Settling on a Definition of Occult Detective Fiction, Part 1 (of 3)

Unearthing the Unearthly

“The simple definition of an occult detective story is merely one in which the tropes of the traditional detective story are combined with those found in supernatural horror fiction.”

Bob Freeman

The Multo (Ghost) blog explores ghosts in folklore, myth, literature, and more. Nina, who runs the show there, knows about my interest in occult detective fiction and directed me to a very important, very early story that interweaves a murder investigation with supernatural phenomenon. The story is Henry William Herbert’s “The Haunted Homestead.” After reading it, I pondered whether or not it qualifies as a work of occult detective fiction — or if it’s just a very interesting prototype of the cross-genre. This, in turn, has forced me to finally pin down what I mean by the term “occult detective fiction.”

henry-william-herbert
Henry William Herbert (1807-1858)

After all, “The Haunted Homestead” was published in 1840! This is fifteen years before the work that had been first on my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives. It’s also a year before the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the work considered by some to be the first detective story. If Herbert’s early tale fits some reasonable definition of occult detective fiction, it’s a remarkable work in terms of the history of this particular cross-genre and the history of mystery fiction in general.

While compiling my Bibliography, I’ve tried to lean toward inclusiveness. Doing so helps to resurrect long-neglected works while revealing how writers vary and spin and experiment with genre conventions instead of how they conform to and repeat those conventions. My working definition of occult detective fiction was very similar to the “simple definition” offered by Bob Freeman (quoted above):  a hybrid of traditional detective fiction and supernatural horror fiction.

However, I narrowed this somewhat by specifying that occult detective fiction combines a character whose investigative methods parallel those of fictional detectives and a setting that allows some supernatural element(s) — from ghosts to clairvoyance — to be part of the story’s reality. While this did exclude many stories in which events that seem supernatural are debunked and proven to be completely natural (e.g., Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles), it also let me bring in an interesting variety of mysteries that have traditionally been snubbed by those who think the supernatural has no place in mystery fiction. I hope I’ve also revealed some new aspects of old supernatural stories.

But I’m willing to bet that several of the works I’ve included are not what many occult detective fiction fans typically have in mind when they say “occult detective fiction.” Herbert’s “The Haunted Homestead” is an excellent example. Yeah, okay, the protagonist, Dirk Ericson, does some pretty good detecting in regard to the murder case. For instance, when a riderless horse trots up, Ericson draws some very Holmesian conclusions. A mark on the horse’s flank leads him to deduce that the animal had been

struck from behind, by a man on foot — see it slants downward, forward and downward, tapering off to the front end! There’s been foul play here, otherwise! . . . Pistols both in the holsters — that looks cur’ous, and — this here cover’s been pulled open, and in a hurry, too, for the loop’s broke — both loaded! Ha! here’s a drop of blood — just one drop on the pummel. The traveler’s had foul play, boys — he has, no question of it!

For the remainder of the story, it’s clear Ericson’s skill at analyzing evidence makes him the right man to lead the investigation. And he uses that same smart, focused approach when investigating a ghostly manifestation related to the crime.

But is Ericson really what we call “a detective” — and is a single encounter with the occult enough to make someone an occult detective?

Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say about the word “detective”:

One whose occupation it is to discover matters artfully concealed; particularly (and in the original application as short for detective policeman, or the like) a member of the police force employed to investigate specific cases, or to watch particular suspected individuals or classes of offenders.

The OED then defines a private detective as “one not belonging to the police force, who in his private capacity, or as attached to a Detective Agency or Bureau, undertakes similar services for persons employing him.” There are two important considerations here: 1) detectives are people whose occupation or employment is based in detecting and 2) that occupation is largely (though not exclusively) about policing, either as a public servant or as a private businessperson.

nancy-drewStill, by the standards of detective fiction — and of realism — Dirk Ericson might easily be granted the title “detective.” No, he doesn’t earn a living from detecting, but neither does C. Auguste Dupin, Miss Marple, Ellery Queen, Nancy Drew, and a legion of other amateur detectives. These detectives do “make it their business” to solve mysteries, though, and Ericson certainly does the same with the crime and the haunting he encounters. In the end, the criminal is caught and justice is served, so Ericson essentially does police work, as do all those other amateur detectives.

Remember, too, that it’s kind of tough to get paid when one’s “client” is a ghost or when the official police refuse to recognize that reports of a suspect sleeping in a coffin should be reason enough to arm officers with stakes, mallets, and Holy water. Without putting an X-Files unit in the basement of the F.B.I., it’s pretty unrealistic to suggest someone could earn a living by solving paranormal cases, even in the private sector. Supernatural fiction, of course, relies on a certain amount of realism to be scary. Werewolves, for instance, have to be unexpected, unnatural, even a bit unbelievable and unrealistic to be truly hair-raising. It’s this contrast to realistic expectations that makes them scary.

My point, then, is that we have different ideas for what constitutes a real-life detective and a fictional one. Many of the characters I’ve put on my Bibliography don’t match up to authentic detectives — and, being fictional, they shouldn’t. They do seem very much like other fictional characters who we regularly call detectives or, at least, refer to as belonging to detective fiction.

At the same time, it would be helpful to swap the word “detective” with “investigator” when dealing with these characters. Unfortunately, detective fiction is so ingrained in our heads that the phrase occult investigator fiction probably has no chance to stick. So we’re stuck with calling characters who aren’t professional detectives — investigative reporter Carl Kolchak, for instance — “occult detectives.”

I’ll return to Kolchak, a paragon of latter-day fictional occult detectives, in Part 2 of this search for a definition of occult detective fiction.

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