—“The Adventure of the Creeping Man”
“The Adventure of the Creeping Man” stands out in the canon as the story most likely to generate divided opinion among the Holmes faithful. Critic David Stuart Davies declared it “risible” in his Afterward to the Case Book, and, in perhaps the most notable work of pastiche, 1974’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, novelist Nicholas Meyer attempted to remove the “drivel” from the canon by questioning its authenticity. The strong character of these criticisms notwithstanding, scholars of varying temperaments continue to reckon with the story. Writing in the Baker Street Journal, Philip A. Shreffler wears his Sherlockian heart on his sleeve and takes the criticism of the story seriously, noting:
It is—one has to admit—more than somewhat difficult to take “The Creeping Man” entirely seriously as a Sherlock Holmes case, however well it may serve as a variety of Victorian science fiction. Yet whatever horror it engenders is as much that of the human psyche as it is of men who creep.
It is worth noting that the story comes at a time when Conan Doyle, who was no stranger to producing non-Holmes works in the genres of supernatural fiction, horror, and science fiction (such as 1913’s “The Horror of the Heights” and 1921’s “The Nightmare Room”), had become increasingly involved in Spiritualism and matters of the supernatural, including carrying on a correspondence on such matters with noted magician, illusionist and escape-artist Harry Houdini, whom he had met in 1920. While “Creeping Man” may owe its tone and subject matter to these preoccupations, to solely place it among these influences may be to dismiss it too hastily.
At the center of “Creeping Man,” after all, is a rather extreme examination of the impact of aging. Aged 64 at the time of the story’s publication, Conan Doyle himself bears a striking resemblance to the titular antagonist of the story, Professor Presbury. Moreover, Conan Doyle may have committed to writing a kind of homage to his late friends Bram Stoker and, Robert Lewis Stevenson, both masters of the supernatural genre. It is in particular to Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that “Creeping Man” owes a great deal. While Conan Doyle’s attempts to fold all of his varied interests—the occult and quotidian—into the travails of his detective may, on occasion, fall short, a careful reader must, nevertheless, confront the all too human heart that beats within them.