Occult Detectives, pt. 10

carnackilogo Occult Detectives, pt. 10

Carnacki The Ghost Finder by William Hope Hodgson, Mycroft & Moran, 1947

If you haven’t read Hodgson, I envy you the way I envy a young person going on their first trip abroad.You are going to see. hear, experience things that you will never forget. Despite some inconsistencies and an early death which limited his output, Hodgson’s vision of the weird and unearthly is at the very least equal to Lovecraft, Blackwood and Machen. His four fantastic novels are among the most original works of fiction I’ve ever encountered; in fact, The Nightland is probably the single most unique vision in weird fantasy, despite Hodgson’s use of a clumsy invented archaic narration style that fights the reader every step of the journey. By the end of the book, it’s hard to imagine that it could have been written any other way.

carnackiarkham 277x400 Occult Detectives, pt. 10

I don’t know how you find out this kind of information with any certainty, but my guess is that Carnacki the Ghost Finder is his best known and most popular work. There are nine stories in all. Five of the stories (“Gateway of the Monster,” “The House Among the Luarels,” “The Whistling Room,” “The Horse of the Invisible,” and “The Searcher of End House”) appeared in The Idler Magazine in the January through April, plus June issues of 1910.”The Thing Invisible” , wasn’t published until 1912, in The New Magazine. (It was the practice to commission series of stories in groups of six; why the stories did not all appear together is a matter for speculation.)

These six stories were collected into book form in 1913.

Many years after Hodgson’s death in World War 1, his wife discovered three additional Carnacki stories. “The Hog,” the longest of all the stories, appeared in the January, 1947 issue of Weird Tales. That story, along with”The Haunted Jarvee” and “The Find” were included in the Mycroft & Moran edition, and all subsequent printings likewise contain the complete series.

There are several qualities besides that of the writing that set Carnacki apart from all the other Occult Detectives we’ve looked at thus far:

  • He is not a know-it-all. Though widely read and experienced in the ‘Ab-natural,’ Carnacki is only too well aware of his ignorance. He proceeds carefully and cautiously. Aside from the 14th century text known as the Sigsand Manuscript, which contains highly unusual advice for fighting the Outer Monstrosities, Carnacki also references contemporary sources such as “Garder’s Lecture on Astarral Vibrations Compared with Matero-involuted Vibration Below the Six-Billion Limit,’ and ‘Hazam’s Monograph on Astral and ‘Asatarral’ Co-ordination and Interference.’
carnacki Occult Detectives, pt. 10

the 1920 "cheap" editiion

  • He makes elaborate preparations for investigation and defense, from the mundane (taping hairs across windows and doors to determine if anything enters, flash photography, powder on the floor to detect physical footsteps) to the scientific (the Electric Pentacle, the color spectrum) and the Ab-Natural (advice from the Sigsand Ms,, the eight signs of the Saamaa Ritual, chalk pentacles marked with occult signs and ringed with shallow dishes of a ‘certain water’ and pieces of a ‘certain bread.’) And they don’t always work. But he would find it rather stupid and reckless to rely on a bubble of positive thoughts as a defense like his close contemporary, John Silence, advises.
  • There is a tension in the stories absent from most other Occult Detective series in that some of the resolutions are rational, some are supernatural, and at least one is both. It’s a wonderful technique to keep the stories from falling into formula.
  • The unearthly elements are magnified by Hodgson’s odd choice of narrative device. As is standard for detective stories from this period, there is a narrator, named Dodgson, but he is never directly involved in the stories. Along with several other friends, he  receives an invitation to dinner at Carnacki’s, then tells us about Carnacki telling them about the adventure he has just completed. This third degree of separation puts an additional layer between the reader and the actual events, which adds a certain fuzziness and yet adds to the believability of the story.

The Stories

  • “The Thing Invisible” involves a mysterious dagger that hangs in a private chapel of an old estate. Legend says it can strike any enemy of the Jarnock family, but the legend comes shockingly to life as the current Jarnock heir and some friends see the butler, standing alone in the chapel, struck in the heart by the ‘waeful dagger’ out of the void, with such force that he is driven back against the wall.
  • “The Gateway of the Monster” is a serious competitor for the best story in the collection, as Carnacki investigates a ‘haunting’ in an isolated country home. The actual phenomena is limited to a slamming door and the bedclothes being ripped off the bed each morning, but there is a blacker feeling surrounding the manifestation. Carnacki, using all the tricks he has up his sleeve, spends the night in the room, in the center of his elaborate pentacle. He barely survives the first manifestation, yet, believing he has found the secret, he spends another night in the room….and finds he has made a very grave error in judgment.
  • “The House Among the Laurels” is inherited by a friend of Carnacki’s. It has been vacant for years and poorly cared for, all because of what a local tells them :

“‘Tis curst with innocent blood an’ ye’ll be better pullin’ it down an’ buildin’ a fine new wan. But if ye be intendin’ to shtay  this night, kape the big dhoor open whide an’ watch for the bhlod-dhrip. If so much as a single dhrip falls, don’t shtay though all the gold in the worrld was offered ye.”

Carnacki and his friend are accompanied by a handful of policemen, and their reactions to Carnacki’s precautions, and the inevitable ‘bhlood-dhrip’ are humorous yet entirely believable.

  • “The Whistling Room” is another contender for best story, despite Carnacki traveling to another recently acquired and remote residence. Iastrae Castle, in Ireland, The problem:

“We’ve got a room in this shanty which has got a most infernal whistling in it, sort of haunting it. The thing starts any time, you never know when, and it goes on until it frightens you. It’s not ordinary whistling and it isn’t the wind. Wait till you hear it.”

Saiitii manifestations – the Unknown Last Line of the Saamaa Ritual, used by the Ab-human Priests in the Incantation of the Raaaee–Outer Monstrosiities (which seems to be missing a few vowels; it might better be spelled ‘Ouuterr Monsstrooooositiiis.’) This is classic Carnacki, with as chilling and original an ending as you’re likely to find in weird literature..

  • “The Searcher of the End House” is a quieter but nonetheless creepy affair as Carnacki investigates spirits appearing in the house he and his mother have rented.
  • “The  Horse of the Invisible” is a family curse story. Like “Searcher,”it has a purposely ambiguous endings. This last story was dramatized as part of the Rivals of Sherlock Holmes series from the BBC. Donald Pleasance, fine actor though he was, was a very unsatisfactory Carnacki.
  • “The Haunted “Jarvee”” is one of the unpublished stories, and is a borderline classic, with an unusual haunting of a ship at sea, a setting where Hodgson’s descriptive powers excel. Its greatest strength -that Carnacki’s defenses fail, becoming instead a focusing point for the malevolent powers–turns out to also be its greatest weakness.
  • “The Find” is  the one clunker in the collection, like the error Persian rug weavers purposely put into their creations to keep if from perfection. Also unpublished in Hodgson’s lifetime, it is hardly a Carnacki story at all, despite having the familiar set up of dinner and story. It is merely a clever puzzle about a rare stolen book of no occult significance, and how the theft was pulled off. Any one of the two billion magazine detectives appearing at that time could have deal with the case just as well; why Hodgson wrote it in the first place is the larger mystery.
  • “The Hog.” Hodgson had a thing about pigs. Pigs and pig-faced figures appear in The Nightland and House on the Borderland, and though it may sound funny, they are among the most terrifying images in all of his work. When I first read these stories in the early 1970s, this was hands down my favorite, the scariest story I had ever read.

It is the longest, and in some ways the simplest of the collection. A man comes to Carnacki, seeking help for his bad dreams. only they are much worse than dreams. They have the feel of reality, though all the man can really remember of them is grunting and howling of pigs.

From hints in the Sigsand Ms., Carnacki has been developing a new spectrum defense,  an updated version of his Electric Pentacle, consisting of “seven glass vacuum circles with the red on the outisde and the colour circles lying inside it, in the order of orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.” Putting on a weird rubber suit, armed with camera and sensitive sound recording gear, Carnacki fits the vacuum tubes together around himself and the dreamer. The man falls asleep…and from there on, it’s one long extended climax of horror, a visitation from the Outer Monstrosities.

That is more or less the end of Hodgson’s Ghost-finder. If, however,  you want to be a completist, there is one more odd item, found in Hodgosn’s papers by Sam Moskowitz some years ago.  For reasons unknown, some time after the magazine publication Hodgson re-worked four stories (“The House Among the Laurels,” ” The Gateway of the Monster,””The Horse of the Invisible,” and “The Whistling Room.”) into a single 5,000 word short story, entitled “Carnacki, the Ghost Finder and a Poem.” It’s a summary of the four cases, and it is amazing how concise and atmospheric the piece is, though no substitute for the stories themselves. The only place I have ever seen it is in the second of Moskowitz’s Hodgson collections for Donald Grant, The Haunted Pampero. The other two books are Out of the Storm and Terrors of the Sea. All three are out of print, but worth looking up on ABE or eBay; in addition to a generous sampling of Hodgson’s short stories, each volume contains part of a long biographical essay on Hodgson by Sam, based on years and years of research . Much of it deals with sales records for the stories, and it can be tedious going if you’re not an avid historian, but it’s the best overview of WHH’s life and work out there.

Carnacki was, for a long time, a kind of cult favorite, but as fans and fandom took over the publishing industry, he started to turn up here and there as a guest star, and now has become the defining figure for his genre. He’s appeared in a number of Sherlock Holmes pastiches; a new collection of original stories, No. 472 Cheyne Walk, by A.F. Kidd an Ricke Kennet was released in 2002 (and was the second book reviewed in this series.); the fourth installment of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has Carnacki as a member; and for those of you out there who are Lost fans, Desmond’s girlfriend, Penny, in the episode, “The Constant,” lives at No. 423 Cheyne Walk. I doubt that’s just a coincidence.

There are numerous editions of the Carnacki stories available, from their inclusion in the beautiful five-volume set of Hodgson’s complete fiction from NightShade Press to  print on demand and eBooks; plus most of them are available for free online, either at Project Gutenberg or various other sites. Give yourself an early Halloween present and make the acquaintance of one of the great weird writers of all time.

^ 9 Comments...

  1. Sam Gafford

    It may interest you to know that I am something of a Hodgson authority having written numerous articles on the man and his work. Must be something about people named “Sam”! lol
    There was a very good reason for WHH condensing all of the Carnacki stories into one and that was purely for copyright protection. WHH did similar things for some of his work and used that to obtain American copyrights on the work. WHH was VERY savvy when it came to copyrights and selling his stories to several different international markets.
    In addition, I agree that the Moskowitz introductions in the three books you mention are quite invaluable. However, care must be taken with them as S.T. Joshi and I found numerous errors in Moskowitz’s introduction to the earlier OUT OF THE STORM. In particular, the order in which WHH wrote his novels. I proved conclusively that they were written in the REVERSE order of publication with NIGHT LAND being written first and BOATS OF THE GLEN CARRIG written last. This is shown in my article “Writing Backwards: The Novels of William Hope Hodgson” which can be read online at:
    http://alangullette.com/lit/hodgson/gafford.htm

  2. lovecraf

    Thanks, Sam. Actually, I meant to include a reference to your article, as it is a fascinating piece of detective work. People like yourself that do such complex textual analysis amaze me, I just read the stories, but I am always surprised by finding out what I missed! If you ever want to write something on Hodgson for LIM, say the word.

  3. Mark

    Thanks for posting this appreciation of Hodgson’s detective of the outré. I first ran across him many years ago in Henry Mazzeo’s excellent anthology Hauntings (which also introduced me to Lovecraft’s work!). “The Whistling Room” was one of the most memorable stories from the book. Decades later, I chanced upon a Carnacki collection at the local university library, and eagerly read them. It’s good to see WHH get some of the praise he so deserves.

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  5. Eva

    I originally read some of the Carnaki stories through the Forgotten Futures collection (http://www.forgottenfutures.com/game/ff4/) and really felt like the blended the feeling of both Lovecraft’s work and the Holmes stories (which as you’ve mentioned before is not an easy task). I’ll have to look up some of the other sources you mentioned. :)

  6. Dumb post

    Mr. Hodgesons additions to the `tech genre is the least of it: one reason Carnacki seems such an apt Mythos investigator is that his theories seem to be Victorian prototypes of Mr. Lovecrafts intergalatic eldritchness. More than that: reading Hodgeson adds more to a reading of Lovecraft than mere historical perspective.

    Mr. Holmes still would have found Mr. Carnacki a bit queer, though; & vice versa.

    @Mr. Gafford: Where does one, indeed, “find out this kind of information with any certainty”?

  7. Fantômas

    Is it just me, or is there an element of self-parody in these stories? Don’t get me wrong, I think the sadly miniscule Carnacki Canon is a treasure out of all proportion to its length, but how seriously should we take it? My instant reaction on discovering these tales was: “Not very.” In fact, given the peculiar narrative structure – Carnacki invites various “friends” he doesn’t seem to like very much round to his place, gives them dinner for their trouble, recounts a story of the awesome but unlikely things he’s seen and done, and then literally tells them to get out, and we hear about this through a nonentity called “Dodgson” – it’s perfectly possible to imagine that Carnacki is simply telling tall tales for his own amusement to a little coterie of gullible wannabe occultists he has assembled for that purpose.

    I particularly noticed this in “The Hog”. The entire story supposedly took place in a laboratory which he describes in considerable detail, including rather dull little points like the dimensions of the room and what the floor’s made of. He also describes various fantastic contraptions invented by himself that are in this laboratory. The thing is, if he isn’t pulling his guests’ legs, this lab is literally in the next room. Why doesn’t he just show them? He’s allegedly got a phonograph that records dreams and it’s behind that door over there, but he can’t be bothered to go and get it! And look how quickly he boots out his guests when one of them starts asking technical questions which, if these events really took place, would be well worth asking.

    Also, while I accept that, judging by his other, undoubtedly serious work, Hodgson had a genuine horror of pigs and thought that everyone would accept them as the Ultimate Evil, the concept of the Earth being surrounded by an invisible barrier of giant evil space pigs completely cracked me up (though it would explain what happened to all those Mars probes). Seriously, I’ve met somebody exactly like this, and heard him talking about similar things to a very similar audience indeed – he used to hang out with the pitiful remnant of Theosophy that still clings on in Edinburgh, mainly because they own a prime piece of real estate left over from their glory days, just so he could tell outrageous anecdotes with the proverbial twinkle in his eye and actually be believed. By the way, I’ve forgotten his name, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Carnacki. I’d have remembered that!

    Even if his yarns are true, Carnacki is a bit of a bungler. Leaving aside the trivial and irrelevant “The Find”, there are only 8 cases that he tells us about in detail, so it’s a small sample to make generalizations from, but it does appear that about 25% of the time he is only saved from death or worse by some form of divine intervention. He quite often assumes that the supernatural is involved when it isn’t, yet his persistent assumption that a terrifying and very persistent sound which cannot be recorded on phonograph cylinders is somehow the work of incredibly resourceful Irish farmers when it plainly can’t be very nearly gets him killed, and comes close to dooming an innocent woman to an unspecified but no doubt horrific end.

    And he has a terrible habit of switching on weird gadgets in hazardous situations without any clear idea what will happen. This turns out to be a staggeringly bad idea when he does it in the middle of the Atlantic, when actually there’s no reason at all that he couldn’t have tested the machine while the ship was still in dock. And in the “The Hog”, he merrily admits to his understandably alarmed patient that of all two people he’s tried the procedure on, half of them survived. And then he starts switching untested gadgets on to see what effect they will have on the situation, and has to be saved by divine intervention as usual.

    Also, he has a peculiar habit of assembling large groups of armed and understandably nervous men to cope with what he assumes to be supernatural threats (though whenever he does this they tend not to be after all) and then turning the lights out and assuming that scared men with guns who can’t see will be an ideal way of coping with creatures that cannot be harmed by bullets! It’s a miracle that none of his amateur ghost-hunters end up blowing each others’ heads off!

    He also has a curious habit of setting up automatic cameras in the same completely dark room as himself, in the full knowledge that if they go off he will be temporarily blinded at a time when his life and his very soul may be in danger. He even states flat out that this is a very silly thing to do unless you’re wearing special smoked glass eclipse goggles. He then admits that he forgot to bring his goggles.

    It’s even made clear that investigations he doesn’t tell us about in detail ended in the horrible deaths of people he was working with, basically because everybody was trying different approaches and his was the one that worked, quite possibly by mistake.

    Oh, and isn’t there something intrinsically silly about Carnacki knowing The Unknown Last Line Of The Saaamaaa Ritual? I’m reminded of a Goon Show where somebody was given orders so secret that he had to read them blindfold with his eyes shut while facing the other way. And have you ever tried saying “Saaamaaa” out loud? You sound like a sheep!

    So, assuming Carnacki to be telling the truth at all, he’s a reckless crank who doesn’t really know what he’s doing, and he’s very, very lucky to be alive, but his ego is big enough to persuade him otherwise. Since apart from the above, the character has little personality, no friends who matter, and effectively zero backstory or motivation, it is of course possible to turn him into pretty much anybody, so long as the cool steampunk gadgets and freaky monstrosities are still in place. In a lot of ways he’s a precursor of Doctor Who.

    But he could equally well be Batman – after all, the presence in one story of his seemingly widowed mother raises the question of what happened to his father. Maybe it’s a family tradition, and he never married and discourages close friendships because he knows what’s likely to happen to those around him, but he cannot deviate from his sacred duty. Yet at the same time, he could equally if not more probably be a cross between Hercule Poirot and Madame Blavatsky who never married because he’s screamingly gay. It’s not even possible to be 100% certain that he’s white – what country do people called Carnacki usually come from anyway? I’ve always imagined him as Charles Fort with a slight Hungarian accent.

  8. lovecraf

    When I first read these stories as a kid, they sure didn’t seem like parody to me then, so I have to admit a bias. I’ve always seen Carnacki as an explorer rather than some know-it-all ghost fighter. He has a deep knowledge, but the fact is, these phenomena are still not understood; he is investigating, seeking, exploring and gets caught with his pants down as often as not. I also think Hodgson is often weak on plot. He excels at atmosphere, whether weird or on a ship or in a city, but he is far from a perfect writer.

  9. Dumb post

    @M. Fantomâs: one would say things are slightly more complicated.
    1): Unreliable raconteur frame story: Quite traditional-Mr. Wells Time Traveller being another example. But the satirical framing does not mean the main tale is not to be taken seriously.
    2: Botched planning: That would be taken from actual psychical research cases.
    3: Gay Carnacki: Asexuals have their own homepages these days, M. Fantômas
    http://www.asexuality.org/home/
    4: Non-white Carnacki: Being “foreign” is not quite the same thing as being non-white. Less chance of being lynched, etc, at least when there isnt a war on.
    5: Last, but by no means least. Pigs are bloody terrifying! Pigsties have not become less disconcerting since Mr. Hodgesons time. They may not pong as much, but the space suits & airtight concrete tombs more than makes up for it.