51. The Nightmare Room (1921)

This episode, we discuss one of Conan Doyle’s little-known post-war stories, ‘The Nightmare Room’ from 1921.

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

Listen to an audiobook reading by Greg Wagland here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFZwsEE8ua8

Listen to the episode below:

The episode will be uploaded to our YouTube channel soon, where you can listen with closed captions. In the meantime, subscribe to our YouTube channel for updates here: https://www.youtube.com/@doingsofdoyle


The air of an ordinary if luxuriant and curiously incomplete living room hangs heavy with an atmosphere of sinister expectation. Its occupants, Lucille and Archie Mason, have reached a dangerous impasse in their society marriage. She is a famous dancer who gave up her art and career for the sake of love; he, a young and successful man of business. But there is also a mutual friend, a soldier named Jack Campbell. A source of poison, perhaps? But who then is the fourth figure watching from the shadows, watching and controlling…

Writing and publication history

W. T. Benda
The story was written in 1921, at a time when Conan Doyle was heavily engaged in his spiritualist crusade. He had spent the winter of 1920-21 touring Australia, which he recorded in The Wanderings of a Spiritualist (1921).

To fund this campaign, Conan Doyle turned once again to Sherlock Holmes. In August 1921, The Crown Diamond, his one-act Sherlock Holmes play, was first performed at the Coliseum Theatre in London. In October 1921, the short story version, ‘The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone’, was first published in The Strand.

Meanwhile, Conan Doyle found he was able to make more money from Sherlock Holmes by selling the adaptation rights. At the end of 1920, he sold the rights to the Stoll Picture Company, who made 47 films starring Eille Norwood as Holmes. In September 1921, around the time the story was probably written, Conan Doyle was a guest at the Stoll Convention Dinner at the Trocadero, London.

‘The Nightmare Room’ was first published by the Strand in December 1921. Eight months later, it appeared in the USA in the August 1922 issue of Hearst’s International Magazine, with illustrations by Polish illustrator, Władysław Teodor "W.T." Benda (1873-1948).

The story was first anthologised in Tales of Terror and Mystery (1922), aka The Black Doctor and Other Tales of Terror and Mystery (1922), the John Murray collections that brought together Conan Doyle’s short stories in (vaguely) thematic volumes. It was also included in the 1930 Crowborough Edition.

Post-War themes

Conan Doyle’s stories in the immediate pre-war period reflect fears of Imperial decline. Post-war, this story and others reflect growing American influence and a concern about Britain’s status being supplanted. Lucille’s sacrificing of her European fame for Archie’s American wealth and status is illustrative of this idea.

The theme is also reflected in ‘The Bully of Brocas Court’ (1921), a Regency boxing story, in which the sport is said to be at a crossroads, with the old British style of boxing about to be supplanted by the technical boxing of American John Sullivan.

Conan Doyle goes some way to contrast the masculinity of Jack with the austere Archie. In so doing, he is reflecting a further concern about the (fighting) state of the nation and the health of the population in general.

The new woman and the femme fatale

Illustration from
Salome by Aubrey Beardsley
One can read an anxiety about the new found status, power and independence of women in the character of Lucille. A classic femme fatale, Conan Doyle previously deployed this archetype in  ‘John Barrington Cowles’ (1884), ‘Uncle Jeremy’s Household’ (1887) and The Parasite (1894). Conan Doyle often imbues his femme fatales with apparently supernatural powers.

Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1893) is a good example of the femme fatale and may have influenced Miss Penelosa in The Parasite. Originally published in French, the play was refused a licence by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office in London and was not performed in Britain until 1931.

One can see the same archetype in the near-contemporaneous Sherlock Holmes stories ‘The Adventure of the Three Gables’ (1926 - Isadora Klein) and ‘The Problem of Thor Bridge’ (1922 - Mrs Gibson). In the latter, the character of Grace Dunbar, who exerts a positive influence over Neil Gibson, is a reverse of the femme fatale.

Early American cinema cemented the popular image of the seductive femme fatale with actresses like Theda Bara (known as “The Vamp”) and Greta Garbo becoming synonymous with the role. Bara portrayed one of history’s classic femme fatales, Cleopatra, in 1917. In detective fiction, the femme fatale would become a trope of the hard-boiled school as seen in the works of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Mickey Spillane.

Theda Bara as Cleopatra

The trick ending

Conan Doyle’s story rests on the trick ending, a technique deployed successfully by one of his favourite writers, Guy de Maupassant, and arguably less successfully here.

Conan Doyle lays several clues to the trick ending throughout the story. The room is unreal and has an otherworldly quality, reflecting a film set. The dialogue is stilted and constrainted, like the captions in silent films. There are also several silent exchanges between the three characters. Unfortunately, the story being told by the filmmakers is a mundane melodrama and the characters, as cyphers for the plot, are necessarily unbelievable and fail to engage.

The moment when the director appears has a shocking, almost supernatural quality to it that could have been extended throughout the story. Once Conan Doyle’s provides the reveal, he very quickly brings the story to a conclusion.

Conan Doyle and early cinema

Eille Norwood and Conan Doyle
ACD had a fascination with technology and photography, so we should expect him to have been interested in film. His diary in the 1920s records him watching films.

The first Doylean film was Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900), a comic short by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Between 1908-1911, a series of Danish films, mostly made by and starring Viggo Larsen as Holmes, were released by the Nordisk company. The first British Sherlock Holmes film was George Pearson’s A Study in Scarlet (1914), starring James Brantingham.

It is not clear when Conan Doyle became aware of these Sherlock Holmes films, but he was certainly aware of the copyright considerations. In 1911, copyright in adaptations was recognised after a court upheld the claim by the estate of Lew Wallace against the filmmakers of Ben Hur (1907). Conan Doyle thought cinema would offer good returns for authors, but he felt that the reliance on plot and action made it ill-suited to the adaptation of more serious works.

Conan Doyle sold the Sherlock Holmes film rights to the French company Éclair around 1911 and to Stoll in 1920. This was not without its problems: the Goldwyn Company, who had inherited the rights to the Gilette play, attempted to sue Conan Doyle for selling the rights to Stoll, claiming that in granting permission to Gilette, he had given away the rights to all in person representations. Goldwyn’s case was thrown out in the New York courts.

Conan Doyle licenced other works including Brigadier Gerard (1915), Rodney Stone (1920), The Croxley Master (1923) and The Tragedy of Korosko, filmed as Fires of Fate (1923). In 1922, he used the rough cuts of Willis O’Brien stop-motion animation sequences for The Lost World (1925) to startle the Society of American Magicians at their annual dinner.

Conan Doyle appeared on screen in The $5,000,000 Counterfeiting Plot (1914), a drama filmed by American detective William J. Bryan, in which Bryan starred as himself. He also appeared in two episodes of the serial Our Mutual Girl (1914), a Pygmalion story which featured cameos by many famous individuals.

In 1923, Conan Doyle visited Hollywood and met Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

The Conan Doyles in Hollywood (1923)

Next time on Doings of Doyle…

We are joined by Roger Luckhurst, editor of the new Edinburgh Edition of Round the Red Lamp (1924), to delve into medical gothic...

Support the podcast

Please help us reach new listeners by leaving a rating or view on the podcast platform of your choice. And if you want to sponsor the podcast, please check out our Patreon page: https://www.patreon.com/doingsofdoyle


Thanks to our sponsor, Belanger Books (www.belangerbooks.com), and our supporters on Patreon and Paypal.

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/.