Watson includes a lot of dialogue, so the tone of his narration often shifts whenever he's talking to someone new. However, there's a distinctive feel to Watson's internal monologues and descriptions. Take, for example, this scene from his first night in Baskerville Hall:
Far away a chiming clock struck out the quarters of the hours, but otherwise a deathly silence lay upon the old house. And then suddenly, in the very dead of the night, there came a sound to my ears, clear, resonant, and unmistakable. It was the sob of a woman, the muffled, strangling gasp of one who is torn by an uncontrollable sorrow. (6.72)
Watson is fascinated by all of the little details of this scene, by the "chiming clock" and the particular "muffled, strangling gasp" of the unknown woman's sobs. He's got a great eye (or ear) for specifics, which always gives us the impression—even in less emotional descriptions than this one—that Watson is intensely interested in whatever he's reporting to us.
Check out the way that Watson presents this mysterious woman's tears. He emphasizes that "a deathly silence lay upon the old house," when "in the very dead of night" he hears sobbing. This repetition of "dead" not only gives us a sense of how still and silent the house is (answer: extremely), but it also gives a mournful, sad feeling to Watson's description of the crying he hears. Watson's choice of language here conveys a sense of emotion as well as fact, which helps capture our interest as readers. In fact, all of Watson's descriptions tend to emphasize how they make him feel, which gives us a sense not only of the scene, but also of Watson's personality.
The "mystery" part of the genre of The Hound of the Baskervilles is pretty obvious: who killed Sir Charles Baskerville? Who is trying to kill his heir, Sir Henry? These questions are the plot engines of the novel, and it's the job of Holmes and Watson to provide the answers. As for "adventure," well, there's a game of wits between Holmes and his murderous opponent Stapleton, which involves dangerous bogs, false identities, secret dogs, and hidden love affairs. That sounds like adventure to us.
Can we attach a "Gothic" label to a detective story like The Hound of the Baskervilles? We think we can make a good case for it. Gothic fiction is supposed to frighten you; it also, characteristically, has dark, over-the-top imagery, melodrama, maidens in peril, things going bump in the night, madness, and supernatural elements. Think Tim Burton movies (Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd) and Edgar Allan Poe (almost everything he ever wrote).
The story of Hugo Baskerville getting his throat torn out by a beast from hell after locking up a woman in his castle? Totally Gothic. Or how about this description from Watson of his first approach to Baskerville Hall:
Through the gateway we passed into the avenue, where the wheels were again hushed amid the leaves, and the old trees shot their branches in a sombre tunnel over our heads. Baskerville shuddered as he looked up the long, dark drive to where the house glimmered like a ghost at the farther end. (6.42)
Give us a sec—we'll be out from under the covers in a minute.
In some ways, Holmes is the antidote to the Gothic elements in the novel. He's too practical and grounded to get carried away by the creepy atmosphere. The bright lights and modern atmosphere of London are comforting to the reader after the foggy, scary bogs of Dartmoor.
The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of detective fiction's great titles. It's got rhythm. It has an old-fashioned edge ("Hound" instead of "Dog"), and it invites us into the mystery right off the bat: who are the Baskervilles? What's this about a hound? The title makes us want to jump right in, and when we do, we're rewarded with the story of the Hound right away.
Conan Doyle got both the "Hound" part and the "Baskerville" part from other sources: as we mentioned in our "In a Nutshell" section, the inspiration for the ghost dog of Dartmoor came from Bertram Fletcher Robinson, a journalist and golf buddy of Conan Doyle.
As for the "Baskerville" part, Robinson had a driver named "Harry Baskerville," who probably provided the name (if not the fabulous wealth and the giant house) for the Baskerville family in the novel. We like Conan Doyle's ear for cool names; somehow The Hound of the Potters or The Hound of the Bagginses doesn't quite cut it.
The ending of The Hound of the Baskervilles isa little strange. The big finale when Holmes and Watson shoot the Hound, Stapleton disappears into the bog, and they find Beryl Stapleton tied up in a bedroom in Merripit House—that all happens in Chapter 14, the chapter before the final one of the novel.
The actual ending comes about a month after the finale, when Holmes and Watson are safely back in their London apartment sitting around the fire. It seems like things have been busy at Baker Street since their return from Dartmoor, and they're only just now catching up on the loose ends of the Baskerville case.
Does it seem strange that The Hound of the Baskervilles ends with a lengthy verbal explanation from Holmes about Stapleton's relationship with the Baskerville family? Wouldn't the gruesome, dramatic sight of Stapleton sinking into the Grimpen Mire seem to make the more awesome and sensible ending?
Maybe not. After all, the novel starts in Holmes and Watson's living room, as Watson inspects Doctor Mortimer's walking stick. Now that the case has been solved, Holmes and Watson are back where they started—back where they belong—in their own home in London. Order has been restored in Dartmoor, Stapleton has drowned in his bog, the mystery has been solved, and all's right with the world. That last scene brings us back a world where everything can be explained and understood. No ghosts. Whew.
The Hound of the Baskervilles gives us the impression that the city of London is basically sitting in the palm of Sherlock Holmes' hand. In London, Holmes has Cartwright, the admiring messenger kid who runs errands for him. He's got art galleries and operas, insider connections with Scotland Yard, and his loyal pal Watson. He's a local celeb.
In fact, when Holmes reflects back on Stapleton's plans, he notes that Stapleton decides to leave London to continue his plot against Sir Henry in Dartmoor because Stapleton "understood that [Holmes] had taken over the case in London, and that therefore there was no chance for him there" (15.16). Holmes is so influential in London that he actually scares Stapleton away just by starting to look into Sir Henry's case there.
But Dartmoor is totally different from Holmes' London: it's gloomier and more isolated. Between the moaning howls of the Hound, the prehistoric settlements (which really do exist), and the close proximity of the famous prison, Dartmoor seems like an excellent setting for a Gothic horror novel. How can Holmes possibly apply his usual methods of logic and deduction in such a wild, lonely, unpredictable place?
Being Holmes, he manages very well. When Watson first sets eyes on him just outside of the prehistoric hut that Holmes has been camping in, Watson finds that Holmes "had contrived, with that cat-like love of personal cleanliness which was one of his characteristics, that his chin should be as smooth and his linen as perfect as if he were in Baker Street" (12.4).
London is the modern, progressive city of the future where reason prevails and the lights stay on. In contrast, Dartmoor and its surrounding countryside represent the darkness and superstition of the ancient past. Holmes, in from London, manages to "illuminate" the dark and sinister goings-on in Dartmoor. Much more on this in our "Themes" section.
The Hound of the Baskervilles is a great read overall. Oh, there's some flowery, stilted language here and there, but hey—this book was published over a hundred years ago and English writing style has changed a bit since then. But besides that, Hound is basically a plot-heavy, fast-paced mystery/adventure novel. It doesn't get bogged down (pun again intended) in description, and it keeps us interested by all of its strange, unpredictable twists and turns. This book would definitely make for relaxing vacation reading, if you're looking for something for winter or spring break.
Plot details tend to pile up in mystery novels, and The Hound of the Baskervilles is no exception. There's a lot going on in this book, with new surprises every chapter, so the narrative often feels like it's racing ahead. Still, Watson also takes the time to describe things very thoroughly. Conan Doyle wants you to get a feel for each scene and setting, so that the mystery of the novel seems urgent and interesting to you as the reader. Let's take a look at a passage from one of Watson's telegrams to Holmes:
My previous letters and telegram have kept you pretty well up-to-date as to all that has occurred in this most God-forsaken corner of the world. The longer one stays here the more does the spirit of the moor sink into one's soul, its vastness, and also its grim charm. (8.2)
Get a look at those adjectives. "God-forsaken" is probably the most dramatic, but "grim charm" also gives us a sense of Dartmoor's barren beauty. Even Watson's choice of verb—that the spirit of the moor sinks into the soul—suggests the heaviness and darkness of the place. Watson uses a lot of words to tell us what we already sense from the plot of the novel: that Dartmoor is shadowy and somber. However, Watson's expressive descriptions add something of the flavor of his experiences as well as just the events.
There's a lot of dialogue in the book that sounds wordy and stilted to our modern ears. For example, Dr. Mortimer tells Holmes,
My motive for withholding [the Baskerville manuscript] from the coroner's inquiry is that a man of science shrinks from placing himself in the public position of seeming to endorse a popular superstition. (3.105)
He could have just said "I didn't want people to think I was, like, an idiot." Maybe people were just smarter back then.
But the language is probably not too unfamiliar if you've read other novels written at the time.
Doctor Mortimer's walking stick is the first object that appears in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Holmes uses it to test Watson's skills at deduction, in which you make conclusions about something based on the general evidence you know to be true. Watson mostly fails at this game—though he's right that Doctor Mortimer practices medicine in the country, since his stick shows signs of lots of walking. However, nobody beats Holmes at this kind of stuff.
Holmes sees the inscription of "C.C.H." on the stick and figures out that Doctor Mortimer was a resident/student at the Charing Cross Hospital in London. From this fact, he reasons that Doctor Mortimer must be a youngish guy, maybe under thirty, who isn't too ambitious in his profession, since he's left London to practice medicine in the countryside.
Holmes observes the slight tooth marks on the stick and decides that Doctor Mortimer must have a medium-sized dog. All of Holmes' conclusions turn out to be right.
The walking stick episode in The Hound of the Baskervilles shows us right away—for anyone who isn't familiar with the Holmes stories—that these two are great friends. But still, Holmes is definitely the master and Watson is the student. Holmes is the great detective, and Watson is… not.
What's more, the walking stick gives readers the chance to see Holmes demonstrate his rational superpowers by showing off the kinds of conclusions he can draw from ordinary objects. To someone unfamiliar with Holmes, these conclusions could seem like a lot of fairy-tale-spinning. But Holmes insists that he has "methods" (1.25) that he applies scientifically to the stuff he observes, giving him greater insight than the unscientific observer. The stick represents everything you need to know about Holmes' powers of detection.
When Doctor Mortimer presents Holmes with his battered manuscript of the story of the Hound of Baskervilles, we are immediately hooked. This legend has it all: family curses, punishment of wrongdoing, ghosts, and dramatic language ("forbear from crossing the moor in those dark hours when the powers of evil are exalted"! (2.23)). What more could you want from a horror story than a flame-breathing devil dog hunting down the sinner Hugo Baskerville?
But here's the thing: while Doctor Mortimer and Sir Charles Baskerville may take the legend of the Hound as fact, it is clearly superstition. A hell beast that hunts down bad Baskervilles? Not too likely, guys.
The real Hound in this novel is Holmes himself. Holmes is the modern arm of the law, figuring out Stapleton's crimes and sending him down into the Grimpen Mire. If Stapleton is almost like a "reincarnation" (13.63) of Hugo Baskerville, then Holmes is the equivalent of the Hound (without the floppy ears) that brings Hugo Baskerville down for the murder of his innocent neighbor.
These two stories, the Hound narrative and the Holmes narrative, give us two different versions of justice. The Hound provides justice as an otherworldly force swooping in to punish evildoers. As the rational detective, Holmes' justice belongs to the modern age of science and logic.
Hounds, as Shmoop knows from watching the Westminster Kennel Club Show, are a breed of dogs that track down prey. It's no coincidence that so many of them are in the detective business.
In this story, the Hound can also be seen as symbolizing the powerful forces of family history and ancestry that sometimes we can't escape. The past can definitely come back to "haunt" us, even if the haunting isn't supernatural.
Stapleton is the one who introduces us to the (fictional) bog called the Grimpen Mire. The ground is deeply unstable underfoot. As Stapleton first points it out to Watson, they see a pony trying to escape from the bog and getting pulled under (7.60).
Symbolically speaking, this mire is a place that literally holds you back. It seems to represent the general idea that Dartmoor and Baskerville Hall are caught up—stuck, even—in an older era of British history. So there's some poetic justice to the fact that Stapleton himself eventually gets dragged down into the bog. As a "throw-back […] both physical and spiritual" (13.63) to Hugo Baskerville, Stapleton represents the sordid past of the Baskerville family, now lost to the Mire. Sir Henry's continued presence at Baskerville Hall demonstrates the story's commitment to moving forward—not mired, you might say, in the past.
This one's a pretty popular metaphor in literature, and we find it everywhere in this novel. We all know that light usually represents reason, safety, happiness, and hope. And darkness means fear, superstition, mystery, and despair. Every horror film director knows this.
Sir Henry Baskerville knows it, too. He thinks the solution to all his problems is calling up the local power company and installing some high-wattage bulbs (6.46). That's pretty dim. See what we mean?
Dartmoor could just as well be called Darkmoor in this novel, because it's absolutely soaked in gloomy darkness. And with than gloom comes superstition and fear. See our "Setting" section for moor—sorry, we meant "more"—on this.
Watson is our first-person narrator. He reports everything that Holmes does from his point of view, and thank goodness for that. After all, Watson, as we pointed out in his "Character Analysis," is the one with the artistic flair. His description of the events of The Hound of the Baskervilles emphasizes the atmosphere of the case, with its gloomy settings and strange people. If Holmes were telling the story, who knows what bare-bones, bullet-point style of storytelling we would get. No foggy moors, no silhouettes against the moon—only the facts. Just thinking about that possibility makes us want to close the book and get back to watching the HIMYM marathon.
The novel starts with Doctor Mortimer bringing a case to Sherlock Holmes—the case of the Hound of the Baskervilles. And since Doctor Mortimer is so sure that the devil's involved in this murder mystery, we might be forgiven for thinking that the "Monster" that Holmes has to overcome in this book is a huge hell beast, demonically set on destroying the Baskerville family. However, that sounds more like a Stephen King novel than a Sherlock Holmes story—there must be some other, more human monster at work in the death of Sir Charles Baskerville and the threats against his heir, Sir Henry.
While Sir Henry Baskerville is still in London throughout the first five chapters of the novel, there are certainly a lot of suspicious happenings. A lot of facts and theories are floating around. Something is obviously going on, and he's at the heart of it. But we're still pretty far from the actual scene of the crime, Baskerville Hall. In spite of the disappearing boots, the warning letter, and the man following Sir Henry and wearing a ridiculously large false beard, we still can't really see the shape of the threat facing Sir Henry. A Hound from hell still seems as good an explanation as any for what happened to Sir Charles Baskerville.
Once Watson and Sir Henry get to Baskerville Hall in Chapter 6, things take a darker turn. The plot thickens with Barrymore the butler, Selden the escaped convict, Beryl Stapleton the love interest, and Laura Lyons the mystery acquaintance of Sir Charles'. This all combines to give us the sense that someone's plotting behind the scenes to destroy Sir Henry, even if we can't quite see who it is quite yet. What's more, the generally gloomy atmosphere of the setting at Dartmoor contributes to this overall sense of threat but without any resolution in sight.
Once Holmes arrives in Chapter 12, we finally know for sure whodunit: it's Stapleton, the local scientist and fraud. The threat now comes into focus. However, just because we know who the Monster is does not mean that Holmes is ready to overcome him. They have no evidence against Stapleton that would stand up in court. So Holmes sets up a pretty risky ambush, using Sir Henry as bait. Between the thick fog and the sudden appearance of a huge glow-in-the-dark dog, Holmes almost manages to let Sir Henry get killed after all.
Of course, since Holmes never fails too badly, he does manage to shoot the dog before it kills Sir Henry. Watson finds that the dog's fur has been covered with phosphorus to make it glow, which is why it looks like the ghost dog from hell. Stapleton escapes into the fog, but he runs straight into the Grimpen Mire, a dangerous bog in which he probably drowns. So all's well that ends well: the vicious dog turns out to have been trained by an evil human, rather than by the devil. And that human—Stapleton—has paid for his crimes with his life. Holmes the Great Detective does it again and the universe is back in balance.
At the start of The Hound of the Baskervilles, detective Sherlock Holmes and his loyal friend Doctor John Watson are sitting happily in the apartment they share (as roomies) when Doctor James Mortimer arrives to tell them a bizarre family legend about a giant demon dog that haunts the Baskerville family in the southwestern English region of Dartmoor. In fact, according to Doctor Mortimer, this ghostly Hound has recently added another victim to its list: Sir Charles Baskerville, whose dead body was found lying in his driveway with a grotesque expression of fear on his face.
Doctor Mortimer is so sure that the Hound is responsible for Sir Charles' death that he doesn't think it's worthwhile for Holmes to investigate further. He just wants to know what Holmes thinks he should tell the new heir to Sir Charles' estate, Sir Henry Baskerville. After all, he wants Sir Henry to be comfortable in his new home—and he doesn't want to make Sir Henry another victim of the Hound's appetite for Baskervilles. So, the initial situation is one of danger and the supernatural: Doctor Mortimer believes that this is a ghost story, even though Holmes is a supremely practical and rational detective.
We spend Chapters 4 through 12 of this novel picking up about a million plot twists (only a slight exaggeration). Obviously, Holmes does not buy the ghost Hound story. He's a scientific and logical detective, after all. But there is something weird going on at Baskerville Hall, and it seems to center on poor Sir Henry, the new heir. So when Sir Henry makes plans to return to his old family home, Holmes asks Watson to go with him as a kind of bodyguard/investigator combo. And in the background of all of the strange happenings that surround Sir Henry, there's always the rumor of the Hound creeping out both him and Watson. Who—or what—is threatening Sir Henry's life? And how can we figure it out without the help of Sherlock Holmes, the greatest detective who ever lived?
Well, all the many mysteries swirling around Baskerville Hall get (mostly) solved in Chapter 12, when Sherlock Holmes finally reappears on the scene. Holmes tells Watson that there's no question that Stapleton, the local naturalist, is also our killer.
But while Holmes is sure that Stapleton is the murderer of Sir Charles Baskerville, he has no proof that would stand up in court. How do you prove something so farfetched: that Stapleton used a giant dog to frighten to death an old man with a heart condition? And how are they going to catch Stapleton in the act of doing whatever he's planning to do to Sir Henry? Holmes' happy reunion with Watson ends the mystery portion of the novel, since we know the main secret of the plot—the identity of the murderer—but we still have to wait for Holmes to make his move against Stapleton once and for all.
We spend Chapters 13 and 14 watching Holmes set up his final ambush of Stapleton. He and Watson talk to Laura Lyons, confirming that Stapleton demanded she set up a meeting with Sir Charles, which he then persuaded her not to attend. What's more, Stapleton bullied Laura into keeping quiet about the meeting after Sir Charles' mysterious death. Once Holmes sets up Sir Henry as bait by sending him off to dinner with Stapleton that night, they're ready to catch Stapleton red-handed in an attack on Sir Henry.
In Chapters 14 and 15, Conan Doyle finally ties up all of the loose ends of the novel: we discover that Stapleton's dog is a huge animal that he's been keeping on an island in the middle of a dangerous bog called the Grimpen Mire. He's been covering the dog with phosphorus to make it glow in the dark, which is what sent Sir Charles into cardiac arrest and sent Selden running over that cliff.
Stapleton sends the dog to attack Sir Henry the night that Holmes and Watson are watching for him, but Holmes manages to shoot it before it can do Sir Henry too much damage (except, of course, scaring the bejeezus out of him). Stapleton disappears into the fog, trying to find a place to hide in the Grimpen Mire. But Watson guesses that Stapleton may have taken a wrong step in the bog and drowned, since he never emerges from the Mire.
Later, Holmes explains that Stapleton wanted to take advantage of the Baskerville family legend because he was actually the long-lost son of Sir Charles' dead brother Rodger Baskerville, who disappeared into South America to escape some trouble in England. Stapleton's claim to the Baskerville fortune is therefore a pretty good one—except for the two people, Sir Charles and Sir Henry, who stood in his way.
Stapleton's threat to Sir Henry has been resolved thanks to Sherlock Holmes' brilliance and the dangerously soft ground of the Grimpen Mire. All has been explained logically without a single ghost, and Watson and Holmes are back in London and their rational world.
Doctor Mortimer brings the case of the Hound of the Baskervilles to awesome consulting detective Sherlock Holmes.
So, when we start out this novel, it might seem like it's going in the direction of a classic ghost story. After all, Doctor Mortimer is sure that there is something evil and supernatural behind Sir Charles Baskerville's sudden death. He's so sure, in fact, that he doesn't know if it's safe for his heir, Sir Henry Baskerville, to live at Baskerville Hall. What if Sir Henry also gets killed by a hellhound? The neighborhood would look bad if they lose yet another Baskerville to their local ghost dog. Property values would definitely go down.
On the other hand, this is a Sherlock Holmes novel, which means that it's a detective story. It's about Holmes and Watson using their great investigative skills to find the real-world criminals of Victorian England. Since Holmes is involved, and he's a rational, scientific kind of guy, we have to assume that the ghost-dog theory of Sir Charles' death isn't true. But then, who is threatening the life of Sir Henry Baskerville?
By Chapter 11, Watson's found so many plot complications that it seems impossible to sort out a single, sensible story about Sir Charles' death and Sir Henry's current dangerous predicament.
There are so many twists and turns to this novel's plot that describing it is like trying to describe what happens in Cloud Atlas (Shmoop had to go to Wikipedia to figure that out). So, there's the butler Barrymore, who seems like a suspect until he turns out to be a good guy just looking out for his wife and her psychopathic little brother. There's Laura Lyons, who clearly knows more about Stapleton's involvement in Sir Charles' death than she's willing to say.
Add to all this the occasional sound of a low, moaning howl ringing out over the moors, which the locals explain as the howl of the Hound of the Baskervilles, and you've got a suspenseful stew of details. A lot of clues emerge over the course of Watson's time in Dartmoor, but without Holmes to put it all together, we have no idea which plot points are most important.
In Chapters 12 through 15, Sherlock Holmes finally shows us what's really going on—and it has nothing to do with the Powers of Darkness.
All this time, Holmes has been living out on the moors and keeping an eye on Watson and on the neighborhood around Baskerville Hall. Holmes already knows that Stapleton's the murderer, that he's somehow been using a giant dog to take advantage of the local legend of the Hound of the Baskervilles, and that he's been using his wife as bait for Sir Henry by pretending that she's just his sister. All Holmes needs to do is find definite proof that will hold up in court.
Holmes, Watson, and a London policeman named Lestrade set up an ambush that draws Stapleton (and his large, glow-in-the-dark dog) out in the open to attack Sir Henry. But while they manage to shoot the dog, Stapleton disappears into the fog of the night. Watson guesses that he drowns in the nearby bog, the Grimpen Mire, where he's been hiding his vicious dog. And so now we know for sure: there are no ghosts in Dartmoor, no matter how gloomy the setting may be. The only evil out there lies in the hearts of men.