37. The Horror of the Heights (1913)

Detail from illustration by W. S. Stott in The Strand Magazine, Nov 1913

Welcome to Episode 37. This episode, we travel above the clouds with hot-headed aeronaut Joyce-Armstrong in ‘The Horror of the Heights,’ from November 1913. 

Read the story here: https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php/The_Horror_of_the_Heights

Or listen to an audiobook version here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1mV3iOfUT0


Following the disappearance of the celebrated pioneering aeronaut Joyce-Armstrong, an incomplete and blood-stained notebook is discovered in a field, together with a briar pipe and a badly damaged pair of binoculars. When examined, this document appears to be Joyce-Armstrong’s journal, chronicling his high-flying experiments and his recent unsettling encounters in the reaches of the upper atmosphere where, it transpires, a form of air jungle exists, as mysterious and dangerous as those to be found on terra firma…

Writing and publication history

Stott illustration from The Strand
Written around autumn 1913 but commissioned three years earlier (Andrew Lycett, p.342).

The direct inspiration may have been the recent ground-breaking flight of French aeronaut, Roland Garros, on 11 Dec 1912, when he broke the altitude record, reaching 18,406 feet. The incident is referenced in this story. 

Another possible inspiration was the death of Captain Robert Falcon Scott during his search for the South Pole in March 1912. Trumbull White, editor of the US journal Everybody’s Magazine which carried ‘Heights’ in 1913, arranged for publication of Scott’s diary and his tragic last message. Trumbull White visited Conan Doyle in Spring 1913.

‘Heights’ first appeared in the Strand Magazine, Nov 1913, with 5 illustrations by W. R. S. Stott, four of them very beautiful and in colour. In the US, it first appeared in Everybody’s Magazine, in the same month, with illustrations by Henry Reuterdahl, who also illustrated Conan Doyle’s prophetic submarine tale Danger!, as featured in episode 4.

An excellent facsimile of the manuscript, with annotations by Phil Bergem, and other articles, was published by Calabash Press in 2004.

Early aviation

Gertrude Bacon
Orville and Wilbur Wright completed the first manned flight in 1903, although the first practical airplane was not available until Aug 1905. The first European flight was in France in 1906, and the first in the UK was in 1908. 

Lord Northcliffe, publisher and proprietor of the Daily Mail, wanted to incentivise British development of flight and held a series of races with large prize funds. Bleriot won £1000 for his flight across the English Channel in July 1909.

Conan Doyle’s first flight was in a balloon called the City of York, July 4, 1901. In Memories and Adventures, he described a ‘natural trepidation’ which soon turned to delight. The City of York was the same balloon that inspired the foundation of the Aero Club which gets a mention in this story.

Conan Doyle’s first powered flight was in in biplane from Hendon on May 25, 1911, and was notably more harrowing.

Alexis Barquin makes the connection with Gertrude Bacon (1874-1922), a pioneer aeronaut who was the first woman to fly in a balloon in 1898 (https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php/Gertrude_Bacon). On 16 Nov 1899, Gertrude and her father took another balloon flight which was particularly hair-raising. 

Gertrude Bacon also wrote the article ‘Pigs of Celebrities’ for the Strand in March 1899. For more information, see this article from Ross Davies at the Green Bag Almanac. And here is ACD’s attempt, along with those of your co-hosts…

Captain Scott

Captain Robert Falcon Scott, CVO, (1868-1912) was a Royal Navy officer who conducted two expeditions to the Antarctic, in 1901–1904 and 1910–1913. He died in March 1912, and his diaries were preserved in the ice. The personality of Joyce-Armstrong, his preparation for death, and his abrasive final message may be borrowed from Scott.

Trumbull White was especially taken with Scott’s last message: ‘Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman...’

Scott was a difficult personality and some of that makes its way into the character of Joyce-Armstrong. ACD met Scott, as recounted during a speech in honour of Commander Evans, one of Scott’s companions. ACD said of Scott he would either reach the pole or die trying. “I little thought then that he would do both.” (Kent & Sussex Courier, 24 Oct 1913)

Near-future setting

Phil Bergem points out that this story is set in the very near-future. In this sense, it is similar to Danger!  and H. G. Well’s ‘The Land Ironclads’ (1903), about armoured tanks, which extrapolate potential uses of new technology for warfare.

‘Aeroplaning’ is said to be more than 20 years old when it had been around 10, while Garros’ feat is said to be a childhood memory, but only took place the year before publication. The engines, altitudes reached, and other details all point to this being set maybe a decade hence.

ACD extrapolated some things from known fact. The use of oxygen was familiar since the memorable Glaisher-Coxwell balloon flight of 5 Sept 1862, which is referenced in the story. But details of temperatures, magnetic forces, and threat of meteorites are all inaccurate.

ACD’s use of verisimilitude sets up the more fantastical second half of the story. The ‘reality’ of the tale is reminiscent of Poe’s 'Balloon hoax' story in The Sun newspaper, New York, in 1844, which had to be “retracted” two days after publication.

‘Heights’ as science fiction

Verne is a clear influence. The Bleriot biplane was change to a Veroner (~Verne) in the manuscript, and the engine was a Robur. The character of Robur, the inventor of a form of heavier than air travel who turns megalomaniac, appeared in Verne’s The Clipper in the Clouds (1866) and Master of the World (1904).

H. G. Wells also wrote early stories about manned flight. ‘The Argonauts of the Air’ first appeared in Phil May's Annual, December 1895 and tells the story of a millionaire who has invested heavily in his invention and takes a disastrous first flight. Another story, The War in the Air (1908), tells of a global air war and has many similarities to Danger!

Three years before ‘Argonauts’, ACD published ‘The Great Brown-Pericord Motor’ (March 1892) which tells of the ill-fated rivalry between inventor Pericord and mechanic Brown. In Joyce-Armstrong, ACD fuses the two, describing the aeronaut as “mechanic and inventor.”

The creatures

The creatures are distinctly Vernean – giant undersea creatures, relocated to the upper atmosphere. ACD would revisit this in The Maracot Deep (1929). Wells too wrote ‘The Sea Raiders’ (The Weekly Sun Literary Supplement, 1896) about a giant squid that attacks people on the Devon coast and may be an influence on ‘The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane’.

Jellyfish might not be so strange an idea. In 2012, Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, presenter of The Sky at Night, argued that, if aliens exist, they would probably be giant jellyfish.   

The purple of the air-snakes seems to be tapping into the zeitgeist as there are purple horrors in Fred. M. White’s ‘The Purple Terror’ (Strand, 1899), M. P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud (1901), and W. L. Alden’s ‘The Purple Death’ (Cassell’s, 1895). As Andrew Glazzard has noted, Sir Nigel (1906) begins a description of the Black Death as a purple cloud.

‘Heights as Lovecraftian horror

The opening, with the world coming to terms with the contents of the fragment, is very Lovecraftian: ‘This world of ours appears to be separated by a slight and precarious margin of safety from a most singular and unexpected danger.’ 

‘Heights’ precedes the tentacled monstrosities of Lovecraft, like the cephalopod alien god Cthulhu. The creature also travel through rarefied atmosphere, like the fungi from Yuggoth in The Whisperer in Darkness (1931) travel through the ether. 

Another connection is to Lovecraft’s early tale ‘From Beyond’ (1934, written 1920) which concerns an obsessive scientist who invents a machine that reveals invisible creatures that share our atmosphere.

Joyce-Armstrong may also prefigure Lovecraft’s protagonists who are often similarly neurotic and at odds with the world, and ultimately succumb to madness through discovered knowledge. Like many of Lovecraft’s narrators, Joyce-Armstrong knows there are terrors but goes back anyway. 

Related stories by Conan Doyle

The Lost World (1912)

The Poison Belt (1913)

‘Danger!’ (1914)

‘The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane’ (1926)

The Maracot Deep (1929)

Next time on Doings of Doyle

We look at some of Conan Doyle’s true crime writings, ‘Strange Studies from Life’ (1901). You can read the first of them, ‘The Holocaust of Manor House’, here: https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php/The_Holocaust_of_Manor_Place