Dislodged from Fiction

"Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—"
- Edgar Allan Poe (The Raven, 1845)
In my previous post, "The Reader is Warned," I compiled a list of the worst locked room-and impossible crime novels read to date and I confessed it was nothing more than a filler post, but there was a serious plan to follow it up with a regular review.

Well, that plan was doomed to fail when I decided to read a 1965 reprint of a revised edition from the 1940s of Rupert T. Gould's Oddities: A Book of Unexplained Facts (1929), which aligns this reviews with the series of (filler) posts I made on real-life, "domesticated" locked room mysteries. You can find the five-part series here: I, II, III, IV and V. The extraordinary events, occurrences and problems described by Gould in Oddities took place on a far grander scale than the cutesy impossibilities, resembling a detective story, I collected from around the web.

However, I have to begin with the author himself, who, judging by the introduction written by Leslie Shepard, was somewhat of a character himself. Shepard described Gould as "a remarkably talented and versatile man," whose interests where as varied as it was impressive. Gould served in the Royal Navy, was a nautical and mechanical expert, dabbled in broadcasting and wrote books. It's also mentioned Gould spend twelve years on the cleaning and restoration of four historic marine chronometers made by John Harrison in the 18th century. Oh, and he had a room filled with ancient machines and a notice on the door reading: "HOME OF REST FOR AGED AND DECAYED TYPEWRITERS" and "NO DESERVING CASE EVER REFUSED ADMISSION." The research done in sourcing the origin of the stories, verifying statements from decades ago and fishing for documents in dusty, disarrayed archives is something to be admired when you realize it was done in a time historians in the distant future will simply refer to as B.G. (Before Google). There is, however, one downside: footnotes that can gobble up a good portion of the page and slow down your reading.

Anyhow, the Oddities collected in Gould's books differ from events and person still known today, especially among connoisseurs of the impossible crime story, while others were completely forgotten even at the time when the book was written – which is a shame. The legends and myths of 18th-and 19th century pop-culture were quite interesting, and how they were being discussed really didn’t differ all that much from how it goes today. Take this comment for example: "The Illustrated London News... took the question, and opened it columns to what proved to be quite an extensive correspondence," which Gould quoted extensively in the first chapter that looks at the devil's hoof-marks that appeared in 1855 after a heavy snowfall.

It Walks By Night!
The tracks appeared in several places and covered 40 to 100 miles. Even more curiously, the footprints appeared in the most of impossible and inaccessible of places, "on the tops of houses and narrow walls, in gardens and courtyards enclosed by high walls and palings, as well as in open field." While the locals where convinced the devil was walking among them, the newspapers allowed their readers to speculate on the nature of the beast. The popular opinion was the footprints were made by an animal, but nobody could quite agree on what kind of animals could've made the tracks and how. Suggestions ranged from birds, badgers and even an escaped kangaroo, because a hoax perpetrated on such a scale seems even more preposterous – and which would've been a minor miracle in its own right. The only solution I have to offer can be found in The Footprints of Satan (1950) by Norman Berrow, whose treatment of the Devonshire footprints resemble an obstacle course from hell, nevertheless, it's acceptable enough considering the scale of the problem. Well, I have one other solution, but that would only work in a smaller environment and explaining it would make this post an even longer drag to read that it already is. And did I mention the chapters are littered with maps, diagrams and sketches? There are chapters that actually read like a detective story, but without a proper and satisfying conclusion.

The next chapter is dedicated to the Chase Vault in the cemetery of Christ Church, located on the island of Barbados, which gained an unsavory reputation for the "restless coffins" that were stored inside the sealed crypt. In the early 1800s, the vault became the property of the Chase family and the first to be interred was a two-year-old girl on February 22, 1808 and four years later she was accompanied by her older sister – who reputedly suffered great abuse at the hands of her father, Colonel Thomas Chase. The problems began a month later with the suicide Colonel Chase and the vault had to be reopened again, which showed the coffins had been thrown about the place. It still took a couple of years and repeats of this event for the story to gain some traction, but the precautions taken to prevent trickery came straight out of a locked room mystery. The floor was covered with sand, the place searched for hidden entrances and the governor of Barbados, Lord Combermere, stamped the fresh concrete slab with his seal and "several witnesses added private marks of their own," but upon reopening the crypt the coffins had been thrown around again. Gould quotes from several personal accounts and letters, some found in family archives, and cited three more accounts of dancing coffins in England and the Baltic.

John Dickson Carr attempted to explain this phenomena in The Sleeping Sphinx (1947) and Paul Halter's take can be found in a short story, "The Dead Dance at Night," collected in The Night of the Wolf (2007), of which the former has the most convincing explanation. The popular opinion of today is apparently that the story is "historically dubious," but allows me to offer an alternative explanation. By all accounts, Colonel Chase wasn't a beloved man, who may've been (morally) responsible for his daughter's death and it's not unimaginable the idea of payback in combination with too much time can make a person very creative. Of course, this person couldn't have anticipated Chase would die before the big reveal. This person could've kept the legend for going just for the sake of it and I think having fun is a good enough motive in the Barbados of the early 1800s.

Oh, and the seal, private markings and the sand covered floor are worthless, if the vault isn't constantly guarded. There were months, sometimes even years, between opening and resealing the place, and the markings were pressed in a wet surface – making it possible to cast replicas with plaster for a new concrete slab. I admit it would probably take a craftsman and a handful of accomplishes to do the heavy work, but Chase probably wasn't too popular with the slaves either, considering how he treated his own children.

The fascinating title of the third chapter, "The Ships Seen on the Ice," recounts the aftermath of the ill-fated Artic expedition of Sir John Franklin in 1845 and the disappearance of the Erebus and Terror – alongside with their crew. However, the disappearance of both ships isn't the mystery, but whether or not they were observed a few years later. In April 1851, an English brig fell in with a very large ice-floe, off the Newfoundland Banks, and "on the floe were seen two tree-misted ships, not far apart, one heeled over and the other upright," but were they the abandoned Erebus and Terror? Gould again loads this chapter with passages from documents and witnesses' statements, but the search for both ships continues till this day. Interestingly, Erebus and Terror play a minor part in a latter chapter on unconfirmed or vanished islands. 

Gould's short write-up on the "Berbalangs of Cagayan Sulu" can be used by mystery writers as a plot outline for a Theodore Roscoe-style locked room mystery and who wouldn't want to read an impossible crime story that would begin thus: "It is not generally known (and I do not state it as a fact) that certain American citizens possess the ability to quite their bodies for a short period and to travel about in the form of fire-flies for the purpose of assaulting their neighbors." There's a footnote explaining the American citizen/Filipinos line (read it yourself). Berbalangs are ghouls who need to feed on human flesh in order to survive and you can only protect yourself with cocoanut pearl, limejuice and slashing at it with a Kris – graves of loved ones can be protected with similar items. Gould recounts a story found in an article by Mr. Ethelbert Forbes Skertchley, published in the 1896 journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal, about a visit to Cagayan Sulu and encountering the fire-fly spirits after visiting their village, but the kicker comes when he pokes around the isolated house were moaning of Berbalangs grew fainter. This is what the text says: "...I tried the door, but found it fastened... putting my shoulder to the door, I gave a good push and it fell in." Yes, there’s a body in the locked house. If you'll pardon my pun, but all this needs is some fleshing out and a good solution, and you have an anthology staple! I have no solution to offer here, because I can't make bricks without clay.

There's another, genuine and confirmed locked room situation in the following chapter, "Orffyreus' Wheel," which was a self-moving wheel invented by Johann Bessler and first exhibited in 1712. The idea of "perpetual motion" in the 18th century seems even more unlikely today than it probably did back than, but, if Bessler was a charlatan (very likely), "he must have been an illusionist far superior to Buatier da Kolta or J.N. Maskelyne." And the greatest trick Orffyreus ever played was a grand locked room illusion! On November 12, 1717, the largest of the wheels so far was constructed in a room in Weissenstein Castle, Hesse-Kassel, "where there were no walls contiguous to it, and where one might go freely round it on every side." The wheel was thoroughly inspected and the room closed, secured and sealed, but every time the room was opened the seals were found intact and "wheel revolving with its accustomed regularity" – repeated over a period of several months. Bessler's detractors were many, calling shenanigans and questioned his sanity, and his maid even run away and confessed to have been one of the people who manually operated the wheel. Whatever may have been the case, I have taken a liking to Bessler. He never gained anything from his demonstrations, refusing to share the secret and destroying the machines, but it's admirable how many people he managed to piss off by simply making a wheel spin. The closest example from mystery fiction I can come up with is the self-playing harp in the locked music room from Paul Gallico's Too Many Ghosts (1961).

The Beast Must Die
Oddities officially enters the Twilight Zone in the chapter "Crosse’s Acari," which is the story of a British amateur scientist, Andrew Crosse, who, in 1836, conducted an experiment "looking for silicious formations, and acari appeared instead." Crosse named them Acarus electricus and they are six-and eight legged insects (depending on the size), which ruined the name of their creator, because playing god or something. They were eventually dismissed as mites/cross contamination, but it was still an engrossing piece and learned that there’s such a thing as True Sci-Fi. Well, at the very least, Crosse and the Acari were able to foil the plans of Professor Googengrime.

There remaining chapters deal with the previous mentioned islands, numbers and Nostradamus, but the only one that really captured my attention was the one about "The Wizard of Mauritius," the beacon-keeper of the Isle of France, "who saw in the air the vessels bound to the island long before they appeared in the offing," which is a story Gould excavated after coming across a throw-away line. The wizard managed to do this in 1784, but the exact method behind the new science of nauscopie has been lost. Almost forgot: there's the chapter about an unknown, lost planet, named Vulcan, which still remains a planet of fiction to this day.

All in all, Oddities is a fun and often-intriguing compendium of the kind of weird stories you'd expect from a planet like ours, even if it were somewhat dated. I also liked the many historical characters popping up, such as Conan Doyle and Jean-Paul Marat, and other historical tidbits. Gould plays the role of impartial auditor very well as he tests these stories on their merit and brings more sanity to them there reasonably should be.  


  1. Extremely interesting post; thank you for this detailed summary.

  2. I note the following passage in George Orwell's essay on Charles Reade: "What is the attraction of Reade? At bottom it is the same charm as one finds in R. Austin Freeman's detective stories or Lieutenant Commander Gould's collections of curiosities - the charm of useless knowledge."

    1. That would actually have been a better quote for this review than the line from The Raven.

      P.S. archiac knowledge is grossly underrated these days.

  3. Interesting mention of both Rupert Gould and Richard Austin Freeman. They were both quite close friends. It is tempting to think that Freeman was behind Gould's decision to write Oddities.