Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, writer and Freemason, became mesmerised by the occult, and this filtered through into his writing, most notably in his Sherlock Holmes stories, such as the hints of vampirism displayed in the Adventure of the Sussex Vampire, and into the atmospheric Hound of the Baskervilles, where a ghostly hound is supposedly the harbinger of doom for the Baskerville family. Though in these stories, the supernatural element was proved false, Conan Doyle’s later involvement with the Cottingley Faries revealed his support for certain supernatural occurrences. There are indeed other stories that display deeper occult themes such as Playing with Fire, a haunting tale that includes a séance as its centrepiece, something that Conan Doyle was particularly interested in.
The short story Playing with Fire was first published in The Strand Magazine in March 1900, and seems to reflect Conan Doyle’s keen interest in the occult but at the same time the story conveys an obvious scepticism:
‘It was John Moir (the well-known senior partner of Moir, Moir, and Sanderson) who had originally turned our attention to occult subjects. He had, like many very hard and practical men of business, a mystic side to his nature, which had led him to the examination, and eventually to the acceptance, of those elusive phenomena which are grouped together with much that is foolish, and much that is fraudulent, under the common heading of spiritualism. His researches, which had begun with an open mind, ended unhappily in dogma, and he became as positive and fanatical as any other bigot. He represented in our little group the body of men who have turned these singular phenomena into a new religion.’
The story reveals how a small group of friends attend a séance in an art studio, some are sceptical, though some have a firm belief in the medium who will conduct the séance. There is a discussion about a new painting that displays mythical beast, the painter saying that he had difficulty painting a unicorn. A Frenchman who has been invited to attend by one of the group arrives after this conversation, though he psychically picks up on the discussion and claims to see a unicorn in his mind’s eye. During the experiment a luminous vapour appears and the medium speaks in a different voice, the voice of a person who is no longer with the living. This other plane of existence that emerges is distinct from the normal world, and an enquiry into the nature of death is made by the group, revealing Conan Doyle’s ideas of life after death:
“Have you been a spirit long?”
“We cannot reckon time as you do. Our conditions are different.”
“Are you happy?”
“You would not wish to come back to life?”
“Are you busy?”
“We could not be happy if we were not busy.”
“What do you do?”
“I have said that the conditions are entirely different.”
“Can you give us no idea of your work?”
“We labour for our own improvement and for the advancement of others.”
“Do you like coming here to-night?”
“I am glad to come if I can do any good by coming.”
“Then to do good is your object?”
“It is the object of all life on every plane.”
“Have you pain in your life?” I asked.
“No; pain is a thing of the body.”
“Have you mental pain?”
“Yes; one may always be sad or anxious.”
“Do you meet the friends whom you have known on earth?”
“Some of them.”
“Why only some of them?”
“Only those who are sympathetic.”
“Do husbands meet wives?”
“Those who have truly loved.”
“And the others?”
“They are nothing to each other.”
“There must be a spiritual connection?”
The intriguing questions and answer session is then broken by the Frenchman who diverts the experiment, and manifests the energy to form a unicorn that charges around the room, breaking up the séance and creating panic. The story ends with the narrator reflecting on the incident, and he leaves it open for the reader to decide, if it was a hoax or if it was real.
The story is an excellent insight into Conan Doyle’s ideas on life after death and displays his keen interest in the occult, and though it invites the reader to believe or not to believe, it certainly presents a hint of Conan Doyle’s pursuit into the hidden mysteries of nature and science.