Sherlock Holmes and the Creepy Cellar
Note: reprinted from March 25 with minor edits. When I was a boy of about 10 or 11, I decided to explore our farmhouse's basement, a place as dark and mysterious as any pyramid in Egypt or crypt in Highgate Cemetery in my youthful imagination.
I do not know what led me to explore it. The house had a long history of being haunted by a ghost of a long-dead relative. And the room in the basement I went on that day was the spookiest place in the house. I may have been bored. More likely I decided to explore it because of my curse: I was born with an insatiable curiosity, a dreadful and at times dangerous affliction.
For whatever the reason I explored the basement on that long ago day, what I found changed my life forever.
Most of the basement was well lit and as ordinary as any recreation room you might imagine from the 1970s.
However, further back were older, almost forgotten rooms from before additions expanded the farmhouse. Down one narrow tunnel-like hall was the room with the oil burner furnace. I had been in that room several times holding the flashlight for my father as he repaired it or changed filters.
Off the tunnel-like hall was a door made from scrap lumber. That door opened to the oldest room: the cellar. The original outside entrance of the cellar had long been sealed off.
I carried a flashlight in one hand and pushed the door open with the other. I shined the beam of light around. Spider webs hung from the ceiling and I broke my way through them. Dust motes danced in my flashlight and my sneakers sounded loud on the bricks as I crossed the room, so much larger in my memory than it is today.
Rows of shelves lined the brick wall. Mason jars of long ago canned vegetables covered the shelves, looking vaguely like a mad scientist's forbidden experiments stored in formaldehyde in his laboratory.
And stored on one shelf was a wooden crate. I shined my light in the box with a mix of trepidation and curiosity.
Inside was a treasure trove of items to a boy. There was a pocket knife, a compass, a military blade in a sheath, a U.S. Army magazine clip holder made of dark green canvas. And books.
I held the flashlight between my chin and shoulder and opened the book on top.
"Sherlock Holmes and Other Detective Stories" by A. Conan Doyle. Wood-engravings by John Musacchia. An Illustrated Edition. Copyright, 1941 -- Illustrated Editions Co. Inc.
The illustrations are not the immortal Sidney Paget illustrations one usually thinks of when imagining Sherlock Holmes. These are wood engravings, black with white lines. At the time I thought them frightful. Looking at them now, I can understand why. Looking at them now I see the illustrations as a cross between Victoriana and art deco as imagined by H.P. Lovecraft. The illustration of the dead Bartholomew Sholto as seen through a key hole is particularly horrific. I skipped the first story in the book, The Red Headed League, for I disliked the drawing so much.
I knew of Sherlock Holmes and had read a story or two before. But as I sat down on an old paint can as my stool and began to read in that spooky atmosphere, I fell in love with the words.
"My dear fellow," said Sherlock Holmes, as we sat on either side of the fire in his lodgings at Baker Street, "life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent."
So begins the Sherlock Holmes' tale, "A Case of Identity."
I read in the creepy gloom of the cellar until I finished the story. I took the book with me outside into the sunshine. I still have it as well as 94 other editions and pastiches.
I also took the book with me in other ways. For my 30th birthday, I traveled to London. The first place I went after taking a nap in my hotel was Baker Street.
Recently, my two oldest daughters asked me to watch the PBS series Wishbone's version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. And after that, they asked to watch one of my Sherlock Holmes movies so after careful consideration to not put in anything too frightful, we watched Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. They told me how much they liked Sherlock Holmes. To me, it was like a dream come true. After I finish the book I'm currently reading to them, I'll read them The Hound of the Baskervilles.