Dents: In the History of Occult Detective Fiction — and in My Poor Heart

Unearthing the Unearthly

It looks as though my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives might have made a dent in a scholarly treatment of the evolution of this body of fiction. I’ve added a new source to my Critical Histories of Occult Detective Fiction page, and it certainly appears to have been partly shaped by the work that I’ve reported here at The Merry Ghost Hunter.

That source is Ghosts in Popular Culture and Legend (Greenwood, 2016), an encyclopedia that covers topics ranging from Animal Ghosts and Blithe Spirit to What Lies Beneath and the Witch of Endor. Though editors June Michele Pulliam and Anthony J. Fonseca have cast a wide net — and inevitably many ghostly topics will slip through the holes of that net — it is certainly a work that’s relevant to the interests of visitors to The Merry Ghost Hunter.

The entry for Detective Fiction is especially interesting. It’s there that I suspect my Chronological Bibliography has made a mark, since Fonseca cites works that have been on my list for a few years now, but that aren’t traditionally mentioned when discussing the cross-genre of mystery and supernatural fiction. These include Fitz James O’Brien’s two Harry Escott tales (1855 and 1859), Charles Felix’s The Notting Hill Mystery (1862), and Charlotte Riddell’s The Uninhabited House (1875) and “The Open Door (1882). Later on, Fonseca mentions E.T.A. Hoffman’s “Das öde Haus” (1817) and Henry William Herbert’s “The Haunted Homestead” (1840), also on my Chronological Bibliography, but I’ve never before seen them mentioned in any other history of this body of fiction.

The entry also discusses several characters who, while included on my bibliography, are very well known outside of it, too. My literary digging probably had no influence whatsoever here. Fonseca discusses five out of the six charactes who I call “the Usual Detectives” on that Critical Histories page, namely, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Martin Hesselius, Bram Stoker’s Abraham Van Helsing, E. and H. Heron’s Flaxman Low, Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence, and W.H. Hodgson’s Thomas Carnacki. He leaves out Sax Rohmer’s Moris Klaw, but adds Alice and Claude Askew’s Alymer Vance, Rose Champion de Crespigny’s Norton Vyse, and other characters from the early 20th century. These are names one often sees in such critical histories.

Nonetheless, Fonseca uses some of the language that I’ve developed to expand the history of occult detective fiction, and this again nudges me toward thinking he happened upon the discoveries I publicize here. Specifically, he uses the term “novice detective” more than once. This is a term I coined to contrast with the “specialist detectives” (e.g., Flaxman Low, John Silence, Thomas Carnacki, et al.) that earlier critical histories tended to treat as the only true occult detectives. Thinking of characters such as Felix’s Ralph Henderson or Riddell’s Henry Patterson as “novice detectives” who explore crimes with supernatural elements helped me make the history of occult detective fiction both more inclusive and longer than previously thought. Fonseca treats the term as if it’s standard literary lingo, something like “amateur detective.” But it’s really not. Or, at least, not yet.

While it’s wonderful to speculate that my work in literary recovery is beginning to influence other scholars’ work in the area — and to make a dent on the consensus history of this distinctive cross-genre of mystery and supernatural fiction — I must add that my coming across this encyclopedia led to another dent. Ghosts in Popular Culture and Legend ends with an extensive bibliography. But there’s no mention of The Merry Ghost Hunter website or of sad Tim Prasil there. The dent is in my heart — or, perhaps, in my ego.

Personal wounds aside, I recommend Ghosts in Popular Culture and Legend. Let me note, though, that it’s fairly costly. Of course, this is why we have libraries and inter-library loan.

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