Want to read this along with me? This essay is part of The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1927. I used the epub version found on Feedbooks.com.
The biggest thing this story brings to the canon is one of the most evocative apocryphal case references:
“Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson,” said Holmes in a reminiscent voice. “It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.”
This casual reference by Holmes has spawned more pastiches than any other. The Spider Woman and In Pursuit of Algiers (both Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce movies) contain references to it, and novels such as The Holmes-Dracula File by Fred Saberhagen, The Giant Rat of Sumatra by Rick Boyer, and Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra by Alan Vanneman address the case, just to name a few. The idea has even extended outside of Holmes himself to properties such as the Hardy Boys and Doctor Who!
And speaking of Dracula, the reference to vampires in this story have caused a couple of pastiches involving the most famous vampire in literature, including the previously-mentioned Saberhagen novel, as well as Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula : The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count written by Loren D. Estleman (which I naturally have a copy of). I could probably write a whole essay just on the Victorian fascination with vampires even before Dracula was published, but suffice it to say that the concept was as known to Victorian culture as it is to us now, and it isn’t as off of a match-up as it might appear at first.
Next to Hound, however, this is the most popular story of Holmes investigating a situation that appears supernatural but turns out to be perfectly mundane. And yet, right after “The Creeping Man,” it seems a bit arbitrary: scientists becoming monkeys due to injections is plausible, but vampires aren’t? (Although, to be fair, in “The Creeping Man” Holmes mentioned how the study of dogs can give an indication of the household that owns it. Here we see a perfect example of that idea in practice.) Regardless of the context, though, one of the most iconic quotes of Holmes’ attitude towards the supernatural is in this story:
“This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.”
As usual with the better stories in the canon, there are lots of good bits about Holmes and Watson here. There’s a nice nod to “The Gloria Scott” here. We learn that while Holmes is meticulous in collecting information, he rarely gives credit to the source he got it from. Watson played rugby for Blackheath, which was an amateur rugby club formed in 1858. Holmes admits that while he prefer to not form theories without data, he is still prone to it sometimes. Finally, a reference to “the dry chuckle which was his nearest approach to a laugh” shows how inconsistently Holmes’ laughter is portrayed in the canon (cross-reference this with his laughter in “The Mazarin Stone”).
Again, in such an uneven volume, this stands out as a pure and classic Holmes tale. Holmes’ stance on the supernatural is consistent with that of The Hound of the Baskervilles. It’s surprising that this is such a pragmatic case, as Doyle was quite firmly in the grip of Spiritualism at this point, but it’s good despite (or perhaps because of) Doyle’s beliefs.