Sarah P.E. Hawthorne’s Mr. Curtis: Poster Boy for Novice Occult Detectives

Unearthing the Unearthly

I added yet another character to the Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives a few days ago. His name is Mr. Curtis, and he’s one of the fairly few occult detectives who’s also a professional detective (albeit in the crime-solving business).

For a moment, I wondered if he might be the list’s first professional detective. But, no, this honor belongs to Mr. Burton from Seeley Regester’s The Dead Letter, which was published in 1866.  Mr. Curtis appeared in 1888 in Sarah P.E. Hawthorne’s short story “The Ghost of the Grate.” Still, unlike Burton’s use of his daughter’s clairvoyance and his own semi-psychic abilities to conduct a criminal investigation, Curtis confronts a supernatural manifestation — and he accepts the reality of it before solving the mystery. In fact, in the concluding paragraph of his first-person narrative, he says: “I had never been a believer in the supernatural, and this was my first and only experience with the great unexplainable.”

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“This Thing Ought to Be Reported to the Psychic Research Society”: Henry C. Mercer’s Charles Carrington

Unearthing the UnearthlyI was reading Henry C. Mercer’s November Night Tales (1928) because I knew that at least one character appeared in at least two of these spooky stories. I wanted to see if perhaps this Charles Carrington fellow might be an occult detective in some form.

Yes, it turns out that Carrington acts as a ghost-hunter in “The Dolls’ Castle,” though he’s more or less an astonished bystander in “The Blackbirds.” (He doesn’t appear in any of the other stories. Another character named Pryor, a painter, also appears twice. While Pryor faces the strange and even the supernatural, he’s much more a victim than a detective.)

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Enough to Unnerve the Most Hardened Investigator of the Unearthly: Henry S. Whitehead’s Gerald Canevin (and Lord Carruth)

Unearthing the UnearthlyA couple of my colleagues in detecting occult detectives suggested I take a look at Henry S. Whitehead’s Gerald Canevin. The character appears in fifteen tales. They’re very well-told stories with a fine balance of setting, character, and creepiness. Though from the U.S., Canevin is mostly found in a Caribbean milieu of Voodoo practices and local folklore, reflecting Whitehead’s own years spent on Santa Cruz. However, without much explanation, the character also springs up in England and in New England.

For the most part, Canevin is not an occult detective per se. Though he does have a strong interest in studying the supernatural, weird things just seem to pop up around him. And he chronicles them. In fact, in “The Projection of Armand Dubois” (1926), “The People of Pan” (1929), and “Passing of a God” (1931), Canevin has no real role other than narrator. I’m tempted to say he’s less an occult detective and more an occult reporter — or even an occult neighbor, since he so often unintentionally finds himself in the company of the haunted.

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A 1787 Chapter on Ghosts — and the Fiction that Followed

I stumbled upon a very interesting overview of ghosts that was published in 1787. It appears in the last section of Francis Grose’s A Provincial Glossary with a Collection of Local Proverbs, and Popular Superstitions, which also summarizes folk beliefs about witches, sorcerers, fairies, second-sight, and more. It’s a very useful source for learning what the general take on such subjects were among the English in the late 18th century.

Grose offers several curious, even humorous, bits of ghost lore. For example, being born on Christmas Eve reduces one’s ability to see a spirit, and if a candle burns blue, it means a ghost just might be in the vicinity. (Apparently, the latter idea still carries weight with some 21st-century ghost hunters!) Grose adds, “Dragging chains is not the fashion of English ghosts,” a matter of spectral style that poor Jacob Marley defied.

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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!