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

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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.

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A Ghost Hunter Exemplar: Antoinette du Ligier de la Garde Deshoulières

Unearthing the UnearthlyAntoinette du Ligier de la Garde Deshoulières (1638-1694), an important French poet and philosopher, appears to have been very interested in revealing the natural causes behind what seems to be supernatural or spiritual. At the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, John J. Conley explains that Deshoulières “employed verse to argue that natural causes can adequately explain such apparently spiritual phenomena as thought, volition, and love. In metaphysics, Deshoulières argues that the real is comprised of variations of matter and that material causation adequately explains observed changes in the real.” Deshoulières held that instinctual behavior explains human behavior much more than many of us like to admit, and that “[m]aterial organs, and not the occult powers of a spiritual soul, produce such human phenomena as thought and choice.”

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“Equal to All of the Ghosts”: Clark Ashton Smith’s Ghost Hunter Character

Unearthing the UnearthlySome writers of speculative fiction become best remembered for one, maybe two, of the many works they wrote. With Mary Shelley, it’s Frankenstein. With Bram Stoker, it’s Dracula. M.R. James: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. Shirley Jackson: “The Lottery” and The Haunting of Hill House.

To be honest, I wouldn’t have been able to name even a single title of something written by Clark Ashton Smith before discovering his 1910 tale “The Ghost of Mohammed Din.” I knew his name as one of those pulp writers from the heyday of Weird Tales and Amazing Stories. Though I’m curious about this wave of speculative fiction, my tastes keep dragging me back to the Victorian and fin de siècle stuff.

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A New Year, a New (Early) Occult Detective

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“I’ll go with you cheerfully; and let me tell you, my dear sir, that I never jump at conclusions. I’ve seen and heard too many wonderful things myself — things which I cannot pretend to explain by any other theory than that of supernatural agency — to doubt that you may have had a similar experience.”

With these words of encouragement and faith, the unnamed doctor/narrator/occult detective in an 1874 short story titled “A Needle in a Bottle” agrees to investigate the mystery of haunted Thornapple Cottage. In some ways, the story is an unremarkable work. After all, it features a haunted house, a hidden treasure, a run-of-the-mill love plot, and even the clandestine machinations of a Catholic cleric. This last staple of Gothic fiction even feels a bit outdated for 1874 — think Matthew Lewis’s The Monk from 1796 though there’s a positive spin added here.

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A Bare Bones Ghost Hunter: The Narrator of H.G. Wells’ “The Red Room”

Unearthing the UnearthlyIt was recently announced that a ghost story written by H.G. Wells — one never before published and virtually forgotten — was discovered at the University of Illinois. The story, “The Haunted Ceiling,” involves a man harassed by the vision of a woman with her throat slit, which appears on his ceiling. The creepy tale will finally be published in an upcoming issue of The Strand.

Now, when one thinks of H.G. Wells, one probably thinks next of science fiction (or “scientific romance,” as Wells himself was wont to call it). He also wrote a fair amount of what can be called supernatural fiction. Perhaps not surprisingly given Wells’ level of creativity, a lot of this branch of his writing is not at all traditional supernatural fiction. I only know of two other works that come within the range of what can be called ghost stories: “The Red Room” (1896) and “The Inexperienced Ghost” (1902).

That later story is a humorous one. The earlier one is very serious — and it features a protagonist who qualifies as a ghost hunter character. The same character also serves as narrator, and Wells only provides the bare bones of information about him. Perhaps tales of a skeptic hoping to debunk rumors of ghosts had become so routine by 1896 that the author didn’t feel the need to give much exposition.

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An Update on Where to Buy Those Who Haunt Ghosts

Unearthing the Unearthly

My brand new anthology of ghost hunter fiction, Those Who Haunt Ghosts: A Century of Ghost Hunter Fiction, is now available at Barnes & Nobel for under $20. (You get free shipping with an order of $25 dollars or more.) Click here to find it.

It should also be available directly from Amazon in a few days. There’s been some trouble with connections. It’s listed there, but as of now, the only way to buy it “from Amazon” is through another vendor that they list. Coachwhip Publications and I worked hard to keep the price of the hefty book below $20, and the vendors named there charge more than that. If you prefer Amazon to Barnes & Noble, I suggest waiting a while longer to save a few bucks.

Those Who Haunt Ghosts spotlights a curious branch of literary ghost stories from the heyday of that genre, the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. Along with an Introduction and footnotes by myself, the 28 short stories and novellas include:

Edward Bulwer-Lytton – the full version of “The Haunted and the Haunters; or, The House and the Brain” (1859)

those-who-haunt-ghostsHenry James – “The Ghostly Rental” (1876)

J. H. Riddell – “The Open Door” (1882)

Ambrose Bierce – “A Fruitless Assignment” (1888)

B.M. Croker – “Number Ninety” (1895)

Ralph Adams Cram – “No. 252 Rue M. le Prince” (1895)

H.G. Wells – “The Red Room” (1896)

Arthur Conan Doyle – “The Brown Hand” (1899)

Algernon Blackwood – “The Woman’s Ghost Story” (1907)

Rudyard Kipling – “The House Surgeon” (1909)

W.W. Jacobs – “’The Toll-House’” (1909)

C. Ashton Smith – “The Ghost of Mohammed Din” (1910)

Sax Rohmer – “The Haunting of Low Fennel” (1920)

H.P. Lovecraft – “The Shunned House” (1928)

I encourage you to go ahead and order it from Barnes & Nobel, since it makes an appropriately ghostly holiday gift! Perhaps for yourself!

My New Anthology: Those Who Haunt Ghosts

Unearthing the Unearthly

My digging through nineteenth- and early twentieth-century supernatural literature has now resulted in a second anthology published by Coachwhip Publications. The first, Giving Up the Ghosts: Short-Lived Occult Detective Series by Six Renowned Authors, has been available for about a year.

The second collection will be released very soon! It’s titled Those Who Haunt Ghosts: A Century of Ghost Hunter Fiction. And you just might recognize the mustachioed gentleman on the cover. (I really ought to name him!)


Here’s the pitch:

The mid-1800s to the early 1900s was a high point for literary ghost stories. A sub-genre of this writing is ghost hunter fiction, in which a character not personally haunted investigates a house, a room, or some other site reported to be visited by a ghost. Sometimes, a doubtful ghost hunter hopes to debunk those rumors. Other times, a hopeful hunter wants to confirm that the dead really do return in spirit form.

No matter the motivation, ghost hunters never know what they’ll discover. Skeptics are converted while believers confront a supernatural entity that’s far worse than a mere ghost. And some ghost hunters don’t survive their encounter with the otherworld!

This collection of ghost hunter fiction—28 short stories and novellas from the 1820s to the 1920s—includes such renowned authors as Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Henry James, Charlotte Riddell, Ambrose Bierce, H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Algernon Blackwood, Rudyard Kipling, Sax Rohmer, and H.P. Lovecraft. With an enlightening introduction and helpful footnotes provided by supernatural fiction scholar Tim Prasil, this book is a first-of-its-kind source for this distinctive branch of ghost fiction and will be a treasured addition to any ghost-story library.

And here’s the Table of Contents:

Introduction: A Definition and Brief History of Ghost Hunter Fiction

  1. Anonymous – “The Haunted Chamber” (1823)
  2. Sholto and Reuben Percy – “Seizing a Ghost” (1823)
  3. Charles May – “The Haunted House” (1831)
  4. Anonymous – “The Vault of L—” (1836)
  5. Anonymous – “A Night in a Haunted House” (1848)
  6. William Howett – “The Haunted House in Charnwood Forest” (1850)
  7. Edward Bulwer-Lytton – “The Haunted and the Haunters; or, The House and the Brain” (1859)
  8. Anonymous – “Midnight at Marshland Grange” (1863)
  9. Anonymous – “The Ghost of Stanton Hall” (1868)
  10. Maurice Davies – “A Night in a Ghost-Chamber” (1873)
  11. Henry James – “The Ghostly Rental” (1876)
  12. J. H. Riddell – “The Open Door” (1882)
  13. Angelo J. Lewis – “My Only Ghost” (1884)
  14. Ambrose Bierce – “A Fruitless Assignment” (1888)
  15. E.J. Goodman – “The Haunted Ghost” (1891)
  16. B.M. Croker – “Number Ninety” (1895)
  17. Ralph Adams Cram – “No. 252 Rue M. le Prince” (1895)
  18. Ivy Hooper – “The Baron’s Room” (1896)
  19. H.G. Wells – “The Red Room” (1896)
  20. Lettice Galbraith – “The Blue Room” (1897)
  21. Arthur Conan Doyle – “The Brown Hand” (1899)
  22. Francis Tracy Moreland – “Grimbyville’s Last Boom” (1902)
  23. Algernon Blackwood – “The Woman’s Ghost Story” (1907)
  24. Rudyard Kipling – “The House Surgeon” (1909)
  25. W.W. Jacobs – “’The Toll-House’” (1909)
  26. C. Ashton Smith – “The Ghost of Mohammed Din” (1910)
  27. Sax Rohmer – “The Haunting of Low Fennel” (1920)
  28. H.P. Lovecraft – “The Shunned House” (1928)

Those Who Haunt Ghosts will be available at Amazon in a matter of days.

“There Are Such Things”: Robert W. Chambers’ Westrel Keen

Unearthing the Unearthly“Every day, in my profession, we have proof of the existence of forces for which we have, as yet, no explanation — or, at best, a very crude one. I have had case after case of premonition; case after case of dual and even multiple personality; case after case where apparitions played a vital part in the plot which was brought to me to investigate.”

So says Robert W. Chambers’ detective who specializes in locating those gone missing. In fact, the series featuring this investigator, Westrel Keen, is titled The Tracer of Missing Persons (1906). As suggested above, Keen occasionally handles a case that involves the supernatural. Keen, then, is yet another occult detective on my long list of ghostly groceries.

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4-Question Interview: Tony Walker

present-tensionsWhile hunting for ghosts on the Web, I came across a site titled simply: Ghost Stories. It’s “a blog to discuss, present, curate and review classic ghost stories, Gothic fiction and Weird Tales,” and it’s managed by Tony Walker.

Tony is also a writer, and the plot of his novel Unreal City is introduced this way: “Hard-boiled detective Christian Le Cozh is hired by a man who thinks his wife was killed by a vampire.  Le Cozh is sceptical but he needs the money. He accompanies his client to a graveyard at midnight to persuade him to get medical help. Then things go wrong and he has to hunt the beasts, before they hunt him.”

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Arthur Machen’s Dr. James Lewis — and His Mr. Dyson

Unearthing the UnearthlyLet it be remembered, again and again, that, all the while that the terror lasted, there was no common stock of information as to the dreadful things that were being done.  The press had not said one word upon it, there was no criterion by which the mass of people could separate fact from mere vague rumor, no test by which ordinary misadventure or disaster could be distinguished from the achievements of the secret and awful force that was at work.”

Arthur Machen, The Terror

As I was reading Arthur Machen’s The Terror (1917), I wavered on whether or not to add its central character, Dr. James Lewis, to my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives. I had read Michael Dirda’s comment that this work “is structured like a short detective novel,” and I knew that the American publication presents it with the subtitle: A Mystery. There’s also a first-person narrator, apparently someone who knows Dr. Lewis well enough to tell his story, hinting at something like a Watson/Holmes relationship.

Add to that the story’s series of odd deaths, some of which suggest murder’s been done. Theories are posited, and the narrator brings the focus back to Dr. Lewis’s rejection of those theories and the development of his own. In the end, readers are led to believe that the doctor’s own final theory is the closest we can come to knowing what really happened — despite that theory’s basis in the occult. Since he solves the mystery, then, Dr. Lewis must be our occult detective . . . right?

the-terrorWell, amid all the theorizing, he doesn’t do much investigating or clue-gathering. Dr. Lewis is a country doctor, so he’s called in to determine the cause(s) of death in some local cases, and that’s a form of investigating . . . right? Sure, but a lot of information simply falls into his lap, for example, when his brother-in-law arrives with stories of the odd things happening in another part of Wales. At one point, Lewis himself even says, “if one is confronted by the insoluble, one lets it go at last. If the mystery is inexplicable, one pretends that there isn’t any mystery.” That’s not at all something a good detective should say . . . right?

Despite my mental ping-pong game, I ultimately decided that, yes, Dr. Lewis does qualify as an occult detective. Towards the end of the novel, he very actively joins an investigation of the Griffith farmhouse. We’re told that the doctor “had heard by chance that no one knew what had become of Griffith and his family; and he was anxious about a young fellow, a painter, of his acquaintance, who had been lodging [with them] all the summer.” Finally, some legwork along with the brain-work!

And then the last chapter confirms that Machen was borrowing from the detective genre to tell his supernatural tale. Someone’s who’s read the C. Auguste Dupin stories knows that how a detective’s thinking works is one of Poe’s chief interests. Read the first few paragraphs of “The Murders of the Rue Morgue,” and you might feel like you’re reading an expository essay on the analytical thought process. How Dr. Lewis finally arrives at a satisfactory solution to the mystery — despite multiple hurdles, such as those noted in the passage at the top of this post — is at the heart of Machen’s last chapter.  As the narrator says regarding Dr. Lewis:

He told me that, thinking the whole matter over, he was hardly more astonished by the Terror in itself than by the strange way in which he had arrived at his conclusions.

In the end, the process of what Poe would have called ratiocination plays a pivotal role in The Terror. In fact, building upon detective fiction, Machen explores how his doctor managed to expand the limits of his thinking to arrive at an occult solution to the mystery. As such, Dr. James Lewis has joined my list of early occult detectives (and can confer with the many other doctor-detectives among them there).

dyson-chroniclesMeanwhile, the cases of Machen’s more famous occult detective, Mr. Dyson, are available in The Dyson Chronicles, published by Coachwhip Publications and introduced by myself. This anthology was born of my surprise in learning that these works hadn’t been previously collected into a single book. So I pitched the idea to the publisher, and now all of the Dyson stories — three short stories and one novel — are together at last.

My introduction explores Machen’s penchant for writing nontraditional supernatural fiction by making his occult phenomenon ring as much of weird science as of the supernatural.

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