Monday, April 7, 2014

The Parasite by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

She’s messing with my head
When he wasn’t writing Sherlock Holmes detective tales, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was cranking out all manner of short stories and novels in the genres of science fiction, mystery, horror, historical adventure, and what might best be described as medical fiction. Conan Doyle, being a physician himself, obviously had an interest in science, but he was also fascinated by the occult. Somewhere betwixt those two areas of interest lies the realm of parapsychology and his short novel of 1894, The Parasite. Though the title may lead one to believe the book is a medical thriller, the host for this particular parasite is actually mental rather than physical. The Parasite is a suspenseful tale of mind control by mesmerism.

Austin Gilroy is a young professor of physiology who places immense value in the certainty of scientific fact. His colleague Professor Wilson, however, who studies the relatively newborn field of psychology, is more open to the possibility of unexplained phenomena. Wilson invites Gilroy to his home to witness a demonstration of mesmerism by the mysterious Miss Penclosa. Gilroy skeptically volunteers to be entranced by Penclosa, and to his surprise she is actually capable of doing so. He decides to research the physical science behind mesmerism, and asks Miss Penclosa to perform a series of experiments with him. After several sessions in which she hypnotizes him, Gilroy begins to realize that she has a powerful psychic hold over him. He is horrified to discover that she is in love with him and intends to make him her slave. Since this woman is capable of controlling him just as a puppeteer directs the actions of a marionette, how will he ever escape her evil clutches?

The Parasite is a fun gender-bending variation on the countless tales of helpless women forced into the harem of a domineering svengali. In this case it’s the man who must fear for the loss of his precious virtue. Perhaps Conan Doyle’s novel is an expression of a late 19th-century fear of powerful, independent women. If Gilroy’s antagonist were a male, he would have more options available for retaliation, such as violence or public denunciation. Since his nemesis is a woman, however, his is bound by Victorian era societal codes on how to deal with the fairer sex, no matter how evil they may be. Conan Doyle’s hands are unfortunately tied by these same codes, which may be what prevents him from capping the story off with a satisfying finale.

Though this is a positive review overall, I must offer a warning to the reader: the ending of this story absolutely sucks. How do you rate a work that is 99% entertaining when it’s ruined by its final sentence? Looking on the bright side, the disappointment inspired by the weak conclusion does not negate the suspenseful ride it took to get there. The Parasite really is a fun psychological thriller that keeps you guessing as to what’s going to happen next. This premise and plot could easily be made into an exciting Hollywood blockbuster, if only someone would come up with an ending that finishes it with a bang rather than a fizzle.

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