Tracing the Source of Traditional Histories of the Occult Detective

Unearthing the UnearthlyWith some variations, the traditional “origin story” of occult detective fiction goes like this:

The earliest sprouts of occult detective fiction are seen with Sheridan Le Fanu’s Dr. Hesselius (1869) — or, perhaps, Robert Bulwer-Lytton’s novella “The Haunted and the Haunters” (1859). Bram Stoker’s Dr. Van Helsing (1897) — or, perhaps, Arthur Machen’s Mr. Dyson (1894) — is worth noting.  However, the occult detective truly blossoms with E. and H. Heron’s Flaxman Low (1898) — or, if you admit detectives who specialize in finding physical causes for what seem like supernatural occurrences, L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace’s John Bell (1897). This quickly inspires a flowering of characters such as Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence (1908), William Hope Hodgson’s Thomas Carnacki (1910), and Sax Rohmer’s Moris Klaw (1913).

This consensus history is stitched together from those presented on my Critical Histories of Occult Detectives bibliography. I’ve been challenging and revising that history considerably with the research for my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives. I’m not the first challenger, though, and I’m far from alone in rewriting literary history.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

Lucy Sussex, for example, offers a new version of the history of mystery fiction in Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre (2010). Refuting the widespread notion that Edgar Allan Poe invented the genre with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), Sussex argues that we should look for multiple originators. Instead of our understanding the birth of a complex literary genre through “monogenesis” — or attributing the creation of the mystery genre to a single source — she recommends that we

take a polygenetic approach to the story of crime fiction’s origins and its development in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. A set of ‘multifarious’ origins can be posited for the detective genre, in which the literary evolution of a new type of writing takes place less via an individual genius than collectively, even organically.

A similar impulse to find a monogenetic starting point appears in the histories of the occult detective genre, where writers quibble over whether or not Dr. Hesselius is the very first and, if not, which character does qualify as the first “true” or “genuine” article. I think I gave up this habit around the third time I found another “first” female occult detective.

And yet, with utter hypocrisy, I’m still really interested in finding the source — the instigator — that led to the fairly persistent idea that either Dr. Hesselius or Flaxman Low is the first fictional occult detective. I’m too biased to serve on the jury, of course, but I found a very likely suspect:  Everett F. Bleiler.

Bleiler’s jaw-droppingly extensive The Guide to Supernatural Fiction (1983) is an invaluable (and now pretty expensive) resource for studying and discovering long-forgotten works of supernatural fiction. He provides summaries of 1775 such books and offers indexes for them arranged by author, title, and motifs.  Among the motifs is “OCCULT DETECTIVES, SIMILAR FIGURES.” It’s here that one is directed to many of the occult detectives I mention above. I won’t say Bleiler was the first critic to choose the characters whose names routinely appear when subsequent critics discuss the history of occult detectives. But he was almost certainly influential in solidifying that group of regulars.

Interestingly, in the summary for Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly (1872), Bleiler describes Dr. Hesselius as “a Victorian counterpart to the modern occult detective.” E. and H. Heron’s Ghosts: Being the Experiences of Flaxman Low, on the other hand, is pegged as “[p]robably the first important adventures of an occult detective, if LeFanu’s Dr. Hesselius is momentarily overlooked.” On the other hand, Bleiler has almost nothing to say about Dr. Van Helsing, treats “The Haunted and the Haunters” as a haunted house story, and never names Fitz-James O’Brien’s Harry Escott (1855) even though the character’s two adventures are summarized. Given that Bleiler’s focus is on books, it’s probably not surprising that Henry William Herbert’s “The Haunted Homestead” (1840) isn’t included at all.

the-beetle3Some of the works that I include on my Bibliography are addressed by Bleiler, indexed under the motif “DETECTIVE SITUATIONS.” Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1898) is there, of course, but Augustus Champnell, the detective of the novel, isn’t named. Lincoln Osgood from Gerald Biss’s The Door of the Unreal (1919) is mentioned but not designated as an occult detective despite the work being a “[m]ystery novel with supernatural elements.” My guess is that Bleiler was operating on the notion that only a character tied to multiple supernatural cases has earned the title of occult detective.

As I say, The Guide to Supernatural Fiction, being such an important reference for those exploring the history of that genre, was very likely a source used by critics subsequently tracking early occult detective characters. Indeed, I’ve used it in the hope of finding new characters to add to my Bibliography. For as terrifically helpful as it is, though, it might also have built some fences around occult detective fiction that are worth tearing down.


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