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.
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.’
- 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 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.