I know there are more pre-1940 occult detective characters out there than are on my Chronological Bibliography. There must be. However, it’s been quite a while since I’ve discovered one. And so I’ve taken a new tactic to locate more while, at the same time, starting a new branch of literary research.
I’m now interested in something I’m calling “ghost hunter fiction.” In fact, exploring it is one of the reasons I’ve started The Merry Ghost Hunter website — to give myself a place to record and share my findings and thoughts.
I’ve only started to nail down what I mean by “ghost hunter fiction.” I know that I’m restricting this body of work to ghost stories. Stories about ghosts. To mangle Sherlock Holmes’s famous line about dismissing ghosts as a mystery’s solution: no vampires, werewolves, immortal alchemists, demons, or other such non-ghost entities need apply.
I’ve also decided that ghost hunter fiction must involve hunter characters who aren’t simply haunted by a ghost they’ve stumbled upon, even if they do some subsequent “hunting” to find a resolution. The lot of fictional ghost stories go roughly like this: “I moved into a new house. Shortly after redecorating, I discovered the place was haunted, and hoowee, was it scary! But I did some digging and found out that, while living, the ol’ phantom served time in prison. I took one look at the vertically striped wallpaper I’d hung — and replaced it with a floral print. Well, everything’s dandy now. The end.” To my thinking, that’s not a ghost hunter story.
Rather, the general pattern of ghost hunter story goes something like this: A character hears about a house (or bedroom or graveyard, etc.) that’s rumored to be haunted. The character is intrigued and investigates, the motivation ranging from a longing to confirm the reality of ghosts to an urge to dispel such superstitious nonsense. Now, here’s where my interest in ghost hunters departs from how I’ve delineated occult detectives. While I’ve defined the latter as characters who accept or come to accept the reality of supernatural intrusions into the physical world in order to resolve a mystery, in the former, I’m including those characters who debunk seemingly ghostly occurrences by unmasking perfectly natural explanations for them. A sleepwalker perhaps. Maybe a dog. Even criminal doings!
Of course, some ghost hunters — many of them, in fact — do encounter those supernatural intrusions. I’m hoping that such characters will qualify for my Chronological Bibliography. Going the other way, some of the characters already on that list fit my criteria for fictional ghost hunters. The narrator of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novella “The Haunted and the Haunters,” for example, is a key character in both classifications. E. and H. Heron’s Flaxmon Low and William Hope Hodgson’s Thomas Carnacki play for both teams, too.
So far, the earliest examples I’ve located of ghost hunter fiction that fits my tentative definition are the anonymous “A Night in a Haunted House” (1848) and William Howett’s “The Haunted House in Charnwood Forest” (1850). There’s a ghost hunter scene in Washington Irving’s “Dolph Heyliger,” which first appeared in Bracebridge Hall (1822), but there’s so much other stuff that I’m hesitant to deem it a ghost hunter story. And I’m still scratching my chin about whether or not Sholto and Ruben Percy’s “Seizing a Ghost” (1823) involves a character who is a ghost hunter per se — or who is simply courageous enough to see what’s what in a room alleged to be haunted. Either way, how unexpected is it that this gutsy, defiant character from 1823 is a woman and “poetess,” named Madame Deshoulieres?
I’m looking forward to more surprises. Needless to say, I probably have another chronological bibliography in my future. For now, though, I’m limiting my preliminary research to pre-1925 stories that are ideally online or, at least, that I can read for myself. If anyone happens to know of possibilities, please leave me a comment!