Musings on the Legacy of Ghost Hunter Fiction

Unearthing the UnearthlyI never thought that The Legacy of Ghost Hunter Fiction bibliography would outshine — or, should I say, overshadow — my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives. But I am sorry to see it already slowing down in terms of new discoveries.

My last two additions are the anonymous “The Vault of L—” (1836), an enjoyable and fairly creepy story, and Margaret Hosmer’s “A Ghost Hunt” (1869), which is almost more a female Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn tale than a conventional ghost hunter story. Not that there’s anything wrong with a female Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn story, mind you.

What drove my work on the Early Occult Detectives list was the fun I was having at revising what had been the “Standard Critical History” of these fictional characters. That history typically started with — or, at least, awarded honorary mention to — Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Dr. Martin Hesseilius from 1869. As great as Le Fanu is, Hesselius is far from a dazzling start in terms of occult detective. That other Irish writer, Fitz-James O’Brien, had done a far better job with Harry Escott from 1855. Escott, after all, is more successful in his first case, “A Pot of Tulips,” and went on to have another adventure with “What Was It?” Hesselius does a shoddy job in his only hands-on case, “Green Tea,” and afterward only serves as a collector of odd tales.

And Escott isn’t the first on my list.

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873)

It’s hard to say what I have with the ghost hunter fiction list. Of course, it’s a sub-genre of ghost stories, that sub-genre of supernatural fiction. A sub-sub-genre. Historically, it reflects the shift in attitudes toward the reality of ghosts, away from the very skeptical view of the early 1800s to a more open-minded one as Spiritualism and psychical research prompted people to scratch their heads over the possibility of the dead communicating with the living. If ghosts might be a real — and my Spectral Edition reports show that the issue found its way into the era’s newspapers with some regularity — then readers in the late 1800s appear to have used fiction to figure out how to respond. Isn’t that one of the purposes of fiction: to utilize make-believe to prepare for the uncertainties of the real world?

I guess that, so far, the most valuable result of my research in this area is to show that something that can be called ghost hunter fiction was a branch of literature during what some consider the heyday of ghost stories. And it attracted the likes of Washington Irving, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Henry James, Charlotte Riddell, Ambrose Bierce, H.G. Wells, and Algernon Blackwood. If my bibliography didn’t stop at 1925, I could include H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shunned House” (1937).

Perhaps, my next step is to show how ghost hunting played a role in novels. For instance, Le Fanu’s All in the Dark (1866) culminates with such a scene. Too bad this is often deemed one of the author’s worst works.

So it goes.



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