PERHAPS the most obvious example is Picnic at Hanging Rock, Joan Lindsay’s Gothic pastoral about a group of girls who venture to the top of a mountain and fall into a kind of metaphysical sleep. But it’s as much a tradition, the story of uncertain worlds above. Just seven years before the events at Hanging Rock, Arthur Conan Doyle brought Sherlock Holmes to the top of another fateful mountain. By this point in his career, having run a swamp adder through the HVAC of a creaky manor and deduced a killer’s identity by the shape of a severed ear, Conan Doyle had at his disposal a fairly robust artillery. But when, fearing that Holmes was weighing down his legacy, he wrote what he intended to be the character’s death, it wasn’t by any rococo plotting—no mug discreetly laced with arsenic or, as in “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” the outrageous West African root whose poisonous ash contained “all that was monstrous and inconceivably wicked in the universe”—but rather the simple avenue of a precarious height. Watson finds an ominous trail of footprints spilling over the edge of a cliff and struggles to imagine a fate that isn’t downward. “And then what had happened?” he asks. “Who was to tell us what had happened then?”
Thirty years later, a car was found with one wheel hanging over the edge of a cliff in Yorkshire. The car belonged to Agatha Christie, whose Poirot had only just joined Holmes in the canon of mystery, and who that morning had been declared missing. It came to surface that Christie had had a row with her husband over the news that he intended to leave her. Dorothy Sayers, writing in the Daily News, speculated that the disappearance could be “foul play, suicide, or voluntary.” The police would collect a mishmash of evidence from the cliff top, including a bottle labeled “poison.” Over fifteen thousand people would join a search of the chalk pits below, into which many assumed her body had fallen. Speculation was made as well over the Silent Pool, an area pond some believed to descend forever. The police even reached out to Conan Doyle, but he dismissed forensics in favor of spiritualism, lately his foremost preoccupation. Of a glove from the scene of the almost crash, a psychic told him, “The person who owns it is half dazed and half purposeful.”
Eleven days after disappearing, Christie was found at a Yorkshire spa, having checked in under the name of her husband’s new girlfriend. She claimed not to have recognized her own picture on the front page of the week’s newspapers, nor her husband on finally seeing him. “She does not know who she is,” he told the press. For the rest of her life, Christie would only speak publicly about the experience once, stating with marvelous ambiguity that she left her house “with the intention of doing something desperate.” “I reached a point on the road which I thought was near the quarry,” she writes. “I left the wheel and let the car run.” And even the queen of mystery herself can’t explain what happened on her own fateful mountain, stating only, “Up to this moment, I was Mrs. Christie.”
There is something alluring about that moment, about the elusive hope that we ourselves might emerge into the ether and see finally what we’d always imagined. But, as Lindsay warns the girls on their march toward Hanging Rock, “Confronted by such monumental configurations of nature the human eye is woefully inadequate.” What did they find that afternoon? We were there with them, half dazed and half purposeful, but the rock’s peculiar effect is only shown for the briefest moment, when one of the girls brings out a pencil and notepad. With no reluctance whatsoever, she finds herself tossing them aside and yawning tragically, at which point all four girls fall asleep. We never see them again; we’re left to picture from below the mysterious ways in which the feel of an insurmountable height on the sole of one’s foot might change everything. Removed from the earth, we dream of the body losing itself.
It turns out that Lindsay did write the following scene, but she asked that it be published posthumously. She didn’t want to be anywhere near it.