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{Book Review} Hound of Baskervilles by Adam McOmber

Adam McOmber’s novella Hound of the Baskervilles, published by Lethe Press in October of 2022 is a hidden gem. What a delightful way to close out 2022’s reading. I am only sad to have just now discovered Adam McOmber, but I will be devouring his back catalog with all due haste.

John Watson is a man of a certain age. Once a soldier, he has spent the last twenty years of his life as a stalwart companion and lover to Sherlock Holmes. Content, for the most part, to stand in the shadow of this brilliant, erratic, arrogant man, Holmes is now faced with his greatest challenge yet; learning who he is and what his life has meant after Holmes ends their relationship.

Many middle-aged people, including those who have put aside their own ambitions and dreams to support the career of a spouse, have asked themselves this question. Watson has spent the past decades writing stories of his and Holmes’ adventures for The Strand and helped spin Holmes into a celebrity, recognized on the streets and hounded for autographs. Watson has been content to be the man behind the detective, savoring the long nights at Baker street, sharing conversation and companionship in front of a cozy fire.

The story begins as Watson has been sent to Baskerville Hall just after Holmes has ended their relationship, telling Watson he no longer feels the same affection for him he once did. Graying, with a paunch and Laudanum habit, Watson feels utterly adrift. He suspects he’s been sent alone not to scout out a case for Holmes but so the man can be rid of him entirely. What he finds at Baskerville Hall will defy the rational approach that Holmes has always relied on. Instead of simply dead bodies and human villains, he’s confronted by ancient curses, heathen rites, and pagan deities. What is the deity known as the Hound of Baskervilles, who is behind a curse that has brought a once great house to ruin, and perhaps the greatest mystery of all for Dr. Watson; who is John Watson apart from the mythos of the great Sherlock Holmes?

The path to answering this question involves a number of twists and turns that include attractive young house servants, a witch, a possibly eldritch entity, a foppish heir of Baskerville, a damned book, and a shocking penultimate act that upends the fate of several characters in this tale. The Sherlock Holmes tales have often been retold with a bent towards the eldritch, and those elements blend seamlessly with the established mythology. Part of Watson’s self-discovery is in realizing that Holmes’ rational, deductive reasoning cannot help him in a world where timeless beings exist in vast subterranean chasms and that old folk tales harken to very real spirits haunting the moors.

This novella moves briskly and will keep you guessing from one page to the next about the motivations and intentions of each character. Not all answers are forthcoming, but the story comes to an emotionally satisfying conclusion, favoring the needs of the characters over the itch for the mystery to be solved and delivered in a neatly wrapped package. There are one or two plot points that don’t serve to further the story, such as a certain “medical treatment” involving a mannequin and the motivations of the doctor who prescribed said treatment. This felt like a red herring to include some kink in the story. I was far more interested in the relationship between the Baskerville cousins and the motivations of the mysterious Miss Stapleton. But this is my sole criticism of the story.

This tale does include a healthy dose of eroticism, both human and supernatural, but in other places, this served the story very well. Rediscovering the self as a sexual being is an important part of our identity,
and perhaps especially so for a queer man at the turn of the century. John Watson, realizing how long he’s felt tolerated rather than desired, longs to express himself as a sexual being again and finds unexpected sources of pleasure outside of Holmes’ repressive, austere London.

McOmber is a brave soul to take a well-known mythology in such a direction and should be applauded for it. This is not Holmes’ story, it’s Watson’s, and as Watson evolves from a helpless observer to an active participant in the proceedings, we see him as he cannot see himself; resilient, caring, steadfast, and competent. In McOmber’s hands, it’s a poignant story full of longing, introspection, and, ultimately, hope. We’re left with a changed John Watson, who states:

"For if there is to be no Sherlock Holmes, it's left for me to steer this ship. Yet I am not a
detective. No part of me is a detective. (For what is a detective but a boy's invention?
An adventurer's game. And I am through with games. Finished with pretending to be
what I am not and living as I should not.)"

Who is John Watson without Sherlock Holmes? How do we reinvent ourselves after we’ve written ourselves as a footnote in someone else’s adventure tale? Adam McOmber’s story leaves us, and Watson, with the hope that he’ll find those answers and write a new chapter of his life with himself as the protagonist. You can read or listen to your own copy of the Novella here.