How many shows on the air right now feature a sleuthing modern day protagonist named Sherlock Holmes? How many times have you seen the story of Peter Pan retold in the last year alone? How many literary classics have been “updated” with passages that include anything from limb-rending zombies to bodice-ripping Byronic heroes?
How is this possible?
Why for the love of God do you have to put up with it?
How can you get in on it?
It’s the public domain, baby. It’s where retired works go to be resurrected at the hands of fans who refuse to let sleeping ‘doms lie.
Sometimes fanfiction transcends fandom to become part of canon—accepted or unaccepted. Some creators treat the public domain like their personal cash cow, publishing fiction for a built-in audience. Others find their work contributing to that bigger and well-loved picture, providing anything from sequels to retellings to origin stories—and that’s where things get interesting.
Even after Arthur Conan Doyle begrudgingly brought Sherlock back from the brink in The Final Problem and dropped him in the moors, readers past and present were chomping at the bit to experience the further exploits of their favorite detective. The episodic format of Doyle’s original manuscripts, combined with a serialized method of dispersal via The Strand, lent sustainability to the Holmesian problem-of-the-week format. Not only that, but the character of Sherlock Holmes himself was, and remains, infinitely compelling—like Santa Claus in a hunting cap, fans even wrote letters to Holmes at his fictional address, so much so that a secretary was eventually hired on to respond to them.
But who is really responsible for the evolution of the Holmes character we know and love? One man or the dozens to come after? Copyright on the character was disputed as recently as 2014, with the judge ruling against the Doyle estate’s claim that the character’s presence in work still copyrighted made the character of Holmes himself off-limits. A thoughtful response to the ruling was published by Parker Higgins and Sarah Jeong in their Five Useful Articles newsletter:
“Posner’s opinion has much to commend, but one area it does not delve into is how the character of Sherlock Holmes—as we know him—is the construct of many authors, artists, and even film-makers. As Authors Alliance co-founder Molly Van Houweling points out, the phrase “elementary, my dear Watson,” never appears in any of Doyle’s works. And Doyle himself never described Holmes wearing his signature funny hat, this pop culture impression of the detective came about through a series of others’ interpretations—first, in a few original illustrations by Sidney Paget, which probably influenced the stage actor William Gilette’s depiction of Holmes, whose photo inspired American illustrator Frederic Dorr Steele to consistently draw the character in a deerstalker cap, an artistic choice that made its way into a number of cinematic versions.”
With Holmes firmly planted in the public domain, the casebooks continue to remain open.
Another popular mythos—one that hasn’t quite managed to creep its tentacles into the mainstream as pervasively as Sherlock—is the Cthulhu Mythos. Howard Phillips Lovecraft, H.P. before Harry Potter ever flew on the scene, was known to have personally encouraged writers to delve into the settings of his work and participate in collaborative world-building. References to the odious grimoire Necronomicon crop up in more books than Thursday Next, while locations like Arkham Asylum can be found in works as far-removed as Batman. Contemporary authors like Neil Gaiman have contributed to the mythos—Gaiman’s short story, A Study in Emerald, intertextualizes Holmesian characters into a post-Old Ones world to Hugo Award-winning effect. (Read his story online here.)
With so many cyclopean cities to explore, mortal minds to warp, and cosmic horrors to worship in the dark arcades of the New England backwoods, it’s no wonder the rich world of Lovecraft’s imaginings hasn’t spent itself decades later. Try navigating the board game once and you’ll realize just how endless the storytelling possibilities really are.
While many contemporary works aim to build upon or expand an established mythos, there are still others that seek to inform its native characters. Susan Kay’s novel, Phantom, which follows the exploits and motivations of Leroux’s titular character in The Phantom of the Opera, is widely considered by Phans to be the definitive work of supplementary fiction, sometimes even taking precedence over the original. In Wide Sargasso Sea, author Jean Rhys explores the character of Bertha—better known as Edward Rochester’s attic-bound and hopelessly underwritten wife in Jane Eyre. Published work in this vein strives to flesh out and pay tribute to characters that the source material can sometimes overlook.
So how can fans like you and I take a stab at it? First, start by checking out Project Gutenberg, an online library that provides free access to thousands of written works that have already entered the public domain. Try doing an Internet search targeting the work of fiction you are interested in—remember, the older the better! Shifting copyright laws make it difficult to keep track of what is protected, especially in the U.S. Be thorough in your research!
The world of the public domain is an interesting one to plumb, and this article only scratches the surface of what you might find. Consider taking fanfiction, and your love of an established work, to the next level. Follow in the boot steps of William Codpiece Thwackery and make us proud. And definitely let FAN/FIC Magazine know when you do!