The Black Beast of Ipswich Review

Review: The Black Beast of Ipswich by William Jeffrey Rankin

The Black Beast of Ipswich: Sherlock Holmes and Carnacki is a compelling occult detective story that features two great detectives, cursed remains, and thrilling adventure. This iteration of Rankin’s Carnacki series blends classic adaptation and mystery with horror and the paranormal.

Here at the Periapsis Press blog, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed The Black Beast of Ipswich. I encourage you to check it out!

This review contains minor spoilers.

The Black Beast of Ipswich Publisher Description:

With the beast came the murders. With the murders came the fear. It stalks the foggy streets, dark alleys, and deserted quays. It glowers in the dark corners of public houses. And it bides patiently at cold hearthsides.

Some claim it to be none other than Black Shuck, the legendary harbinger of ill-fortune and death. Consulting detective Sherlock Holmes has his own hypothesis, believing the murders to be the work of a monomaniac—a madman with a singular and deadly obsession. But when he and Dr. Watson witness what seems to be the impossible, they enlist the aid of occult detective Thomas Carnacki.

Together they pursue the beast through the town’s dark streets and surrounding woods. But even with their skills combined, how can they hope to fight an entity able to possess the minds and bodies of the very people they’re trying to protect?

A tale of mystery, horror, and adventure from the lost files of Dr. John H. Watson.

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Detective Adaptation

The Black Beast of Ipswich is beautifully told in the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson. I found the voice of the narrator friendly and familiar, with Watson’s characteristic admiration for Sherlock, even at his most condescending. The setting, too, put me in the mindset of a classic detective story. Rankin has a knack for historical pieces, as we saw in The Invocations of the Submortal.

I also appreciated the pacing, which was steady at the beginning as the characters explored the nature of the crimes that had already taken place and then ramped up as they moved to prevent additional harm. This again closely resembles the usual adventures of Sherlock and Watson, although the supernatural nature of the threat, of course, differs.

Mystery, Monster, Exorcism

The cover and supernatural element in this story bring to mind The Hound of the Baskervilles. Whereas that tale hinges on the question, “How could this seemingly supernatural event be explained?”, The Black Beast of Ipswich begins with nearly the opposite puzzle.

The reader already knows from the synopsis that the perpetrator is not ordinary, so we begin with a question of “Which aspects of the case are normal and which paranormal?” Is the beast a physical monster controlled by a person, a man under a curse such as lycanthropy, a spirit animal? As these elements become clearer, the “who dunnit” question no longer directs their predicament. The story shifts from a detective mystery to a sensational classic monster horror.

The tale’s final resolution draws us briefly into the genre of exorcism horror, necessitating a priest and Catholic ritual mythology to resolve.

Sherlock Holmes and the Supernatural

How does this adaptation of the Great Detective compare with the original, particularly his reaction to the supernatural? Afterall, Sherlock was a staunch rationalist and atheist.

Well, actually, this is not true. Although recent film and tv adaptations of Sherlock have portrayed him as coldly disdainful towards matters of faith, Doyle portrayed him as reverent. In The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, he states,

“Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it.”

Furthermore, the detective is not averse to supernatural explanations for his cases. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, he includes the possibility and dismisses superstitions on their merit as any other theory:

“Of course, if Dr. Mortimer’s surmise should be correct, and we are dealing with forces outside the ordinary laws of Nature, there is an end of our investigation. But we are bound to exhaust all other hypotheses before falling back upon this one.”

So, then, does Sherlock in The Black Beast of Ipswich “exhaust all other hypotheses”? Well, yes, but not through deduction. Rankin’s Sherlock acknowledges the nature of the beast upon witnessing it for himself. He is not forced to work through the implications or world-rocking reactions beyond the strictly necessary for the story, which works to maintain his aloof character. It also preserves his status in the mind of the reader, who already knew that the problem had an occult explanation and has no interest in spending more of the story convincing the characters of the same.

Monster Horror

The truly delightful aspect of this particular story for me is the horror elements. The monster is terrific: beast, bones, and spirit all expertly applied to thrill both individually and together. The threats of cursed remains, bodily mutilation, and the ineffectualness of physical protection are all skillfully wielded to raise the stakes and the tension.

Two particularly effective scenes include one of the beast pacing around a circle of protection looking for a way inside and one of a vivid dream of Dr. Watson’s in which he consumes raw flesh. Both were potent and well-timed.

Check Out Sherlock Holmes and Carnacki: The Black Beast of Ipswich!

The Black Beast of Ipswich is a fantastic twist on the Great Detective with a chilling dose of horror. It was a fun introduction for me to the occult detective Carnacki, and I am interested in seeing more of Rankin’s stories of William Hope Hodgson’s classic character as well!

Did you enjoy The Black Beast of Ipswich?

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