|Here we come to a turning point in Doyle's stories. The previous stories that I have mentioned have all been rather basic little vignettes of life, mostly in a humorous vein. Not so The Winning Shot. Here we have a slightly longer story with considerably more character development. We have a strong mystery with serious overtones of the supernatural, with hints of vampirism, cannibalism and witchcraft thrown in for good measure. Structurally and in content, we have what could easily have been a case for Holmes. Doyle's masterful use of descriptive language creates a great atmosphere of gothic horror. Highly evocative descriptions are peppered throughout. Much of the imagery would fit well in Stoker's Dracula'
The story opens with a newspaper advertisement that serves as a warning to avoid one Octavius Gaster. It also serves as a notice to the reader that this is to be a serious and somewhat nasty story. It certainly grabs your attention and draws you into the story. The description of Gaster is very much like one of Ian Fleming's grotesques, rather than Doyle's. I present this remarkable opening here:
"Caution. - The public are hereby cautioned against a man calling himself Octavius Gaster. He is to be recognized by his great height, his flaxen hair, and deep scar upon his left cheek, extending from the eye to the angle of the mouth. His predilection for bright colours - green necktie, and the like - may help to identify him. A slightly foreign accent is to be detected in his speech. This man is beyond the reach of the law, but is more dangerous than a mad dog. Shun him as you would shun the pestilence that
walketh at noonday. Any communications as to his whereabouts will be thankfully acknowledged by A. C. U., Lincoln's Inn, London."
Quite the prelude to a character to which we will not be introduced until some 4 pages later! A creature this ghastly, had of course to be foreign to be palatable to an English readership. The physical scar clearly represents a deeper, uglier scarring to the man's character. His liking of bright colours also mark him as being outside the pale of normal society. As an opening it is certainly a cracker! What has this beast done to make him "...more dangerous than a mad dog." and "Shun him as you would shun the pestilence that walketh at noonday." I for one, wanted to know!
Had the next line been something about "And so read the advertisement that drew Sherlock Holmes attention that morning..." we would have had a classic opening to a Holmes case. Much of this story reads like the flashback told to Sherlock Holmes by a client at the outset of a case. Read on, the Sherlockian echoes abound in this one.
Once again Doyle uses the voice of a young woman to relate the events. Once again I found him to be very convincing. The story is set up in typical country house mystery style. A cast of characters including the retired colonel, the manly fiancée, various relatives and hanger-ons etc...are introduced. All is as it should be, joy and harmony in the county of Devon. Our young couple - to - be head out in the evening for a romantic unchaperoned walk in the open air to essentially the creepiest spot they can find (?). They choose to try "...one of the brooks upon the moor." This is no place for young lovers:
"Above us towered two great columns of rock, between which the water trickled to form a deep, still pool at the bottom. This pool had always been a favourite spot of Charley's, and was a pretty cheerful place by day; but now, with the rising moon reflected upon it's glassy waters, and throwing dark shadows from the overhanging rocks, it seemed anything rather than the haunt of a pleasure seeker."
"The noise that water makes is like the gurgling in the throat of a dying man."
Nice spot, huh? A brilliant and evocative description. Somewhere between The Hound and Reichenbach perhaps? It is in this atmosphere that we first encounter Octavius Gaster.
"Charley had staggered back, and was gazing upwards with a pallid face...I followed the direction of his eyes, and could scarcely suppress a scream."
"...about sixty feet above our heads, a tall dark figure was standing, peering down, apparently, into the rugged hollow in which we were...The moon was just topping the ridge behind, and the gaunt, angular outlines of the stranger stood out hard and clear against its silvery radiance."
This last bit is of course very similar to the Hound sequence with the man on the Tor. The effect is of course rather different. This is followed by a description of the man himself, which brings up the whole vampire angle. This story was published almost 15 years before Stoker's Dracula. This clearly illustrates that the vampire was already a well-defined literary figure before the appearance of the Transylvanian count. Note Doyle's description here:
"...a long thin face of ghastly pallor..."
and two paragraphs later we have
"There was something in his angular proportions and the bloodless face which, taken in conjunction with the black cloak which fluttered from his shoulders, irresistibly reminded me of a blood sucking species of bat which Jack Daseby had brought from Japan..."
While he is certainly described as being repulsive, there is also an
attraction to Gaster. Perhaps another allusion to the repressed sexuality
that also runs through Stoker.
"...the easy grace with which he raised his hat on perceiving the presence of a lady showed that he could lay claim to the savoir faire of a man of the world."
"...a slightly foreign lisp which imparted a peculiar beauty to his voice."
and much later
"...there was the gaunt, vampire-like figure..."
Certainly not out of place in Dracula. I can't help but wonder what Doyle's reading materials consisted of just prior to writing this. Joseph Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla (1872) perhaps? Possibly Varney the Vampire (1847)? Whatever it was, Stoker certainly was at the same source. Without any evidence, I hesitate to go so far as to suggest that Stoker had read this Doyle story, although it is very tempting.
At this point our hapless couple does the natural English thing when meeting strange men upon the moor, they invite him to stay at their home. Gaster sums up my feelings quite admirably on this topic with:
"Truly, when I return to Sweden, I shall have strange stories to tell of the English and the hospitality."
Charley gives a short explanation about strangers wandering in circles, getting lost on the moor and dying of fatigue. Gaster finds the concept highly amusing.
"Ha, ha!" laughed the Swede; "it is not I, who have drifted in an open boat from Cape Blanco to Canary, that will starve upon an English moor."
This line of course sets up the telling of a ghastly story and the hint of cannibalism on Gaster's part. Gaster relates how he and a companion named Karl Osgood had to flee from North Africa after a trading venture went awry. The two floated in an open boat for some time. At some point Karl became
overcome with hunger and cut off his own ears and ate them. (The Cardboard Box echo perhaps?) He promptly died. Gaster's comment is:
"...Had he but used his will he would have lived as I did."
"And you think that a man's will can prevent him from feeling hungry?" said Charley.
"What can it not do?" returned Octavius Gaster...
This of course is the crux of the whole story. Gaster's will. Personally, although I have no evidence, I suspect that Gaster was sustained for the rest of the boat trip with a far more substantial meal than simply ears.
The next few pages deal with Gaster's installation in the household. He manages to speak knowledgeably on a wide and varied range of subjects, endearing him to everyone. A number of offhand remarks on his ugliness are casually dropped. Apparently he doesn't blink much either, which adds yet another layer to the outré qualities of this strange man. To add even more, there is a curious incident with a dog. The bulldog belongs to Charley's bosom friend from Cambridge, young Trevor. An echo which clearly foreshadows a mention in The Gloria Scott. Gaster manages the beast with no trouble, causing it to whimper and hide. It even bites its own master. Another demonstration of will.
Some little time later, our couple find Gaster reading a strange little book written in Arabic. When asked what it was about, Gaster replies with:
"It treats of the days when mind was stronger than what you call matter; when great spirits lived that were able to exist without these coarse bodies of ours, and could mould all things to their so-powerful wills."
Clearly more foreshadowing. Lottie inadvertently finds Gaster quietly laughing over a newspaper clipping. Sneaking into his room, she reads the clipping that describes the mysterious death of the captain aboard a Swedish steamer. It appears that the captain had frequent altercations with the ships Doctor (clearly an unnamed Gaster) which ended with "...declaring that the surgeon was a necromancer and worshipper of the devil..." and of course the Captains death. Another wonderful piece towards atmosphere.
It soon becomes apparent that Gaster is attracted to Lottie, which inevitably leads to a scene with Charley, resulting in Gasters removal from Toynby Hall. All is happy and joy for some days in the wake of Gasters departure. Preparations are made for the big target-shooting event, wherein Charley will play a key part and from which the title is derived. On the very day, we of course find Gaster present. The teams are tied, and Charley must fire the winning shot. Will he make it?
I will leave you with the last sight of Gaster in the narrative. He is nearby as Charley is preparing for his shot.
"His face was turned towards me; but he evidently did not see me, for his eyes were bent with unswerving persistence upon a point midway apparently between the distant targets and himself.
I have never seen anything to compare with the extraordinary concentration of that stare, which had the effect of making his eyeballs appear gorged and prominent, while the pupils were contracted to the finest possible point.
Perspiration was running freely down his long, cadaverous face, and, as the farmers had remarked, there were some traces of foam at the corners of his mouth. The jaw was locked, as if with some fierce effort of the will which demanded all the energy of his soul.
To my dying day that hideous countenance shall never fade from my remembrance nor cease to haunt me in my dreams."
For the sake of those that have not had the pleasure of reading this remarkable story, I will say no more of the plot except to say that it finishes nicely along the lines it started with. Doyle has presented here a
truly chilling tale of the macabre and has demonstrated both superb plotting and his masterful ability to create mood. Yes, the supernatural elements are a bit jarring to the reader used to the calm rationale of the Holmes stories, but I still feel that on reflection, it would have made a superb starting point for a Holmes investigation.
Reviewed by Charles Prepolec
|The Winning Shot (1883)
Originally published in 'Bow Bells' 11 July 1883