Sherlockian Musings – Thoughts on the Sherlock Holmes stories
The Creeping Man creeping down the stairs,
illustration by Howard Elcock.
The Creeping Man
Monkey glands, Watson! Or is it lumbago? No, not lumbago. You are so flat-footed, Watson. You have to think outside the box, or in this case inside the box. What is in that box? Some mysterious injectable drug. Cocaine? No, that was my drug. This is Professor Presbury’s drug, which he is using to, well, you know, become young again so at the age of 61 he can properly function as the fiancé of a young woman – if you know what I mean.
And maybe he’s ready to function, but he’s only the fiancé, not the husband, and in those days fiancés didn’t get conjugal rights, did they? But he has to work off his energies somehow, so he climbs the ivy and peers in his daughter’s bedroom, even seeming about to push in the window of the bedroom in order to … well, what? Is this turning into the lurid incestuous fantasy that critics like Joshua Wade see? But Sherlock Holmes says that climbing to the daughter’s window was mere chance because the monkeyfied professor enjoyed climbing.
He certainly did that, and was quite agile about it. Maybe he is still quite agile about it. Holmes doesn’t stop him from taking his monkey serum, does he? Does anyone? Does he marry his colleague’s young daughter and show her some of his monkey tricks? Would that be a bad thing?
Well, of course it would be a bad thing, a scandalous thing, an “excessive” thing, as the family says, and as Holmes reinforces. And this is not even considering the monkey drug; it’s the idea of an old professor marrying a young girl. Where did he even get such an idea? Perhaps from studying Comparative Anatomy? Or does that just take us back to monkeys?
But wait: As a couple of recent critics have suggested, doesn’t the monkey serum actually make the Professor come more alive? And it doesn’t dim his mental faculties as Holmes at first expects; he remembers things very well and is able to give brilliant lectures. He has even more energy than before, his assistant and son-in-law-to-be says. So what’s the problem? Well, it does mean he gets rather irascible, pervertedly spies on his daughter, and tries to torture his own dog, who finally slips his leash and attacks back, perhaps reflecting the transgressiveness of his master.
And it’s all a great threat to humanity, says Mr. Sherlock Holmes. All this playing with science to go against Nature. It will mean encouraging all the sensual, physical types to prolong their lives, especially their, ahem, sexual lives, turning Darwin on his head and ensuring the survival of the unfit. Though as the critic Virginia Richter says, are we sure those are the unfit? If they’re so strong and all, aren’t they after all the fit? But true, they’re not spiritual types who are ready to give up this life on earth for “something higher,” as Holmes puts it. Would that be the better way? To just give up? You’re 61, you’ve had your innings, let the young people play now.
Retirement, that’s the thing, and after retirement, well, you know. Holmes thinks maybe it’s time he was moving on to “that little farm of my dreams,” and Watson lets us know that in fact by the time of publication he has done it. The critic Sylvia Pamboukian slyly notes that though Holmes seems eager for retirement, that’s not the path his creator chose for himself: Conan Doyle embarked on his new career of promoting Spiritualism and kept on writing, even writing these Sherlock Holmes stories about retirement, and of course he remarried just like that aging Professor and even produced some more children. Was he using monkey glands?
Older men pursuing young women: This features a lot in the Case-Book, Pamboukian says. Check out “Thor Bridge” and “Sussex Vampire.” Are these good things? But Holmes and Trevor Bennett disapprove, and they are proper Victorian gentlemen, so shouldn’t we believe them? Maybe not, says Pamboukian. She says this story, which lacks an actual crime and seems on first reading to fizzle out into implausibility and obviousness, may actually be a quite serious study of the problem of aging.
And what does Sherlock Holmes have to say about aging? Well, really, you know, this is not exactly the detective’s area. If you’ve lost your racehorse or your naval treaty, he can help you. But to retrieve your youth, ah, well. So what is one to do? There seem to be two choices: either you gracefully slide into retirement and, well, you know. Or you resort to the back alleys of science and find some questionable means to prolong your life and rejuvenate your essences. But that second path could undermine all our social norms, our civilization, the boundaries of what is proper. Is there some middle path? Lawn bowling?
Fresh blood: Several of the stories talk about the need to reinvigorate England by drawing on the Continent or North or South America, but this one goes a step further and talks about actual blood, or serum. Perhaps that is taking it too far? But who knows?
Meanwhile, the most entertaining part of the story, unless you really enjoy professors acting like monkeys, is the opening, in which Watson explores the nature of his “alliance” with the Master Detective. I’m sort of a plodder, Watson says, but useful for all that, as a sort of whetstone that helps produce sparks. But is he beginning to resent his role? Dorothy Sayers, as reported by Klinger, seems to think so: why else does he complain about being dragged away from his work to hear about the problems of the professor’s dog? When has Watson ever been reluctant to abandon doctoring for an adventure? But maybe he’s growing old too; maybe our old friends have reached the age when soon they’ll just be creeping along. Will they become creeping men?
But no, no, no, that’s not what the story means by a creeping man. Professor Presbury can leap large buildings in, well, not a single bound, but in perhaps several. Bounding, that’s what he seems to be able to do, or skipping as Watson puts it at one point. He doesn’t crawl on hands and knees; he goes on all fours, hands and feet. So it’s bounding or, perhaps, bouncing. And his knuckles, we are supposed to notice his knuckles: they have grown thick and horny, as they would if you were knuckle-walking like an ape. No, creeping is not at all the right word for the Professor, unless it is to suggest that his actions are creepy; he is certainly creeping the other characters out, to use a much later idiom. But he is bounding along, really, not creeping. Full of energy, not sluggishness. The title of the story seems unfair to him, as if written by the other characters who fear his new powers, though I suppose to have called it “The Skipping Man” might not have conjured up the right sense either.
Some huge bat: That would be the Professor again, now reminding us of Dracula. And earlier all that talk of dates and the phases of the moon, not to mention the wolfhound, can make you think of werewolves. But no, it’s monkeys all the way, and not something supernatural, but out of the realms of science, or at least science fiction: something to scare us about science gone wild and creating a race of bestial men. But at the end we put it all behind us, and go off to the Chequers inn, where the linen is above reproach and one can get a nice cup of tea. Holmes carries us back to civilization, leaving The Monkey-Man behind. (Now that would have been a better title, though it would of course have given the game away.)
Ah well, an end to these experiments with rejuvenation or with solving the problem of 61-year-old men who seek after young women, and let us return to the natural current of life, carrying us inexorably towards our end.
 Well, he tries to by cutting off the supply, but does he succeed?
Excerpted from my book of Sherlockian Musings, available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and Amazon UK.