2. The Winning Shot

2. The Winning Shot

The Winning Shot is a short story written by Doyle and published anonymously in 1883. It tells of a young woman’s encounter with the sinister mesmerist Dr Octavius Gaster. If you want to avoid spoilers, we recommend you read the story here (https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php?title=The_Winning_Shot).

Illistration from the original Bow Bells printing

The story begins with a newspaper cutting that cautions the public against Dr Octavius Gaster, a Swedish traveller described as being of great height, with flaxen hair and a deep scar upon his left cheek. The advertisement was placed by the narrator, Miss Lottie Underwood, a young woman who lost her fiancee on the eve of their wedding. She proceeds to tell her tale.

Lottie’s story takes place in and around Toynby Hall at Roborough in Devon, the home of Colonel Pillar, whose eldest son, Charley, is Lottie’s fiancee. One evening, Charley and Lottie walk onto the moors to enjoy the last hours of daylight. They are startled by a figure, silhouetted against the moon on a rocky ridge high above them. The strange, cadaverous man approaches and introduces himself as Octavius Gaster. Though Charley is at first angry with the man for startling Lottie, and himself, he invites the stranger back to the Hall, rather than leave him to his fate on the moor.

On their way back, Gaster tells of his recent travels and how he survived at sea in an open boat. His companion on that occasion, desperate to avoid starvation, died of blood loss after cutting off and consuming his own ears. Gaster says that he survived by the power of his will alone.

At the Hall, Gaster quickly ingratiates himself within the household with his stories and immense knowledge. Lottie’s mother, however, notices Gaster taking an unhealthy interest in her daughter. Lottie is dismissive but still harbours suspicion of the stranger which is heightened when she chances upon him rocking in silent mirth at a newspaper article. It tells of the death of a sea captain who had an altercation with a ship’s surgeon he regarded as a necromancer and devil worshipper. If that were not sinister enough, shortly after Gaster gets into an argument with Charley and his friends over the existence of the supernatural…

Lottie’s mother is correct and soon Gaster makes his advance on Lottie, offering untold glory, riches and power. She is saved by Charley who fights Gaster and draws first blood before the malevolent visitor escapes. The mood of the Hall lifts, but Gaster is not gone and the next day Lottie sees him in the crowd at a local rifle match.

When Charley, one of the team captains, steps up to take the winning shot, Gaster is seen staring into space, mouthing silently and foaming at the mouth. At that moment, Charley is startled to see a figure, closely resembling himself, standing in front of the target. The crowd can see nothing and persuade him he is imagining things. He takes the shot… and drops dead on the spot.

But Gaster’s revenge is not yet complete, for there is one more event to come…

1894 edition published by John Dicks
Writing and publication history

  • Written by Doyle in June/July 1882, around the time he relocated to Southsea.
  • Published anonymously in Bow Bells, Volume 39, dated 11 July 1883.
  • Reprinted in a volume that included An Actor’s Duel (1894), supposedly by Doyle but actually by Campbell Rae Brown.
  • Omitted from Doyle’s short story collections during his lifetime.

John R. Flanaghan's illustration of Baron Gruner (Collier's, 1924)
Vampirism and literary connections

Daniel Dunglas Home (Wikimedia)

Paget's illustration of the man on the Tor
Sherlockian connections


Recommended reading

Next time on the Doings of Doyle…


Image credits: Thanks to Alexis Barquin at The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopaedia for permission to reproduce these images. Please support the encyclopaedia at www.arthur-conan-doyle.com.

Music credit: Sneaky Snitch Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons:  By Attribution 3.0 License. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/


  1. I don't think that The Winning Shot is a vampire story, but more specifically a story about the power of mind controlling or mind distortion. As ACD was very interested in this topic in many of his fictions :

    - In The Captain of the "Pole-Star" (1883), the mind of the captain is controlled by a ghost.
    - In Selecting A Ghost (1883), the mind of Silas D'Odd is distorted by a "Lucoptolycus potion".
    - In John Barrington Cowles (1884), the mind of JBC is controlled by a devil-whorshipper.
    - In De profundis (1892), the mind of Emily Vansittart is probably influenced by emotion.
    - In The Parasite (1894), the mind of Austin Gilroy is controlled by an hypnotist.
    - In The Creeping Man (1923), the mind of Prof. Presbury is distorted by a drug.

    And probably more that I can't think of right now.

    The only reference by ACD to vampire is SUSS but it's not a vampire story at all :)

    Anyway your podcast was all very interesting, many thanks.

    1. Thanks Alexis. You make a fair point about ACD's interest in mind control, or perhaps more specifically the notion of losing one's mind. I have often wondered if it stems from observing his father's illness.

    2. Many of the Canonical connections you made in your podcast, except the one connecting Gaster to Gruner in ILLU, I also noted in my post on "The Winning Shot" on I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: https://www.ihearofsherlock.com/2015/02/canonical-connections-in-conan-doyles.html#.XeqEuvxryM8
      This story is such a ur-Sherlock Holmes document that I wonder if Doyle didn't include it in any later collections because readers would see that Doyle mined this story, consciously or not, for elements in the Canon.

    3. That’s a great point. Thanks James.


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