Is E.T.A. Hoffman’s Dr. K. Too Early to Be an Occult Detective?

Unearthing the UnearthlyThe literary roots of occult detective fiction can be traced back at least as far as the Classical Period and the writings of Pliny the Younger and Lucien. And yet the term “Early” in my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives means something centuries later than that. In fact, it starts in 1817, the year that E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Mystery of the Deserted House” (a.k.a. “The Deserted House”) was first published in German.

I guess what I mean by “Early,” then, is in relation to occult detective characters as they appear in the late twentieth to early twenty-first centuries. The characters on my list are recognizable ancestors of, say, Carl Kolchak, Mulder and Scully, or Sam and Dean Winchester.

This raises the question: does Dr. K., Hoffman’s character who resolves the supernatural dilemma in “Deserted,” really qualify to be an occult detective at all? Is he simply too early? In one important way, the answer is no, he doesn’t qualify. The focus of the story is wrong.

A great many supernatural tales focus on — or are flat out told by — a protagonist who suffers from an otherworldly experience. “Deserted” is no different in this respect. This story works its way toward occult detection only when that protagonist/narrator takes his troubles to “Dr. K., who was noted for his treatment of those diseases of the mind out of which physical diseases so often grow.” Despite this very earth-bound description, Dr. K. quickly reveals that he accepts the supernatural as part of his diagnosis process. He trusts both psychometry (receiving psychic impressions from a physical object) and mind-to-mind clairvoyance, the latter by placing his hand on the patient’s neck to share his vision of a face in a mirror.

Already, Dr. K. has taken a significant step in the direction of being an occult detective. Clearly, he accepts the supernatural — both as a means to gather evidence and, then, as a villain to thwart.

Hoffman
Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffman (1776-1822)

The character next probes the details of the title house, which is his patient’s object of obsession and horror. This investigation happens “offstage,” and the narrative focus remains on the patient, something that isn’t usually seen with subsequent clairvoyant doctors, such as Drs. John Silence, Xavier Wycherley, John Durston, and John Richard Taverner. Stories with these characters usually follow the standard detective-story tradition of shifting attention away from the client’s account of the mystery to the step-by-step investigation of that mystery. In other words, the spotlight turns from the client/patient to the detective/doctor.

Nonetheless, there are important exceptions to this rule. One might remember that Sherlock Holmes remains surprisingly “offstage” in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902). Of course, there, the detective debunks the supernatural. Regarding truly occult detective fiction, Algernon Blackwood’s “Ancient Sorceries” (1908) is a John Silence tale that bears enough fundamental similarity with Hoffman’s “Deserted” that a case could be made for Hoffman having been a direct influence on later author. Both works feature a patient who goes through a traumatic haunting involving a woman with mystical powers, and relating the details of this takes up the bulk of the story. Both doctors disappear to conduct an investigation. In classic detective story fashion, though, both tales end with the doctors reappearing to provide the big reveal, meaning they recount the history that explains the haunting. Curiously, neither doctor can do very much to defeat the witchy woman who has cast a spell over the patient. Neither story ends with a splashy exorcism or a grandiose staking of the vampire. They both just sort of — end.

As such, while “Deserted” is in some ways not typical of a detective or occult detective story, Dr. K. clearly stands as a founding member of the doctor-detective branch of occult detective fiction. (In fact, I see him as a far more impressive doctor-who-treats-occult-ailments than Sheridan Le Fanu’s Dr. Hesselius.) Perhaps this isn’t quite so surprising when considering that Hoffman frequently used Gothic elements in his fiction. He’s often named as an influence on Poe, and fittingly, Hoffman’s Mademoiselle de Scudéri (1819) has been seen by some critics as a pre-Poe work of detective fiction. With this in mind, the claim that Hoffman combined supernatural fiction and early detective fiction to create one of the very first occult detectives in “The Mystery of the Deserted House” seems rather mild.

This is why, despite his being so very early an early occult detective, Dr. K. remains at the top of my roster.

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3 thoughts on “Is E.T.A. Hoffman’s Dr. K. Too Early to Be an Occult Detective?

  1. Found a new candidate for your ever growing occult detective chronology: Finn Lund created by Gerard Warre Cornish. He believes “the world we see, and all its natural processes, is simply what has been left behind by the passage of a much greater force. We are walking among the husks and shells of a vast creative energy, which he intends to pursue to its source.” Seems he’s interested in much bigger things than mere ghosts and supernatural. He’s looking for the source of it all. Not exactly the typical occult detective as I view one (no crime is involved), but certainly an investigator of the otherworldly.

    Never heard of this story or this author before. More on Cornish and apparently his only appearance in fiction in the novella “Beneath the Surface” can be found at the Wormwoodiana blog. In the article Mark Valentine compares the story to the work of Algernon Blackwood. Worth checking out, I’d say.

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    1. I got through the first 80 pages or so, and this feels much more like a quest story than a riddle one. Lund and the narrator go searching for the Garden of Eden. I see no client character or culprit character or really a mystery that would qualify this as occult detection. Lund is closer to Professor Challenger than Sherlock Holmes, albeit a psychical Challenger.

      But thanks for the suggestion. It was well worth investigating.

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