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

Unearthing the Unearthly“I had de­vot­ed much of my leisure time to the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of what are popularly called su­per­nat­u­ral mat­ters by those who have not reflect­ed or ex­am­ined suf­fi­cient­ly to dis­cov­er that none of these ap­par­ent mir­a­cles are su­pernat­u­ral, but all, how­ev­er sin­gu­lar, di­rect­ly de­pen­dent on cer­tain nat­u­ral laws.”

— Fitz-James O’Brien’s Harry Escott (1855)

“I had witnessed many very extraordinary phenomena in various parts of the world — phenomena that would be either totally disbelieved if I stated them, or ascribed to supernatural agencies. Now, my theory is that the Supernatural is the Impossible, and that what is called supernatural is only a something in the laws of nature of which we have been hitherto ignorant.”

— Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s anonymous narrator
of “The Haunted and the Haunters” (1859)

“I think I may say that I am the first student in this field of inquiry who has had the boldness to break free from the old and conventional methods, and to approach the elucidation of so-called supernatural problems on the lines of natural law.”

— E. and H. Heron’s Flaxman Low (1898)

flaxman-low1Flaxman Low was wrong. He was not the first to investigate phenomena commonly called “supernatural” as if it were really barely understood parts of the natural world. Nope, Harry Escott and the narrator of “The Haunted and the Haunters” had done the same decades before him.

And yet histories of occult detective fiction routinely honor Flaxman Low as the first. Barbara Roden’s essay “No Ghosts Need Apply?” which appears in the book Ghosts in Baker Street (Carroll & Graf, 2006), is fairly typical. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Dr. Hesselius is mentioned but is deemed “not truly representative of the psychic detective” because of his failure to save Jennings in “Green Tea” (1869) and his being restricted to the framing of the other tales in In a Glass Darkly (1872). Fair enough. Roden isn’t as convincing, though, when discussing Bram Stoker’s Abraham Van Helsing. She admits that the doctor shows off a lot of knowledge about vampires in Dracula (1897) but maintains that referring to him as “a psychic detective would be a misnomer.” This is because “vampires are physical creatures, very much of this earth, and little in what we are told about Van Helsing leads us to believe that he is concerned with, or knowledgeable about, more spiritual, unearthly matters.” It’s easy to challenge the claim that Dracula is “very much of this earth” — after all, he’s an undead, shape-shifting, mind-controlling vampire, not a duck-billed platypus. But this leads Roden to conclude that, when Flaxman Low appeared in 1898, his use of “deductive skills to solve problems of a supernatural nature” qualified him as the first “true psychic detective.”

In “Fighters of Fear: A Survey of the Psychic Investigator in Fiction” (Voices from Shadow, 1994) Mike Ashley presents a well-researched and very helpful chronology of fictional occult detectives (a.k.a. psychic detectives). He presents a slightly different history of occult detective fiction, starting with the narrator of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “The Haunted and the Haunters.” Ashley says that this work, “whilst not involving a psychic detective is, nevertheless, a good example of psychic investigation.” Le Fanu’s Dr. Hesselius “is not a psychic detective,” yet his keen knowledge of psychic matters lets him “pronounce wisely upon them, a facet we shall encounter in later psychic investigators.” Similarly, Stoker’s Dr. Van Helsing “is not a detective” but his credentials make him an “expert guide, which would later become so much a feature of the psychic detective.” As does Rodin, these characters are treated as prototypes, steps toward the character who Ashely deems the first “genuine” occult detective.

Unlike Rodin, Ashley’s first is L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace’s debunking detective John Bell — closely followed by Flaxman Low. Despite the investigative talents of the first three characters, Ashley says they fail to qualify as “detectives.” Unfortunately, he never really defines what separates an investigator from a detective. My hunch is it’s either the professional status given to “detective” in dictionary definitions, as I discuss in Part 1, or the fact that Bell and Low are both serial characters, which I explore in Part 2.

So if a failure to define terms is the problem, then it’s high-time I end this long and winding, 3-part ramble with an attempt to define what I mean by “occult detective fiction.” Here it is:

Occult detective fiction presents a character who probes a mystery, exhibiting similarities to other fictional detectives of the same era in investigative methods and in professional or amateur status. However, unlike detectives whose cases are confined to the physical world, the occult detective accepts or comes to accept that phenomena typically termed “supernatural” can play a very real role in the mystery’s solution. That mystery can involve a violation of criminal law (e.g., a murder) or of natural law (e.g, a ghost), but the supernatural element might also be part of the investigation itself (e.g., clairvoyance).

I tossed in that violation of criminal/natural law business because it’s often very difficult to separate the criminal from the supernatural. Do we hunt down vampires, for instance, because they’re undead or because they kill us? (Dracula is a monster as much because of his crimes as his creepiness.) Ghosts sometimes solicit an occult detective to effect legal action, such as punishment for a murder. My definition above admits those many, many works that focus on crime but include the supernatural as well as the curious tradition of the clairvoyant detective who exclusively investigates crime. It also draws attention to how crime often plays an important role in works classified as supernatural fiction.

This definition, as cumbersome as it is, leads to a very enlightening revision of the history of the occult detective character. Instead of starting in the very late 1890s with John Bell or Flaxman Low, citing Drs. Hessilius and Van Helsing as prototypes, we can go back at least as far as 1840 and Henry William Herbert’s Dirk Ericson. It erases the idea that “true” or “genuine” occult detectives must be professionals or specialists in what they investigate, something that is not in keeping with other fictional detectives or even with important latter-day occult detectives, such as Carl Kolchak.

I hope it’s a good start to something new. Comments are always welcome.


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