45. The Haunted Grange of Goresthorpe (c.1877)

This episode, we discuss what is believed to be the first story Conan Doyle submitted to a publisher, ‘The Haunted Grange of Goresthorpe’ (c.1877).

You can read the story here: https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php/The_Haunted_Grange_of_Goresthorpe

Listen to the episode here:

Or on our Youtube channel, www.youtube.com/@doingsofdoyle. Closed captions will be available two days after the video is uploaded.


Following a particularly atrocious multiple murder in the mid-eighteenth century, Goresthorpe Grange in Norfolk has stood empty and uninhabited for a century, especially given the additional stories of vengeful ghosts who can drive the inquisitive over the brink of insanity. Yet Tom Holton, a friend of the estate’s young heir, has his own theories about the supernatural and wishes to test them by spending a night in the haunted grange. At first his friend demurs, but is soon caught up in Tom’s enthusiasm and together the two young men submit themselves to a terrifying ordeal…

Writing and publication history

The story is believed to have been written around 1877 or 1878, when Conan Doyle was eighteen and studying medicine in Edinburgh.

The story was submitted to Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, possibly under the auspices of Doyle family friend John Hill Burton, the historiographer royal, but it was rejected. For unknown reasons, the manuscript was not returned to its author and was held in the Blackwood family and business papers. Conan Doyle believed the manuscript destroyed. His first published work would by ‘The Mystery of Sasassa Valley’, which appeared in Chambers’s in 1879.

In 1942, the manuscript was transferred with the Blackwood papers to the National Library of Scotland where it lay largely unnoticed until the 1980s. In 2000, the Arthur Conan Doyle Society (the forerunner of the present ACD Society), published the manuscript, with an extensive introduction by Owen Dudley Edwards and a preface by Ian McGowan from the National Library of Scotland.

The story has since been published in Tony Medowar (ed), Ghosts from the Library: Lost Tales of Terror and the Supernatural (2022) and Matt Wingett (ed), Southsea Stories and Beyond (2023).

Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine

Blackwood’s was the “oldest, most formidably established, fiction magazine in the UK” (Edwards, Introduction to the above volume, p.30) and widely respected. Formed in 1804 as William Blackwood and Sons, the firm launched Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1817, which quickly became known by the (now unfortunate) nickname “Maga” by contributors. It published early works by notable literary figures such as George Eliot, James Hogg, Anthony Trollope and Henry James, and would go on to print Joseph Conrad and John Buchan.

The magazine also had a taste for Gothic tales, which was so well established in the mid-century, that Edgar Allan Poe parodied the magazine and the genre in ‘How to Write a Blackwood Article’ (American Museum, Nov 1838). Poe’s story is a conversation between would-be author Zenobia (aka Suky Snobbs) and the Blackwood’s editor, who recommends she get into a dangerous scrape and describe her experience for his readers.

Aside from the reputation that would come from being a Blackwood’s author in Edinburgh, Conan Doyle’s interest in the magazine may have been personal. John Blackwood, son of the founder and editor 1845-79, was a member of the London literary set and is believed to have known Conan Doyle’s uncle, Richard (Dicky) Doyle. John Blackwood was also friends with John Hill Burton who had put up young Arthur in the 1860s at Liberton Bank House, when the Doyles were in financial difficulties. John’s son, William (Willy) Burton, was a close friend of Conan Doyle, as discussed in our episode on 'Jelland’s Voyage'.

ACD tried for many years to get into Blackwood’s, and eventually succeeded with ‘A Physiologist’s Wife’ in 1890. That same year, William Blackwood III, who succeeded to the editorship c. 1878 and most likely rejected all of Conan Doyle’s other submissions, sought the rights to The White Company, but Conan Doyle had already sold it (perhaps deliberately) to one of Blackwood’s rivals, The Cornhill.

The origins of Conan Doyle’s storytelling

Stonyhurst College
The style of ‘Haunted Grange’ is very reminiscent of the camp-fire stories one might tell on a “dark and stormy night”. In Memories and Adventures (1924), ACD described how he would tell stories to his fellow students at Stonyhurst and break off at the crucial point to be bribed by buns and tarts for the rest of the tale! The same narrative style is present in Micah Clarke and the Brigadier Gerard stories.

The principal characters’ names, Tom and Jack, are re-used in the ‘Sasassa Valley’, although their personalities are different. Nevertheless, there is a bond of friendship in both stories that some feel point to the origins of the Holmes-Watson relationship.

The characters represent two sides of Conan Doyle’s personality that were in conflict. Tom is a romantic, imaginative type, schooled in Germany; Jack is a “credo-quod-tango” medical man. This dichotomy is at the heart of Conan Doyle’s writing, and it is interesting to find it established in such an early work. Similarly, the idea that the supernatural is merely the unexplained, and that nothing is super-natural, is a theme that would persist.

The story is set thirty years before it was written, an ideal time for the ghost story according to M. R. James, as the moment when the past is becoming history. The tragedy at the Grange has its origins a century before and there is a touch of Sir Hugo Baskerville in the description of Godfrey Marsden, ‘a villain of the first water’ whose name ‘was a byword of ferocity and brutality throughout the whole countryside.’

Although a naïve work that lacks subtlety, there are moments that stand out, such as the strobe-effect of the moonlight through the windows, and the tension built to the arrival of the ghosts. Conan Doyle also innovates, introducing a ghost pursued by another ghost, which he later refined with greater effect in ‘The Bully of Brocas Court’ (1921).

Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s ‘The Haunted and the Haunters’ (1859) and the evolution of the ghost story

Early illustration for Bulwer-Lytton's story 
Bulwer Lytton’s ‘The Haunted and the Haunters’ – aka ‘The House and the Brain’ – was first published in Blackwood’s in August 1859, a few months after Conan Doyle was born. In many ways, it is the archetypal haunted house story and was highly regarded by both M. R. James and H. P Lovecraft. ACD called it ‘the very best ghost story I know’ in Through the Magic Door (1907).

The story is believed to be based on 50 Berkeley Square, the celebrated haunted residence in Mayfair, which gained notoriety in the nineteenth century. Bulwer-Lytton’s tale features a multitude of spirits, from indistinct dark malevolent forces to whisp-like girls, plus the death of a dog, which Conan Doyle would lift for ‘Haunted Grange’ and ‘Brocas Court’. Bulwer-Lytton’s tale, heightened and sensational as it was, left him open to parody. We touched on this in our episode on ‘A Literary Mosaic’.

ACD’s ‘Haunted Grange’ is closer in time and style to Bulwer-Lytton than to the new ghost stories that were emerging. The ghost story would evolve into a psychological tale with works such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Green Tea’ (1872) and Henry James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’ (1898), the hallmark story of its kind. On another path, the detective and ghost stories would fuse, with authors reacting to the success of Sherlock Holmes by creating psychic detectives such as Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence and William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki who would investigate haunted houses, just as Holmes investigates crimes.

Conan Doyle and haunted houses

Henry Sidgwick, first president of the SPR
Conan Doyle became a member of the Society for Psychical Research in 1893. A year later, he took part in a haunted house investigation in Charmouth, Dorset, with SPR researchers Sydney Scott and Frank Podmore (the latter would conduct similar investigations with noted weird fiction writer, Algernon Blackwood). Although they experienced loud clatterings in the night, suspicion fell on the son of the residents as the culprit.

Conan Doyle wrote a letter to James Payn about his experience in which he subscribed to the sceptical view but, over time, his views changed. The son’s suspicious ten-minute absence – a crucial detail in Podmore’s notes and Conan Doyle’s letter to Payn – was omitted from accounts in Memories and Adventures (1924) and The Edge of the Unknown (1930), while new scurrilous details, such as the burning down of the house and the discovery of a child’s skeleton, were added.

Conan Doyle would resign his membership of the SPR very publicly in 1930, a few months before his death. He had long felt that the SPR was institutionally sceptical and felt this confirmed when Theodore Besterman poured scorn on a medium’s powers. The resignation upset the SPR committee, although some were happy to see Conan Doyle leave. For more information, see this article from the Cambridge University Archives: https://specialcollections-blog.lib.cam.ac.uk/?p=17548.

Conan Doyle drew on his experience at Charmouth in his fiction, notably in Rodney Stone (1906), in which a haunted ghost is central to the mystery, and The Land of Mist (1926), in which Lord John Roxton hunts ghosts with a rifle.

Who inspired Conan Doyle to write and publish?

In Memories and Adventures, Conan Doyle said that a friend praised his vivid letters and suggested he write for publication. There have been suggestions that this friend was Rupert Hoare Hunter, the nephew of the doctor to whom Conan Doyle was apprenticed at the time of writing ‘Sasassa Valley’, although the two would be unlikely to correspond, living and working together at the time.

Another candidate is Willy Burton, the son of John Hill Burton, who would remain a lifelong friend. Willy was a correspondent in the 1870s and he and Conan Doyle maintained their friendship over long distance when Willy moved to Japan.

A third candidate is James Paul Emile Ryan, Conan Doyle’s only friend in Stonyhurst, who was a year below him. Jimmy Ryan’s grandfather founded a tea plantation in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) which Jimmy took over and ran in the 1910s. Jimm’s letters to ACD reveal an easy comradeship, and it is clear from context that Conan Doyle shared story ideas with Jimmy, with the latter offering suggestions for The Lost World, The Poison Belt, and Tales of Long Ago.

Next time on Doings of Doyle…

We return to a different Goresthorpe Grange in ‘Selecting a Ghost: The Ghosts of Goresthorpe Grange’ (1883), Conan Doyle’s pastiche of the genre. You can read the story here: https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php/Selecting_a_Ghost


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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/