Toward a Definition of Ghost Hunter Fiction

Unearthing the Unearthly

As I mentioned earlier, I’m starting a new branch of literary research to explore what I’m calling ghost hunter fiction. No doubt, there will be some overlap between the works I find and those on my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives.

However, while I’ve limited my occult detectives to those who actually do encounter the supernatural (rather than just debunk it), I’m not making that distinction with my ghost hunters. In fact, one of the earliest characters I’ve found is Madame Deshoulieres, who investigates an alleged haunting in Sholto and Rueben Percy’s “Seizing a Ghost” (1823). She reveals a not-at-all-otherworldly explanation for the mysterious visitations that occur in one of the bedrooms of the Count and Countess de Larneville’s château.

Unlike how I’ve understood occult detective fiction, then, I can’t define ghost hunter fiction in terms of its crossing the genres of detective and supernatural fiction. Instead, I’m focusing more on character and, specifically, the motives of the ghost hunter.

Perhaps the ideal ghost hunters in terms of motive are those represented by the unnamed narrator of Angelo J. Lewis’s “My Only Ghost” (1884). Right at the start, we learn what drives this character to go ghost hunting:

I have always had a great desire to see a ghost. My motive was threefold: partly, for the novelty of the thing; partly, in order to be able to say I had done so; last, and chiefly, from a natural leaning to the occult and mysterious.

In stark contrast, other ghost hunters investigate reported hauntings in order to debunk those allegations. Midas Oldwyche, the narrator of the anonymous “A Night in a Haunted House” (1848), has such an agenda. He tells us early on, “I objected to ghost-stories, on the ground of their manifest antagonism to the spirit of an enlightened nineteenth century,” and he conducts an investigation with that in mind. The interesting thing here is that such skeptical ghost hunters are frequently humbled by discovering something that cannot be explained physically. At times, in fact, they pay a terrible price for their certainty.

Ambrose_Bierce_1892-10-07
Ambrose Bierce wrote at least two pieces of ghost hunter fiction.

There’s also a kind of ghost hunter who’s motivated by money. Ambrose Bierce wrote at least two pieces of ghost hunter fiction: “An Assignment” (1888, a.k.a. “A Fruitless Assignment”) and “At Old Man Eckert’s” (1901), both very original and very unsettling. The earlier tale involves a reporter who’s assigned to investigate an alleged haunted house and then write an article about it. In this case, ghost hunting is just an odd part of his job.

Of course, whether the ghost hunter is motivated by payment, by a personal desire to experience the supernatural, or by an urge to debunk such things, a lot of the fun of ghost hunter fiction is not knowing if the ghost will prove to be a mistake, a ruse, a friendly ghost, or a terrifying one! The original motive has no relation to whether or not the supernatural element proves to be “real” or not.

One motive that isn’t part of what I consider to be those of a ghost hunter is exorcising one’s own home or property. In other words, the ghost hunter mustn’t be the one who’s haunted. Instead, he or she (or they) have to have learned about someone else’s haunting — or, at least, a haunting somewhere else — and decided to investigate it. Mr. Henley, the ghost hunter in Rebecca Edridge’s “The Haunted Castle” (1822), shows that this can be a tough call at times. Mr. Elphinstone owns the house, and Henley doesn’t come intending to hunt ghosts. Rather, he’s a guest who reluctantly agrees to sleep in “the nightly visited chamber” because there’s no room elsewhere. However, upon encountering that nightly visitor, he very steadfastly remains in the chamber in order to solve the mystery. As such, Henley is sort of an after-the-fact ghost hunter, but he’s also a rare case. Most of the characters I’ve found go out of their way with the intention of pursuing a phantom.

All of the characters I’ve mentioned above are included on my new bibliography, which I’ve titled:

The Legacy of Ghost Hunter Fiction: A Chronological Bibliography.

(Click on that title to get to it.) It’s a work-in-progress, and as with my bibliography devoted to early occult detectives, I’m counting on help from the Internet community. Please feel very free to make suggestions. In the meanwhile, I already have several works that I hope to read in the upcoming weeks to see if they qualify for the list. Many will quality, I bet, so please stop by from time to time to see the progress.

For now, though, I’m restricting the fiction to works first published before 1925. In addition, to make it truly a roster of ghost hunters, these characters must go in quest of ghosts — and only ghosts. Whether or not they find them is another matter.

Cowering

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6 thoughts on “Toward a Definition of Ghost Hunter Fiction

  1. I’ve been working my way down your list 🙂 A few I’ve read before, but many are new.

    I just discovered by accident that “A Night in a Haunted House” (Dublin University Magazine, 1848), which you list as “anonymous,” is apparently by Henry Ferris. Here’s the link, from Locus Magazine — http://www.locusmag.com/index/s241.htm#A5177.5 — which attributes it to Stephen Ferris, but here’s the link for the same collection that they reference, from ISFDB: http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pl.cgi?278715

    Ghosts that turn out to be dogs seem to be a recurring theme in these stories, as are sleepwalking young ladies….

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    1. I’m very glad I introduced you to a few new tales. You’ve been specializing in ghost stories far longer than I have!

      Hmmm. I’d like to see how that editor deduced that Henry Ferris is the author, but I might go ahead and note him as a possible author.

      Yes, there’s definitely a push to find physical explanations (dogs or sleepwalkers) in the earlier decades. It was an era of staunch skepticism — at least, among those wanting to get published. It’s neat to see the pendulum swing back toward believing in ghosts as the 19th century comes to its end.

      That poor pendulum sure gets pushed around a lot!

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      1. Also a lot of stories from that period are fairly blatant plagarisms of other stories, usually from another language. I think some of the similarity of themes we see even in your list could be due to that, as you noted with “Haunted Castle”/”Haunted Chamber”. I remember reading a puzzling and incomplete-feeling story in Macabre Megapack (that collection where I first tripped over “Haunted Homestead”) and discovering later that it was a direct but poorly-executed ripoff of a much-better and equally obscure French story, which Italo Calvino had discovered and included in a supernatural tales anthology of his own.

        I wonder which of these “Henry Ferris” stories was really a ETA Hoffman?

        And I’m glad to see “The Haunted Rental” on the list. I love that story, and I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t remember it when you were asking for ghost hunter tales.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Speaking of “plagiarism,” I’m just beginning to notice how a few late 19th- and early 20th-century authors resurrect much earlier motifs. Read L.C. Burden’s “The Secret of Hatfield House” from 1906, for instance, or Charles May’s “The Haunted House” (1831) back-to-back with B.M. Croker’s “Number Ninety” (1895).

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