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Interview: Charles Prepolec and Jeff Campbell, Editors of Gaslight Arcanum

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We can’t ever get enough Sherlock Holmes, it seems. We keep reading him, we keep watching him, and sometimes, when the figure of Holmes inspires us and our Muse smiles upon us, we write about him. Gaslight Arcanum is precisely one of those collections of stories penned by Holmes enthusiasts who read and watched the great detective before taking up their own pen. I had a chance to chat with the two editors of the collection, Jeff Campbell and Charles Prepolec, about Holmes, writing, and the tome they edited.

Oh boy, where to start with the Sherlock Holmes questions? Your collection is yet another testament to the enduring popularity of Sherlock Holmes, so I have to ask: why do you think he’s so popular?

JC: The source material is so strong. Holmes is so adaptable, to any media or genre, but after each adaptation people are always curious about the Doyle stories. Those original stories stand up amazingly well, obviously some better than others, but their economy, style and brilliance never fail to impress. Doyle succeeds in making an unlikable genius likable by framing the stories through Watson, an extraordinary character in his own right, who is big enough to overlook the trivial and appreciate Holmes for what he is. Holmes’s popularity rises and falls, but what keeps Sherlock from disappearing is Doyle’s original works.

CP: At the moment? I’d say Benedict Cumberbatch’s cheekbones may have a lot to do with it. Kidding, kidding, it’s more likely Robert Downey Jr’s abs in his first Holmes film. Err, well, maybe not. In all seriousness, the popularity of Sherlock Holmes isn’t that hard to fathom. He’s a character that relies on his wits, knowledge and observation to find order in a chaotic world. He is a superhero without any sort of superpowers, so it makes what he does appear possible. Holmes simply uses his brain. We’ve all got one, so regardless of any physical limitations, or perceived physical limitations, a reader has the same basic tool as Holmes whether they be male, female, short, tall, fat, scrawny, fit, flabby, good looking or whatever else they think might be holding them back from other achievements.

I think that universality plays to the reader in one of two ways. Either the reader thinks he might be as clever as Sherlock Holmes, or he wishes he could be. In the former case the reader identifies with Holmes; in the latter the reader tends to appreciate Watson’s role more. In either case they can appreciate the possibility of what Holmes does. As to why he’s so popular at the moment, leaving aside Cumberbatch’s cheekbones, I’d say our world is more chaotic than ever, and we’re bombarded with so much information on a daily basis that the idea of someone who can filter all that info and find sense in it is pretty damn special.

Any exciting stories for how you yourselves became fans of the great detective?

JC: The short stories are what drew me in. At the time I was working in the book trade and trying very hard to read all the novels being published. After reading a stretch of four or five novels I didn’t enjoy but read out of a sense of duty, I picked up Sherlock Holmes and discovered I’d accidentally packed The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the first collection of short stories. Read it, loved it, and discovered how much I’d been missing short fiction. Holmes is an ideal character, the ideal engine, for short fiction. He absolutely refuses to let the tale go on for too long, abhors long reflective, passages or the many stylistic sins novels sometime indulge in. Much as I love novels every once in a while it’s refreshing to read a story that achieves so much with so little.

CP: Exciting? No, not really. I initially read my first Sherlock Holmes story when I was about 10 years old. The story was The Hound of the Baskervilles – and I hated it! The most interesting character – Sherlock Holmes – was missing for half the book. I was 10 years old, and I simply couldn’t see the point of a story with the most interesting character being absent for half the book. However, many years later in the early 1980s, there was a serendipitous convergence of factors that really made me sit up and take notice of Sherlock Holmes once again. I discovered a comic book series – Cases of Sherlock Holmes – with some stunning art by David and Dan Day; the Granada television series with Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes was being aired on PBS; Young Sherlock Holmes was on the big screen; and most importantly my long-time girlfriend had just broken up with me and I was devastated. The last is surprisingly important. I was heartbroken, in my late teens, and the opening paragraph to “A Scandal in Bohemia” spoke volumes to me:

“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer — excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.”

I was utterly and completely hooked. Here was logic and calm rationality at a time when a ‘gibe and a sneer’ was about all I had to say in regard to the ‘softer passions’ myself. In short, Holmes represented the triumph of mind over emotion and the rational over the irrational; the elimination of the impossible to uncover the truth. I had found my hero, likely for all the wrong reasons, but I’ve loved him ever since.

Sherlock Holmes is arguably responsible for fandom as we know it; it is, after all, the Holmes stories that inspired an uncountable number of sequels and may very well have helped develop fan fiction as we know it today. What do you think makes a good Holmes story? How does an author pen a tale that measures up to those by Doyle?

JC: Respectfully. Since his creation there have always been at least two Sherlock Holmes loose in the world: One is the pop-culture zeitgeist Holmes that everyone knows and the other is the surprising detective each reader is surprised to discover in the original stories. As a writer of Sherlock Holmes it’s important that you resist the temptation to tap into the zeitgeist and remain true to the private Holmes you know best.

CP: The key to writing good Sherlock Holmes stories is getting the characters and their interactions right. Holmes and Watson need to be recognizably Holmes and Watson. If they aren’t, then the whole thing falls apart. If you do mess with the basic nature of the characters, you better be able to justify it in a convincing, rather than overtly contrived, manner. Beyond that the same principles apply as in any other fiction. Tell a good story.

As for measuring up to Doyle, well, I don’t think that’s either possible or altogether necessary. There are some very good Sherlock Holmes stories that aren’t pastiche. A good Sherlock Holmes story does not need to slavishly imitate or replicate Conan Doyle’s style, voice, etc…it doesn’t need to be pastiche, it just needs to be a good story that makes use of Sherlock Holmes. Quite frankly, I prefer stories that take a different approach to the form. The further away from pastiche, the better, otherwise it just becomes formulaic.

The theme of the stories in the collection is Sherlock Holmes confronting the supernatural and the uncanny. This is a theme that seems to come up again and again in Sherlock Holmes adaptations. Why are we so obsessed with pitting Holmes against the supernatural and the fantastic?

JC: More than anything else, I think the fascination comes from the time period in which the original stories were written. There’s a whole different fantastical, Victorian London, where Dracula’s ship is moored and Dorian Gray’s portrait sits in attic somewhere, and where Sherlock Holmes searches the streets for clues. Given the great literature that poured out from that time and place, it’s inevitable that the themes popular then would jumble together over time.

CP: Who better than the supreme rationalist to face off against the seemingly irrational? After all, when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth; even if it isn’t a comfortable truth.

Pitting Sherlock Holmes against the supernatural is something Doyle himself did in Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot. Those stories make the outcome seem simple: either reason wins over the supernatural, or the supernatural shows reason insufficient. How does one bring something new to this kind of story?

JC: Reason versus the supernatural was a recurring theme in the Sherlock Holmes stories, and in the originals reason always won. Always. That naturally sets the question in the readers’ mind: What if? Many of the writers in our collection tell us how intimated they were to try writing a Sherlock Holmes tale, how overwhelming it was to face the challenge of bringing something new to the field, but if you appreciate the characters, if you’ve got the story-building tools and bring your own creativity to the story the results can be amazing.

I’d also point out that one of the peculiar joys of reading Sherlock Holmes is the understanding how each generation has interpreted the original stories their own way. The Doyle stories remain unchanged but how each generation reacts to the very same words is always different. It’s amazing to see what resonated with the original audience and how that’s evolved over time. Where we see these changes reflected is in the Holmes adaptations and new stories created from each time period. Anyone writing new works with Holmes is submitting their work to this study.

CP: Simple, by largely ignoring any preconceived notions of what is or isn’t suitable for a Sherlock Holmes story. As Watson states in “The Speckled Band”: “…he refused to associate himself with any investigation which did not tend towards the unusual and even the fantastic…” So why should we do any less?

What do you look for as editors of these Sherlock Holmes stories? How do you seek out the authors you think would be good contributors?

JC: The way to meet writers is through their works. I can’t tell you how many times I’m reading and suddenly up pops an unmistakable homage to the Great Detective, a little wink in Sherlock’s direction. We’ve picked up a lot of writers that way. As fans of Holmes some choices were quite simple, it was quite a privilege to read stories from authors like Barbara Hambly, Fred Saberhagan or Kim Newman whose previous Sherlock Holmes stories we’d enjoyed so much.

CP: I read…a lot. So for me it’s about bringing new ideas and new stories into the Sherlock Holmes fold. As for the authors, it’s a combination of whom I believe would bring the right sensibilities to a project and whose other work I admire. In short, I pick writers I want to work with and who I believe are capable of delivering the stories I want.

You’ve edited two previous Sherlock Holmes collections before this one; any plans to pen Sherlock Holmes stories of your own?

JC: We’re both fans of Sherlock Holmes, any chance to work with the Great Detective is always appreciated. I’ve written some Sherlock Holmes stories for Imagination Theater’s radio production ‘The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ and for the Lethe Press anthology ‘A Study in Lavender’. I’ve a story in each of the previous Gaslight anthologies, Gaslight Grimoire and Gaslight Grotesque, but missed out on Gaslight Arcanum. I’ve no doubt there’s some further adventures with Holmes I’ll be taking soon.

CP: Well, at this point it’s five anthologies actually. Three now for EDGE and two we did previously under our own Mad For A Mystery micro-press imprint. Jeff has written a number of Sherlock Holmes stories, both for our anthologies and for other markets. As for me, well, deep down there’s this wriggling worm of a thought burrowing through my brain that one day I might give it a go. Usually this worm squirms up to the surface as I’m drifting off to sleep after one pint of Guinness too many, but so far, in the cold light of day, I’ve managed to remember that I’m not particularly clever about story ideas and have stuck to what I do well – commission, shape and finesse the work of those who are.

The three collections you’ve already published have done very well and been quite popular it seems; any plans for any more collections?

JC: Our latest project is an anthology for Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing called Professor Challenger: New Worlds, Lost Places. The Professor is another of Doyle’s geniuses and a favorite of mine. Doyle wrote five stories with Challenger, most famously the novel ‘The Lost World’. We’ve finished gathering the stories and they are really good, we’re looking forward to seeing the book published soon.

CP: At this point we’re giving Sherlock Holmes a bit of a rest; however I doubt we’re entirely done with the great detective. In the meantime, we’re currently working in the realm of Conan Doyle’s ‘other’ great creation: Professor George Edward Challenger of The Lost World. We’ve got a great line-up of writers who have delivered wonderful stories of adventure, science fiction, fantasy and horror. Look for Professoe Challenger:  New Worlds, Lost Places from EDGE SF&F in early 2014.

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About Anastasia Klimchynskaya

My mind rebels at stagnation. Find the rebellious thoughts of that constantly racing mind at my blog, Monitoring the Media.