The Mystery of Cloomber by Arthur Conan Doyle (1889)
Mention Conan Doyle and one automatically thinks of Sherlock Holmes. On further reflection, one may consider the scientific fantasies about Professor Challenger, or the historical novels the author held in high esteem, or the improbable adventures of Brigadier Gerard, or his writings on the Boer War and other nonfiction works. Others may recall his penchant for spiritualism and his gullibility in accepting the Cottingley fairies.
Not that many recall what might be his first novel, The Mystery of Cloomber. I'm not sure when Doyle wrote this book but Cloomber was first published in the Pall Mall Gazetter in 1888, and as a book in 1889; his first published novel -- A Study in Scarlet -- originally appeared in Beeton's Christmas Annual in 1887. The second Holmes novel -- The Sign of the Four -- appeared in 1890 and appears to have borrowed some of its structure from Cloomer.
Cloomber is not a great book. It may not even be a good one. But it is a fast, enjoyable read. With a little bit more emphasis on either of the two female characters, the novel could have appeared as a paperback gothic in the 1960s -- the ones with the cover featuring a young girl running in the night from a dark house/castle/estate with just one lighted window. Except the estate in this book has every window lit.
Cloomber Hall, located on the wild moors in the west of Scotland, has stood unoccupied for years, shunned by superstitious natives. Then workmen appeared to refurbish the old building. It has been bought by Major General John Heatherstone, late of the Indian Army. Heatherstone is a secretive man, avoiding all contact with the locals. To this end he constructs a wall around his entire estate. With Heatherstone is his fragile wife and his son Mordaunt and daughter Gabriel.
The main narrator of the story is John Fothergill West, the son of a poor Sanskit scholar who has been placed in charge of the landed estate belonging to his half-brother, Laird of Bransome. Branksome is located about one mile from Cloomber. Living with West and his son is his daughter Esther. As befitting his role as the Laird's representative, the elder West goes to pay a visit to Cloomber but is rebuffed at the gates of the hall. Fothergill West often finds himself near the gates of Cloomber Hall during his walks. One day he is greeted by an attractive girl, Gabriel Heatherstone, and begins a conversation between the gate. She appears desperate for company but says that her father keeps her and her brother restricted to the property for some reason beyond her. Gabriel introduces Fothergill West to her brother; Fothergill West assures the two that, should they ever be able to leave the hall, they would be most welcome to visit Branksome.
The young Heatherstones are occasionally able to sneak out without their father's knowledge and soon a tight bond grows between the two Heatherstones and the two Wests. Fothergill West becomes secretly engaged to Gabriel and Esther is receptive to Mordaunt's attentions.
During a storm, a ship goes down in the bay and, among the survivors are three Buddhist priests traveling from India. News of this frightens General Heatherstone and he asks Fothergill West to be alert and come to his aid if need be. It's obvious that whatever the General fears, it's origins lay in his past in India. Added to the General's fears are the ringings of some kind of bell, a sound that appears to come out of nowhere and can be heard several times a day. Gabriel tells Fothergill West that her father grows more fearful and erratic every year as October 5 approaches.
This particular year, October 5 culminates in horror as a fate determined 40 years before overtakes the General. A wild chase through the moors ends at the Hole of Cree, a seemingly bottomless pit feared by natives. More questions arise than answers. Some of the answers are then provided by the General's Indian dairy from 1841.
Suspense, mystery, and oriental mysticism combine to provide a read that may seem obvious to the modern reader. This novel may pale in comparison to other works by Doyle, but it is still a pleasant way to spend an evening.