The Deep Roots of the Two Occult Detective Master Plots

Unearthing the UnearthlyIn one of my Ghostology 101 posts, I discuss R.C. Finucane’s Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead and Cultural Transformation (Prometheus, 1996). In his introduction, the author relates a story told in the letters of Pliny the Younger. It’s a template for occult detective fiction.

Finucane retells the story in this way: “There was a house in Athens haunted by a spectre who came out at night rattling his chains. . . . A philosopher decided to spend a night there to find out what was going on. As he read his book he heard the noises, then saw the figure. It beckoned him; he followed into the garden where the ghost suddenly vanished. . . . Next day he had the local magistrates dig there, and a skeleton in chains was found; after proper burial rites the haunting ceased.”

Pliny the Younger (61 AD – 112 AD)

In this tale, the ghost becomes the philosopher-detective’s client, soliciting resolution of a problem. (An article in a 1830 issue of The Mirror of Literature provides a translation of the letter.) My Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives is full of such ghostly client cases, from Henry William Herbert’s “The Haunted Homestead” (1840) and Fitz-James O’Brien’s “The Pot of Tulips” (1855) to Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Brown Hand” (1899) and C. Ashton Smith’s “The Ghost of Mohammed Din,” (1910).

Finucane goes on to summarize a variation on the above story written by Lucian, “who wrote later than Pliny but in the same century.” The haunted house is moved to Corinth, and the ghost becomes a shape-shifter. Again, a philosopher investigates. This is a specialist-detective, though, “fortified with esoteric books.” Finucane says:

At last the exorcist-philosopher corners the phantom by means of an ‘Egyptian’ imprecation which drives him down into the earth. Our victorious exorcist marks the spot; next day a mouldering body is found six feet down and after exhumation and reburial the hauntings stop. In the Athenian example, the ghost beckons the philosopher to follow it but in the Corinthian it is coerced into the ground. Charity towards the dead has become combat with evil.

Lucian (125 AD – 180 AD)

In other words, the ghost is not the client but the culprit in Lucian’s variant. Again, this pattern is well-represented in my Bibliography. There are E.T.A. Hoffman’s “Das öde Haus” (1817), Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “The Haunted and the Haunters; or, The House and the Brain” (1859), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and the majority of cases handled by the likes of Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence (1908) and William Hope Hodgson’s Thomas Carnacki (1910). This is probably what most people consider “proper” occult detective fiction: a very smart, very capable human is tasked with investigating and then vanquishing some supernatural monster to restore order.

Clearly, though, both master plots are ancient ones. While the supernatural-culprit pattern might have come to overshadow its older sibling, it’s useful to keep the supernatural-client pattern in mind when deciding what is and what isn’t occult detective fiction.


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