Primary Genre(s): Short Story, Mystery, Horror, Science Fiction
Published: November 1913 in Strand Magazine
Page count: 32
My Format: audiobook via Hoopla Digital
Would I recommend it: Yes
My rating: ★★★★☆
Synopsis from Goodreads
The story is told through a blood-stained notebook discovered on the edge of a farm in Withyham. The notebook is written by a Mr. Joyce-Armstrong, and the first two and last pages are missing; the notebook is thus dubbed the “Joyce-Armstrong Fragment”.
I’ve read all of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, but I have not read any of his other short stories. I found an audiobook on Hoopla Digital that has four of his non-Holmes stories and wanted to give them a shot. Remember, spoilers are almost inevitable when reviewing a short story and this one is no exception. If you don’t want to know about plot details, please read the short story first. Click here for a version I found available online. Interestingly, this online version indicates this story was published in 1922 in Tales of Terror and Mystery. I’m assuming the original magazine publication was later included in a book collection of short stories. Here are my pros and cons for The Horror of the Heights:
- This is an interesting early science fiction story involving airplanes. Remember, this story was published in 1913, only 10 years after the Wright Brothers had their first flight. After an admittedly brief Google search, I also discovered that the first flight with a passenger was in 1908, and the world’s first scheduled passenger airline service began in 1914 (in Florida). It wasn’t until the 1920s that airports started to appear for emerging commercial airline services. So, when this story was published the vast majority of humans had no personal experience of flight or any kind of knowledge of what dangers might be in the sky. That makes this story very much science fiction for the readers of that time.
- I can’t imagine how scary this would have been to readers in the early 20th Century and I have to wonder if it would have impacted anyone’s decision to ever fly at all.
- Once we got to the meat of the story, this was a commendable and scary adventure. Our aviator, Joyce-Armstrong, flies to 40,000 feet in his monoplane and is almost hit by meteors and discovers there are creatures living in what he calls “air-jungles”. The descriptions of the creatures are detailed, yet ambiguous (e.g., huge, gelatinous, semi-solid) which makes them even more scary!
- Insanely, the aviator gets to ground and away from the creatures, but decides to go back up to get proof of their existence. This is where everything goes horribly wrong. The shocking, scary, and perfect last line of the Joyce-Armstrong notebook (from which this whole story stems) is:
Forty-three thousand feet. I shall never see earth again. They are beneath me, three of them. God help me; it is a dreadful death to die!
- While interesting, it hasn’t aged particularly well. It’s not as frightening as I imagine it was in 1913.
- Perhaps a tad verbose. I got a little bored until the creatures were encountered.
The aviator in this story is an explorer. Much like those that explored new lands or discovered the secrets of the oceans, our protagonist was an explorer of the sky. Unfortunately, what he discovered ultimately sealed his doom and probably scared the heebie-jeebies out of a ton of people that read Strand Magazine in 1913!! The “unknown” is one of the best things to write about because you can make it anything you want! I love stories like this and I’d really love to know what the reaction to it was in 1913. While the macabre was still there in 2019, the true horror of it has dissipated over time because now we know better… or do we? 🙂
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(image from Goodreads)