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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, January 4, 2014


The motive for my recent meditations on the "nonbody" nature of the uncanny in this essay came about as I meditated on my analysis of the 1965 film A STUDY IN TERROR.

Sherlock Holmes, both in the canonical stories and in the character's many public domain adaptations, has been valuable to my studies in that he has been all over the phenomenal map.  In addition, though I've judged that the original canon does not generally manifest the mode of the combative, many of the adaptations-- including STUDY-- have been instructive about the ways in which a character known primarily for deduction became equally associated with martial adventures.

Now, when I declare STUDY IN TERROR to be a metaphenomenal film, I do so in the conviction that its use of the "perilous psycho" trope-- incarnate in the film's version of Jack the Ripper-- conveys the element of "strangeness" necessary for any metaphenomenal work. 

I also find that STUDY satisfies my requirements for a combative work: a narrative focus upon a plotline leading to an important battle at or near the story's climax, and a battle that depicts "spectacular violence" between two or more entities.  It is possible for one of the two to be *naturalistic* in nature-- which was my original estimation of this version of Holmes-- but for a work to be both combative and metaphenomenal, the other combatant must be either uncanny or marvelous.

I started thinking, though: in what qualities does Jack the Ripper's metaphenomenality inhere?  As his only qualification for the metaphenomenal is his status as a "perilous psycho," that metaphenomenality must inhere in a mental, "non-body" quality.  His madness is his method, and therefore his metaphenomenality.

So far so good.  But I began to wonder-- what about Sherlock's own mental attributes?  He isn't a psycho, at least in this version.  But his polymath deductive skills might qualify Holmes-- or some versions of Holmes-- as a metaphenomenal figure, in keeping with another trope, "Outre Outfits Skills and Devices."  Holmes does not use any special devices in most iterations, and though his traditional appearance has become iconic it is not in itself "outre."  But what of his mental skills?

The last time I weighed in on Sherlock's mental propensities, I judged that they were entirely naturalistic.  In my review of the 1922 SHERLOCK HOLMES I wrote:

Many of Doyle's Holmes tales inhabit a world between the naturalistic and the uncanny. In contrast to many detectives, who seem merely clever, Holmes repeatedly conveys the impression of an all-knowing psychic. However, this impression is always (both in original stories and media-adaptations) quickly dispelled by Holmes himself explaining his intuitions in terms of empirical observations. Holmes' deductive skills thus always register in the naturalistic mode and never in the uncanny.
But now I'm not so sure.  True, Holmes always offers rational reasons for his amazing deductions, and, unlike his creator, frowns upon the idea of psychic phenomena.  But in some sense, his abilities to descry peoples' occupations or peregrinations from their appearance appears much like the tricks of mentalists, who appear to be psychic by virtue of "knowing" things about strangers.  This comparison would also give Holmes a link to the trope of "enthralling illusionism."

After weighing the matter, I would say that most of Holmes' amazing observations about people still tend to belong to the naturalistic, as they do not create a sense of strangeness.  So Holmes uses a naturalistic, not an uncanny, version of the "illusionism" trope. 

However, I must consider that another aspect of his mental skill-set seems more uncanny. I called him a "polymath" before, and in truth one key to Holmes' deductions is his ability to know more than the common man knows.  There are many naturalistic characters who are virtual storehouses of knowledge.  Yet Holmes' fount of knowledge does, at times, seem to verge into the territory of the uncanny.  It might be best to posit that Holmes-stories are uncanny only when he taps into some knowledge that seems too recondite for even a consulting detective to know.

This in turn leads me to consider that other characters may have uncanny propensities due to their outre levels of knowledge. In Bram Stoker's DRACULA the human opponents of the vampire would be practically powerless to fight Dracula, if not for Van Helsing's knowledge of the occult.  By this logic Van Helsing would be an even stronger candidate to be considered an "uncanny" opponent to the "marvelous" central character.

Other polymaths appear throughout popular literature, and many of them show excessive abilities to devise a wide number of devices by virtue of scientific genius.  In A SHORT HISTORY OF HEROIC FANTASY-ADVENTURE I concluded that the dime novel "Steam Man of the Plains" seems to have been one of the first modernistic works of heroic fantasy-adventure, as well as depicting a combative encounter between the titular Steam Man and a band of nasty Indians.  The protagonist of that story, then, might be deemed to have an uncanny skill in being able to devise such a creation, even though the dominant phenomenality of the story is "marvelous." 

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