‘Playing With Fire’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

It was John Moir (the well-known senior partner of Moir, Moir, and Sanderson) who had originally turned our attention to occult subjects. He had, like many very hard and practical men of business, a mystic side to his nature, which had led him to the examination, and eventually to the acceptance, of those elusive phenomena which are grouped together with much that is foolish, and much that is fraudulent, under the common heading of spiritualism. His researches, which had begun with an open mind, ended unhappily in dogma, and he became as positive and fanatical as any other bigot. He represented in our little group the body of men who have turned these singular phenomena into a new religion.

I’m a sucker for a séance scenes. I admit it. I’ve written them as often as John Ford filmed gunfights, and this story is the culprit, I think. The theatricality of it. The absurdity of it. The deep emotion of what is at stake, contrasting with the naff nature of the human contraption purporting the deliver the miraculous. I love those contradictions. Comic, tragic, unbelievable – but at the same time aching to be believed. I saw a televised version of ‘Playing with Fire’ way back in 1967, part of the Tales of Arthur Conan Doyle series, directed by Piers Haggard and adapted by John Hawkesworth, a steady hand on the Sherlock Holmes tiller. Of course, Holmes had been the supreme rationalist, dismissing Sussex vampires and phantom hounds in his casebook. Doyle himself proved not so dismissive. He became embroiled in the Cottingly Fairies fiasco, insisting fairies really did exist, opening himself to accusations of gullibility (and worse) ever since. In the 1920s he toured the USA as an evangelist for Spiritualism, even converting his fictional character Professor Challenger, of Lost World fame, to the cause. But before that he was keenly interested in occult fiction, and it is interesting to see, given his later faith, that in this story, from 1900, he is wise enough to employ scepticism as an element. Believers and non-believers gather in an artist’s studio to sit with a medium. A spirit is contact and unearthly energy made manifest, with catastrophic and shocking results. It’s notable that Doyle, at the end of the tale, chooses to give us the opportunity to wonder if what happened was real, rather than accepting it as fact. It’s a fascinating glimpse not only into the séance room he knew so well but also into his avid interest in the hidden mysteries of science, nature and, in this case, the creative process – how the imagination, his own imagination, makes a thing, a thing in the mind’s eye, real and tangible.

First published in The Strand magazine March 1900; collected in The Conan Doyle Stories, John Murray 1929) It can be read online here

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