Title: The Mystery of Cloomber
Author: Arthur Conan Doyle
Reading Level: 13 & up
Star Rating: ★★
Hi there! As of October 2013, I have upgraded to a new site – The Blithering Bookster – where I have posted all of my old reviews and continue to post new ones. Hoist yourself over to join the fun!
I could hardly believe my eyes when I found The Mystery of Cloomber at a recent library sale. It is written by Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of my favorite detective, Sherlock Holmes. How then had I never heard of this novel?
Due to my father’s eccentric attachment to studying the languages and philosophic volumes of the far east, the family fortune has never amounted to much and had plummeted to an alarmingly meager pittance when my uncle invited our family to live on his Scottish estates and function there as his stewards while he toured the south of Italy. This tour, though extravagant to our way of thinking, was necessary to my uncle’s state of health; his lungs, which had grown quite weak in his residency at Branksome, were in need of fresher, brighter air such as Branksome could not provide. My family was in no position (nor, indeed, were we of a mind) to decline his proposition, and, though mindful that the Wigtown coast is dull at best and bleak at worst, we accepted and were installed at Branksome within the week.
We Wests had only been in the vicinity for a short time when a strange set of circumstances began to unfold. It began when Cloomber Hall, gloomy and forbidding, was let out to a military man – Major Heatherstone – who moved his entire family into its walls before erecting an outer palisade and shunning all acquaintance with the neighboring inhabitants. This Major was a very nervous man, and he refused to allow his children beyond the boundaries of their own estates. Was the man insane? Or was he guilt-driven…
So… that’s the first time I’ve ever done a story synopsis in first person (and the only reason I did it is because the book’s in first person). Thoughts?
I usually don’t enjoy prefaces to novels. The worst thing about them, is they usually give away the whole entire story. Also, the writer of the preface often attempts to press his own interpretation of the characters onto you. Not fun.
But this time, I’m glad I read the preface. I was jumping into The Mystery of Cloomber with the hopes that it would become my new favorite novel. After all, it was written by the same author that created the imperturbable, wonderfully rational Holmes. But the preface reminded me of something that I had forgotten. A. C. Doyle was a believer in spiritualism. Although the Holmes persona strictly forbade Doyle to include supernatural elements in those stories, Doyle was not the least bit hesitant about including them in his other novels.
All of that fancy italics was to tell you that the solution to The Mystery of Cloomber would not have satisfied Holmes, because it is mystical – supernatural – not explicable by natural causes. This is how it works.
*ONE BIG HUGE NECESSARY SPOILER TO TELL YOU ABOUT THE MIDDLE EASTERN PHILOSOPHY OF THE MYSTERY OF CLOOMBER* Major Heatherstone is indeed a man running from guilt – he has, in fact, committed the terrible crime of killing Ghoolab Shah, an arch adept of the first degree. (Basically, that means that he was extremely learned in the occult sciences and, through their power, had extended his life span by several hundred years.) To quote,
It was irrevocably ordained by laws which cannot be reversed that any one who should shed the blood of a brother who had attained a certain degree of sanctity should be a doomed man. Those laws are extant to this day and you have placed yourself in their power. King or emperor would be helpless before the forces which you have called into play. What hope, then, is there for you? [pg. 125]
Basically, because he has killed a high-up-there occultist, John Heatherstone will have to pay with his life. But that is not the full extent of the mysticism – instead of killing Heatherstone immediately, the three chelas who are responsible for executing Shah’s vengeance hold off. They wish for Heatherstone to understand the full horror of what he did. So, they let him live for a while. But they never allow him to forget his fate. Every day and every night, they cause an astral bell (part of their meditative occultic branch – it’s a bell sound where there is no bell) to be rung over his head, so that he is afforded no real rest, but must live in terror. Pretty nice guys, huh?
In the end, *I’M GOING TO RUIN THE PLOT* these three chelas hire a boat to sail from India to Scotland, and use their occultic powers to raise up a storm and wreck the ship where they wish to disembark. (Why couldn’t they just use their powers to fly there, anyway?) They then visit Cloomber Hall where, instead of using physical violence on Major Heatherstone, they basically hypnotize him and lead him out to his death in quicksand.
Here are a few of the stranger statements made in the book. The first occurs after the three chelas are wrecked in Scotland. The conversation occurs between John and Ram Singh, one of the chelas.
“You have now an opportunity,” he said, in a subdued, reverential voice, “of seeing a spectacle which few Europeans have had the privilege of beholding. Inside that cottage you will find two Yogis – men who are only one remove from the highest plane of adeptship. They are both wrapped in an ecstatic trance, otherwise I should not venture to obtrude your presence upon them. Their astral bodies have departed from them, to be present at the feast of lamps in the holy lamastery of Rudok in Thibet. Tread lightly, lest by stimulating their corporeal functions you recall them before their devotions are completed.
I peered through the open doorway. There was no furniture in the dreary interior, nor anything to cover the uneven floor save a litter of fresh straw in a corner.
Among this straw two men were crouching, the one small and wizened, the other large-boned and gaunt, with their legs crossed in Oriental fashion and their heads sunk upon their breasts. Neither of them looked up, or took the smallest notice of our presence. They were so still and silent that they might have been two bronze statues but for the slow and measured rhythm of their breathing. Their faces, however, had a peculiar, ashen grey color, very different from the healthy brown of my companion’s; and I observed, on stooping my head, that only the whites of their eyes were visible, the balls being turned upwards beneath the lids. In front of them upon a small mat lay an earthernware pitcher of water and half a loaf of bread, together with a sheet of paper inscribed with certain cabalistic characters. Ram Singh glanced at these, and then, motioning to me to withdraw, followed me into the garden.
“I am not to disturb them until ten o’clock,” he said. “You have now seen in operation one of the grandest results of our occult philosophy, the dissociation of spirit from body. Not only are the spirits of these holy men standing at the present moment by the banks of the Ganges, but those spirits are clothed in a material covering so identical with their real bodies that none of the faithful will ever doubt that Lal Hoomi and Mowdar Khan are actually among them. This is accomplished by our power of resolving an object into its chemical atoms, of conveying these atoms with a speed which exceeds that of lightning to any given spot, and of there re-precipitating them and compelling them to retake their original form. Of old it was necessary to convey the whole body in this way, but we have since found that it was as easy and more convenient to transmit material enough merely to build up an outside shell or semblance of a body. This we have termed the astral body.”
“But if you can transmit your spirits so readily,” I observed, “why should they be accompanied by any body at all?”
“In communicating with brother initiates we are able to employ our spirits only; but when we wish to come in contact with ordinary mankind it is essential that we should appear in some form which they can see and comprehend.” [pgs. 98-99]
John (the main character) seems to accept Ram Singh’s statements at face value and feels no doubt towards this ability or any of their other powers.
What bothers me is this – the occultic activity is not incidental; it’s the theme of the story. And there is no escaping it; no room is left for alternate interpretations of the story. I was expecting more of a Turn of the Screw type ending – you decide if the governess is really seeing ghosts or if she is insane. You are allowed to exercise your own credulity in the situation. But in The Mystery of Cloomber there is no choice, no other way out. We are emphatically told on the last page that,
Science will tell you that there are no such powers as those claimed by the Eastern mystics. I, John Fothergill West, can confidently answer that science is wrong. [pg. 140]
Well, thanks, John Fothergill West. That really boosts my confidence. The tone of the book is almost accusatory – if you don’t believe in astral bodies and ecstatic trances, you’re an unreasoning child. (Why did I think it was the other way around?) The Buddhist/occultic laws are the highest, the most worthy, and we must prove our intelligence by acceding to them.
But to make it even worse, Doyle dragged the Bible in it, claiming that the miracles which it records are in the same family as the occultic practices. There is an addendum to the story which is “written” by one of the characters from the story. The addendum is entitled “The Occult Philosophy”. It reinforces the idea that the occult practices are noble, civilized and more advanced than the rest of us. If nothing else had really bothered me in this book, this single sentence would have done me in.
When Paul of Tarsus says that man consists of a body, a soul and a spirit, he is not indulging in vain surmise, but is stating concisely the conclusions arrived at by the occult school to which there is every reason to think that he belonged. [pg. 143]
The Mystery of Cloomber was, I thought, remarkably clean as far as incidentals go. The romance was practically nil – the narrator falls in love with and becomes engaged to a young lady, but there is no romantic interaction between them. I found this, the initial reference to the relationship, to be funny.
Gabriel sits beside me now as I write, and she agrees with me that, dear as is the subject to ourselves, the whole story of our mutual affection is of too personal a nature to be more than touched upon in this statement. Suffice it to say that, within a few weeks of our first meeting, Gabriel had given me that pledge which death itself will not be able to break.
I have alluded in this brief way to the tie which sprang up between the two families, because I have no wish that this narrative should degenerate into anything approaching to romance. [pgs. 27-28]
Major Heatherstone forbade his children to venture beyond his palisade, but they disobey him, believing his measures to be harsh. This isn’t harped on in the story – it just happens. Major Heatherstone quickly discovers their disobedience, but admits that his measures are harsh. He tries to discourage John in his attachment to Gabriel, but only because he believes it will be disadvantageous to John. When John insists, he seems happy.
Different varieties of God’s name – ‘my God’, ‘good God’, ‘God knows’, God-forsaken’ ‘God help me’ ‘God’s sake’, Lord love ye’ are used a total of eleven times. ‘By Jove’ is also used once. A ship’s mate refers to three Oriental men as ‘niggers’ thrice, but he is portrayed as being shallow-minded. ‘Darn’ is used twice, and ‘d-d’ (spelled just like that) is used once.
Conclusion. I liked parts of The Mystery of Cloomber –it’s written in 19th century English and concerns mysterious manors, so that bit was fun – but I wouldn’t especially recommend it, due to its propagation of spiritualism/occultic forces.