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The Horror of the Heights

A visitor might descend upon this planet a thousand times and never see a tiger.  Yet tigers exist; and if he chanced to come down into a jungle he might be devoured.

                                                                                                   From the "Joyce-Armstrong Fragment"

More than once on these pages I have claimed that the best works of this author are his best-known.  Now this statement has stood through generations of scrutiny, detractors and admirers, and cannot seriously be denied.  Nevertheless, Conan Doyle's remaining oeuvres are valuable not only as satellites around the brilliant sun that he placed among our stars but also as exemplary prose of its own.  Conan Doyle's greatest asset as an artist was his unwillingness to listen to anyone except himself – thereby incurring both the good and bad of splendid creative isolation.  The bad, of course, may be found in some of his weirder works, for the most part historically inspired (and here I admit my difficulties in finishing these works, so lengthy and unpromising have they proven to be); but the good has yielded some texts of astounding creativity, even miniatures like this famous story.

We begin as in so many tales of Holmes and Watson with a first-person narrator, but unlike Watson, who often knows much less than the characters he describes, our editor and host appears to be omniscient – well, omniscient apart from one important detail.  The tone is also markedly different because from all indications our subject seems to lurk outside the realm of empirical science:

The idea that the extraordinary narrative which has been called the Joyce-Armstrong Fragment is an elaborate practical joke evolved by some unknown person, cursed by a perverted and sinister sense of humour, has now been abandoned by all who have examined the matter.  The most macabre and imaginative of plotters would hesitate before linking his morbid fancies with the unquestioned and tragic facts which reinforce the statement.  Though the assertions contained in it are amazing and even monstrous, it is none the less forcing itself upon the general intelligence that they are true, and that we must readjust our ideas to the new situation.  This world of ours appears to be separated by a slight and precarious margin of safety from a most singular and unexpected danger.  I will endeavour in this narrative, which reproduces the original document in its necessarily somewhat fragmentary form, to lay before the reader the whole of the facts up to date.

The Joyce-Armstrong fragment turns out not to be the logbook of some collaborative scientific expedition, but the notes of one wealthy Romantic with particularly rabid opinions on what should be valued in life.  He was "a retiring man with dark moods," a "poet and dreamer," and a "mechanic and inventor," all of which point to the felicitous and rare coincidence in one soul of ambition and imagination.  Despite these credentials, "there were times when his eccentricity threatened to develop into something more serious," a comment which had it been made by a more cynical writer might have been interpreted as something less extraordinary than deranged, the madness of the blue flower.  But Joyce-Armstrong has more sober ends in mind.  He is convinced that something above the clouds (what he labels an "air-jungle") has been snapping up pilots and disposing of them elsewhere.  Precisely that "elsewhere" is what interests him, and he is definitely in the minority:

Nevertheless, when I dined at Rheims with Coselli and Gustav Raymond I found that neither of them was aware of any particular danger in the higher layers of the atmosphere .... But then they are two empty, vainglorious fellows with no thought beyond seeing their silly names in the newspaper.  It is interesting to note that neither of them had ever been much beyond the twenty-thousand-foot level.  Of course, men have been higher than this both in balloons and in the ascent of mountains.  It must be well above that point that the aeroplane enters the danger zone always presuming that my premonitions are correct.

Thus begins the actual manuscript in medias res, its first two and its last page having been lost.  Yet that first "nevertheless" indicates that Joyce-Armstrong has been struggling to convince anyone who would listen and might understand a smidgen about flying of his unearthly "premonitions."  And one fine day, dressed "for the summit of the Himalayas" and full of mettle and grit, he sets out with the goal of scaling forty thousand feet of air.

What he finds, if it can be described with any available vocabulary, will not be revealed here.  The premise of the story is one of sheer terror that cannot appeal to the average person because the average person would not possibly be able to take a monoplane seven miles above the ground, nor grasp what insanity might beset an oxygen-starved brain at those heights.  And given the awesome dramatic tension that Conan Doyle develops, the cantle of jungle above these clouds might not be what horror buffs would expect.  But horror assumes many forms, one of the most effective being the subtle dread of something evil that should not exist.  There is also the matter of the self-fulfilling epitaph that Joyce-Armstrong leaves and which is often cited by students of the ghost story as well as erudite connoisseurs of Conan Doyle's oeuvre.  But what, pray tell, would we do without "accidents and mysteries"?

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