Warning: contains spoilers for “A Ghost Story for Christmas: Lot No. 249”
Christmas and ghosts go together like mince pies and brandy butter, or indeed like Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss and Sherlock Holmes. This year’s A Ghost Story For Christmas brings us a bit of both.
Based on a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle, Lot No. 249 sees medical student Smith (Kit Harrington) called to help fellow student Bellingham (Freddie Fox) after he falls into some sort of a trance. Bellingham is a specialist in Egyptology and possesses many ancient artifacts including a mummified body. Strange things have been occurring on campus, some of them to people who have crossed Bellingham – could the desiccated corpse have anything to do with it? Well, yes, obviously.
While scary resurrected mummies are standard horror fare these days, back when Doyle was writing, Egyptomania was all the rage and the concept of the undead mummy coming back to wreak a terrible revenge was fairly new. Doyle’s story went on to influence the mummy’s role in horror tropes.
Gatiss sticks broadly to Doyle’s original with some tweaks on the way (and at the end in fact) but one of the most interesting changes Gatiss makes is the addition of a new character listed as The Friend, played by John Heffernan.
The episode begins with Smith frantically hammering on said friend’s door, requesting brandy and sanctuary. Smith thinks he’s been followed by some mysterious creature and wants to ask for his pal’s advice.
“No-nonsense sort of fellow, very clever in his own peculiar way,” Smith describes his friend, to his fellow student Monkhouse Lee (Colin Ryan) before the visit. “I shall lay the facts before him and see what counsel he can give.”
Though he is never named, this friend is of course Sherlock Holmes. He smokes Sherlock’s signature pipe, wears his signature dressing gown and talks about his imminent plan to move to a suite of rooms on Baker Street.
When Smith presents his case to his friend, Sherlock keeps his feet firmly on the ground, dismissing supernatural speculation and suggesting rational explanations. It’s a trait he’ll take forward into other cases, perhaps most famously “The Hound of the Baskervilles” which looks to all intents and purposes like it revolves around a deadly hell hound. Rather than referencing that case, though, Sherlock here mentions “Old Prestbury”.
This is a reference to the Sherlock story “The Adventure of the Creeping Man”, first published by Doyle in 1923 and then later in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes collection in 1927.
In this story Professor Prestbury, an older man recently engaged to a young woman, sporadically behaves strangely following a trip to Prague. The professor’s personal secretary, (who is engaged to the professor’s daughter), approaches Holmes after Prestbury displays odd behaviour, including growing possessive and furtive with certain items, crawling around on his hands and feet and inexplicably appearing outside his daughter’s window on the second floor.
Holmes deduces that Prestbury has become addicted to a drug that makes him behave like an ape – walking on all fours, clambering up the creeper outside his daughter’s window and tormenting his own dog. The professor takes the drug, which is obtained from a particular kind of monkey, to rejuvenate him ahead of his marriage to his much younger fiance. The old dawg.
Incidentally, the chronology of these cases is a bit of a fudge. In the Sherlock universe Holmes meets Watson in 1881, after Sherlock has moved to Baker Street. “Lot No. 249” was set in 1884 but in Gatiss’ version, Holmes has yet to move or to meet Watson – though their meeting is foreshadowed: when Holmes asks Smith if he might consider being his lodger Holmes says “a doctor would make a fine companion to any man.” “The Adventure of the Creeping Man”, however, is one of Holmes’ last cases (according to Watson), before the detective retires in 1903.
Not that it really matters, since Doyle’s “Lot No. 249” wasn’t a Sherlock story in the first place. However, it’s a fun Easter Egg for fans of Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s Sherlock, which once memorably took their modern-day take on Doyle’s character back to the Victorian era in festive special “The Abominable Bride”.
A Ghost Story for Christmas: Lot No. 249 is available to stream now on BBC iPlayer in the UK.