, in considering us mere links on a billion-year chain of death, they bring relief to absolutely no one save the most deranged and masochistic. That is not to say that our world has not been our world for a billion years or more, or that there is no chain of development between the man of yesterday and the man of today (not to mention the ape or amphibian of lost millennia). Simply that there is much more than what meets the scientist's eye beneath his microscope. Which brings us to this seminal tale.
When we have a protagonist with the plain and solid name of Smith, we must expect someone very bad or very good. And in Abercrombie Smith, a "strong, unimaginative man," we get a decidedly dull if at times brazen and arrogant fellow, which may be as suitable a metaphor for the modern man of science as one may find. His temperament does not lend itself to the arts or even what will confront him, namely the black arts of the occult; it surprises us in no way to learn he is a medical student; thus, to figure in our story in any productive manner, he must be coerced into belief by the foulest enormities:
With his firm mouth, broad forehead, and clear-cut, somewhat hard-featured face, he was a man who, if he had no brilliant talent, was yet so dogged, so patient, and so strong that he might in the end overtop a more showy genius. A man who can hold his own among Scotchmen and North Germans is not a man to be easily set back. Smith had left a name at Glasgow and at Berlin, and he was bent now upon doing as much at Oxford, if hard work and devotion could accomplish it.
Compounding his reliance on the body's whims, Smith is also one of those hale and hearty males "whose minds and tastes turned naturally to all that was manly and robust." We might swiftly dismiss such a fellow nowadays as a half-witted athlete (Smith is fittingly a competitive oarsman); nonetheless, Smith evinces some Renaissance qualities that grant him our admiration without the palest stripe of envy. His foil is Edward Bellingham and, for reasons that need not be revealed here, the first person mentioned by our narrator. As fat, pasty, and negligent of his physical well-being as he is committed to a life of the mind and the soul, Edward Bellingham knows more about Ancient Egypt "than any man in England." In Bellingham's case, however, his soul may be a movable commodity:
'There's something damnable about him – something reptilian. My gorge always rises at him. I should put him down as a man with secret vices – an evil liver. He's no fool, though. They say that he is one of the best men in his line that they have ever had in the college .... [in] Eastern languages. He's a demon at them. Chillingworth met him somewhere above the second cataract last long, and he told me that he just prattled to the Arabs as if he had been born and nursed and weaned among them. He talked Coptic to the Copts, and Hebrew to the Jews, and Arabic to the Bedouins, and they were all ready to kiss the hem of his frock-coat. There are some old hermit Johnnies up in those parts who sit on rocks and scowl and spit at the casual stranger. Well, when they saw this chap Bellingham, before he had said five words they just lay down on their bellies and wriggled. Chillingworth said that he never saw anything like it. Bellingham seemed to take it as his right, too, and strutted about among them and talked down to them like a Dutch uncle. Pretty good for an undergrad.'
Does it matter who utters this description? Not really; as it were, it leaves the lips of another oarsman and outdoorsman by the name of Hastie, as a warning to Smith that Bellingham, who happens to be Smith's neighbor one floor down, should be subject to sedulous avoidance. Yet in his manly heart Smith feels more than a mild tenderness for the neighbor, "whose lamp threw a golden bar from the old turret even after he had extinguished his own." This "community in lateness," a neologism to which any serious man of literature should possess lifetime membership, forms "a certain silent bond between them." To our well-rounded and academically ambitious Smith it was a "soothing" thought that another person "set as small a value upon his sleep as he did." It has been said by many that no greater friendship can be formed than what may arise between two men sharing the same intellectual and spiritual interests. Unfortunately for Smith, he will soon find out that his and Bellingham's only commonality is a rigorous nocturnal schedule.
We have yet to explain the title, one of Conan Doyle's least elegant, if nevertheless well-chosen. Why should we explain the title? Because, one assumes, titles foreshadow their works' contents and themes, and to this hard and fast rule Lot No. 249 cannot possibly comprise an exception. Take, for example, Bellingham's quarters as Smith first observes them:
He could not but take an amazed glance around him as he crossed the threshold. It was such a chamber as he had never seen before – a museum rather than a study. Walls and ceiling were thickly covered with a thousand strange relics from Egypt and the East. Tall, angular figures bearing burdens or weapons stalked in an uncouth frieze round the apartments. Above were bull-headed, stork-headed, cat-headed, owl-headed statues, with viper-crowned, almond-eyed monarchs, and strange, beetle-like deities cut out of the blue Egyptian lapis lazuli. Horus and Isis and Osiris peeped down from every niche and shelf, while across the ceiling a true son of Old Nile, a great, hanging-jawed crocodile, was slung in a double noose.
Given his obsession with all things Pharaonic, Bellingham may be considered just as much of a "true son" of the Old Nile. And didn't Hastie just refer to him as "reptilian"? And what about that double noose? Without giving too much away – and in this age of big search engines that could, this simply means holding the reader's curiosity for a few more seconds – we should say that despite its unfortunate name, Lot No. 249 would launch a trend in supernatural literature and film that has persisted to the present day. We may also come to ask ourselves who but a "bold and confident man" like our Smith would "put a limit to the strange bypaths into which the human spirit may wander." Even if we know there is one path Smith will never walk again.