“The Fiendish Hound”: How The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) makes us rethink about our co-existence with nature

3 September 2019
By Ming Panha

The present day is seen as catastrophic in almost every aspect: politics, culture, and even nature. Ecological awareness has become widespread as news reports about natural disasters appear daily, such as The Amazon forest fire, the discovery of microplastics in the ocean, and the increase of world temperature, evidenced by, for example, the death of salmon in Alaska and the invasion of polar bears in Russia. The images of pristine nature have been evoked in discourses about nature conservation, and yet this Edenic representation of nature has rendered nature subservient to human pleasure and supportive of human authority.

Then, without the pristine image of nature in mind, how should we see and coexist with the symbiosis we imagine to be beautiful, in the time of man-made catastrophe? Surprisingly, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, one of the most successful novellas in the Sherlock Holmes series, might have an answer for this. Set in desolate Dartmoor, with mires and bogs, the novel about the haunting canine challenges human authority, by representing Dartmoor as a hell of man-made ecological disasters. Sherlock Holmes and Watson are given their opportunities to reconceptualise their relations with nature in this text, as “The Hound” manages to punish men (please also note the gender) who exploit nature. I argue that The Hound of the Baskervilles reprimands human, capitalist authority, and reveals to us that the retribution of human beings from nature is also a symptom of the ills capitalism has caused. The Hound and the Dartmoor landscape are both vigilante and victim. The conflicting statuses within a symbiotic space correspond to the present-day ecological disasters; The Hound of the Baskervilles reveals to us the pain of the wrathful hound.

Hell might evoke the image of punishment. The legendary Hound, and the Dartmoor landscape, challenges human authority in the form of tourism, land investment, and scientific experiment. Just before the end of the novel, Inspector Lestrade has arrived at Dartmoor to help Holmes. Holmes welcomes Lestrade, saying, “We will take the London fog out of your throat by giving you a pure night air of Dartmoor. Never been there? Ah, well, I don’t suppose you will forget your first visit” (146).  As the statement is at the end of the story, when readers have seen the desolate Dartmoor through Watson’s description, this is obviously sarcastic. Holmes’ sarcastic remark suggests the binary opposition of the city and the country, where there is pure air for tourists to enjoy, in contrast to the London’s thick, polluted fog.

Yet, as if on purpose, when Holmes, Watson, and Lestrade stake out for The Hound, mysterious fog flows down from the hill to Gothicise the desolate landscape. The Dartmoor fog questions the borderline between the city and the country. Without any scientific explanation, the fog means nature has its own system, which humans cannot easily understand and categorise. The hound itself clearly challenges the male aristocratic authority. Instead of being loyal and faithful to the human master, the hound hunts humans down, and those humans killed by the Hound are related to the capitalisation of the nonhuman. Sir Charles speculates gold in South Africa. Sir Henry used to be a farmer in Canada. Jack Stapleton (Rodger Baskerville in disguise), the scientist, is not killed by the legendary hound he has created, but the landscape swallows him up at The Grimpen Mire, when he tries to escape. [The story also makes connections between women and landscape, as the hound kills Sir Hugo for abusing a lady, and Beryl Garcia, Stapleton’s wife, is named after a kind of mineral. The story links Stapleton’s abuse of women with his collection of animal specimens.] The Hound acts as a vigilante, along with desolate Dartmoor, against human, capitalist authority.

However, if you know the story, you might question the death of Selden, an escaped convict whom Sir Henry has helped by giving him clothes to disguise himself and escape. Selden does not invest in nature; he is almost a part of the Moor. That’s why the vigilante mode can only half explain the narrative. The mistake the hound has made emphasise that the Hound is not god-like, or immortal, but it is a precarious, living flesh, conditioned by desire for captial. The Grimpen Mire can be seen as the symptom of tin mining. Dartmoor is not just infernal for the human, but also for the nonhuman.  Dartmoor in the story is hellish, because it is filled with pained and lost souls. The scary hound, as Holmes and Watson look at it with surprise, is actually a hound in pain.

However, Holmes and Watson exploit the vulnerability of the hound to get rid of him in order to protect Sir Henry. “If [the hound] was vulnerable he was mortal, and if we could wound him we could kill him.” (151). However, as readers, can we read this as realisation of fleshly being, alongside its monstrosity? Can this moment of realisation rethink our relations with nature? Instead of walking into a picturesque, Edenic space, making kinship with nature means seeing the agency of the nonhuman and seeing at the same time the threatening monsters and its suffering flesh. As a literature scholar, the approaches we look and explain narratives about nature matter in making kin with the nonhuman in such troublesome time. We can include the hound in the same category as Frankenstein’s monster, a creature, which takes revenge against its master and, at the same time, asks for love. The hound is both fiendish and friendly.

I am inspired to write this blog after reading Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016). Haraway suggests that, in order to survive this man-made natural cataclysm, we have to consider Medusa the captain of our ship of survival. Medusa is not only a scary monster turning men to stone, but also a victim, who has been raped, cursed, and killed. Can we see the hound in the same way? Can we see it and realise our ethical obligations? To see and embrace the monster is not to see the monstrosity as a guise; rather we should see monstrosity and victimhood combined into one in order to co-exist with our nonhuman kin.


Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The Hound of the Baskervilles. Edited by W. W. Robson, Reprint edition, OUP Oxford, 2008.

Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble. Duke University Press Books, 2016.