No Ghosts Need Apply: A Chat with Aaron Smith

James Bojaciuk

The Sherlock Holmes stories may be the most copied form of literature, pastiched and paraded by more authors than even the dedicated Sherlockian can count.

It was my pleasure to sit down with one of the modern masters of the form, Aaron Smith, and pick his brain on Sherlock Holmes and the mechanics of his character and universe. Recently, his latest Sherlock Holmes story, The Cocoon of His Dreams, was released by 18thWall Productions.

The Cocoon of His Dreams

1) It’s time for the question every Holmesian author is confronted with, sooner or later. How did you discover Sherlock Holmes? What does he mean to you?

I’m sure I was aware of Sherlock Holmes from a very young age. You can’t miss him since he’s so iconic and images of him show up everywhere from movies to Sesame Street characters based on him. So I knew who he was and the basics of his character, such as him being a detective and having a partner named Watson, but it wasn’t until I was about 10 years old that I really got interested in him.

I walked into the living room one evening as my father was watching an episode of the Jeremy Brett TV series (“The Devil’s Foot” was the one), so I sat down and watched it with him and became captivated by the strangeness of the story and the intensity of the character. I was so impressed that I wanted to read the original stories. My grandfather heard about this and dug out the old Complete Sherlock Holmes book he’d had since he was a child (a beautiful, massive red hardcover published in 1938) and gave it to me as a Christmas present. I read the whole Doyle canon over the course of several months and was hooked on Holmes for life. At the time, of course, I never dreamed that I might someday get a chance to write my own Holmes stories and have people pay to read them! That still amazes me after almost a decade of doing this.

As for what Holmes means to me, he’s my all-time favorite fictional character, a constant companion for me over the years via the Doyle stories and the work of the authors who followed Doyle, and the countless film and TV versions of the character, some of which I love and some of which I loathe. Visiting 221B Baker Street, whether by rereading Doyle or through watching Jeremy Brett or Peter Cushing or Basil Rathbone or Arthur Wontner portray the Great Detective or by the process of working on one of my own Holmes stories is like going home. I’m comfortable in that world, within that concept, with those characters. Also, Holmes was my gateway drug to the whole mystery genre. It started with Holmes and that led me to other fictional detectives, with some of my favorites being Hercule Poirot, Inspector Morse, and Cadfael, and, on TV, Peter Falk’s brilliant portrayal of Columbo (when the TV powers that be get around to rebooting/ recasting that one, I promise you my head will explode!).

And I know I’m going on at some length about this, but Holmes is important to me on another level too, and I suspect this has helped make him so popular, though I don’t know if many people even realize this is happening in there. Or maybe I’m the only one who sees this. I don’t know. Anyway, I’ve sometimes thought that it’s the combination of Holmes and Watson as two very different characters that sort of come together to make up what you might call the ideal personality for a heroic character. It’s just split in two to make it more dramatic and, of course, to allow for the wonderful concept of Watson narrating the stories (which enables the reader to see the genius Holmes through the eyes of the reasonably intelligent but not superhumanly so Watson, who represents us). But if you put Holmes and Watson together, you get an entity that contains all the attributes of a human being at his best: from Holmes we get the vast intellect and the ability to use it well, plus the “I am who I am and I don’t give a damn what you think of me” attitude that we all sometimes wish we could use in everyday life, and then from Watson we get bravery, loyalty, and true good-heartedness. That’s a hell of a fine combination between the two of them and I think that dynamic is a big part of what makes Holmes and Watson so special to their readers. On a side note, it’s very much the same equation of personalities (with an added number to the operation) that gave Star Trek’s trinity of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy such appeal.

So, yes, Sherlock Holmes means a lot to me. Oh, yes, I almost forgot, he means paychecks too, and those are always welcome!

Sherlock Holmes Mysteries

2) Your Van Helsing is significantly inspired by Peter Cushing’s. How did you discover his Dracula series, and what about it continues to inspire you?

I’ve been a fan of Dracula, in his many forms as a character, for probably longer than I’ve been interested in Holmes. Dracula is my favorite fictional villain, whether in Stoker’s novel or the countless film versions (most of which don’t follow the book much at all) or in the brilliant Marvel Comics series Tomb of Dracula from the 1970s. So of course I’m interested in the Hammer Dracula movies of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Christopher Lee is my favorite screen Dracula and Peter Cushing is my favorite Van Helsing. In fact, Peter Cushing just might be my favorite actor ever. He was equally great at playing good or evil, and he was also a superb Sherlock Holmes. His Van Helsing was quite different than the way Bram Stoker portrayed the character. The Cushing Van Helsing is, like his literary counterpart, a scientist who also knows a lot about the supernatural and occult, but he’s also a man of action and will go to any lengths to stop the plague that vampires are to humanity. Whereas Van Helsing in the novel was one of an ensemble cast of heroes facing Dracula, the Hammer version is the main hero of the films he appears in. He’s really in the spotlight and Cushing’s masterful portrayal makes him as important a part of those films as Dracula is. Those movies and that character, much like Holmes, I suppose, appeal to me on two levels. One, they’re good stories, good enough to be enjoyed over and over again and find something new about on each viewing. Two, they’re like old friends, worth revisiting often for sentimental reasons.

3) You’ve written about your take on Van Helsing before. Tell us more about that.

Last year, April Moon Books, which is a fantastic publisher I had worked with once before on a giant monsters anthology called Stomping Grounds, did a book called Spawn of the Ripper, which featured short stories paying tribute to the Hammer horror movies. Of course, I couldn’t resist taking a stab at writing a story about Van Helsing, with my version being mostly inspired by Peter Cushing’s portrayal.

Spawn of the Ripper

The story is called “The Blood-soaked Sand” and takes place in the late 1800s when Van Helsing joins an old friend who happens to be an Egyptologist, along with the friend’s daughter, a British soldier who’s traveled there to meet the Egyptologist, and several others on a dig some distance from Cairo. The group finds a bunch of mummies in a series of tombs, but the joy of discovery is interrupted when vampires, who seem to have followed Van Helsing there seeking revenge for what happened to Dracula, attack the camp. The group, led by Van Helsing, has to find a rather novel solution to the problem.

I tried to make the story as much like a Hammer movie as possible. Judging by some of the reviews, I succeeded, at least in the eyes of some readers, one of whom said it felt like “the perfect extra installment in Hammer’s Dracula series.” That’s one of my favorite phrases I’ve ever seen in a review of my work!

4) This story is one of a growing number that confront Holmes with the supernatural, but you found a unique take on it that doesn’t violate Holmes’ perception of the world. It’s a clever solution to the problem so many authors face. Why do you think Holmes should be spared direct encounters with monsters and weird powers?

Sherlock Holmes is successful as a detective because of the way his mind works and how he has trained that mind to be as sharp as humanly possible. He’s very, very good at observing details, and he categorizes those details like a scientist so that he can very easily bring them back up to the surface of his mind. He notices things, finds out what they indicate, and recalls those answers as needed in a way that often seems to others to be almost superhuman. A sight, a smell, a sound, a taste, or a texture enters the attention of Holmes and his mind automatically recalls what it probably signifies. He then takes another detail and adds it to the first and repeats the process until all those little bits of information, like the words in a sentence or the numbers in an equation, tell him the whole story of whatever or whoever he’s examining. The trick is that he does it so quickly that it impresses or shocks or scares whoever he’s doing it in front of!

Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective Volume 4

For example, if Holmes looked at my hands, he’d probably notice the little calluses on the fingertips of my left hand but not my right and conclude, based on the shape and size and placement of those patches of tough skin, that I play the guitar. He might then conclude that although I play the way a right-handed person does, which is by pressing the instrument’s frets with the left fingers and picking or strumming with the right, I’m actually left-handed because he would have also noted the spot on my left middle finger where the pen presses when I write. Writing with the left hand usually indicates a southpaw (or an ambidextrous person, but those are quite rare), but many left-handed people play guitar the way a right-handed person does. And I’m sure he’d go further and find little hints on my clothes and shoes to tell him what I do for a day job, etc, etc, etc.

But the key to Holmes’ talent is that he memorized what things mean and that means that physical phenomena has to follow certain rules or laws and remain consistent.

Doyle’s stories, as dramatic and interesting and sometimes downright weird as they are, could very easily take place in the real world, and that’s also part of their appeal, at least for me, and, I suspect, for many other Holmes fans.

Now, if you insert the supernatural into Holmes’ world, it does two things that I find rather awkward in most cases. First, it takes Holmes out of the rather realistic world that Doyle portrayed him as inhabiting. Second, it makes his unique set of skills far less potent as tools of his trade, because a reality with ghosts and goblins hiding in random shadows and vampires stalking the foggy streets of London and all sorts of other strange happenings no longer abides by laws that can be understood by realistic observation and categorization. In such a world, Sherlock Holmes becomes far less effective as an investigator because things don’t work so consistently. If you bring in magic and mysticism and too many supernatural variables, the concreteness of reality is lost and Holmes can’t be certain of anything, and that certainty, or at least a series of very educated guesses, is his great weapon against the ignorant and unobservant.

Is it possible to write a good Holmes story set in a world where the supernatural exists? Yes, I think it is, and I hope my “The Cocoon of his Dreams” is one of those successes, but it should be done sparingly, I think.

I’ve actually vowed to not use the supernatural in my regular series of Sherlock Holmes stories for Airship 27 Productions (not that editor Ron Fortier would let me get away with that anyway!) because I prefer to stick to the way Doyle portrayed Holmes, at least most of the time.

While “The Cocoon of his Dreams” contains the character of Holmes, as well as several prominent members of his usual supporting cast, it’s not one of my pure Holmes mysteries, but, rather, a Van Helsing story that just happens to include a version of Holmes and his world.

And even with “Cocoon,” while happily suspending my self-imposed rule against supernatural Holmes stories (think of this one, if you will, as an alternate reality to the one in which most of my Holmes tales take place), I could not bring myself to have Holmes be fully aware of the strange events that surround him, for that would break the concept of who he is. I hope readers are satisfied with the solution I came up with to make a path around the problem. I’m not going to say exactly what that is, though, because I want to leave surprises for when they read the story!

5) Where can our readers follow you on social media?

I can be followed on Twitter as @AaronSmith377

On Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001125888963

I have a blog at www.godsandgalaxies.blogspot.com

And anyone interested in my work is welcome to join my mailing list at http://amazon.us12.list-manage2.com/subscribe?u=f1d3a093669610c1d383d044b&id=ff9a9205ed

Thank you, Aaron. The Cocoon of His Dreams is available now on Kindle, from Amazon, and on Kindle, EPUB, and PDF from 18thWall Productions.

The Cocoon of His Dreams