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My Occult Detective Types developed as I considered — not just does a particular character qualify as an occult detective — but how does that character qualify. This led me to settle on four types of occult detectives: the doctor-, the clairvoyant-, the specialist-, and the novice-detective. Each is discussed below.
- The Doctor-Detective — Dr. Martin Hesselius, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, and Dr. John Silence are medical doctors who hold prominent positions in the history of the fictional occult detective. They show that, once upon a time, being haunted by a ghost or some other supernatural “ailment” struck readers as a kind of spiritual disease, one that must be remedied by someone who understands the physical and the metaphysical. In fact, concurrent with the early development of the fictional occult detective, many actual doctors wrote about their investigations into strange phenomena. The German doctors Johann Jung-Stilling and Justinus Kerner stand out as the original inspiration for this type of occult detective.
- The Clairvoyant-Detective — At least as early as Seeley Regester’s novel The Dead Letter (1866), some fictional detectives have relied on their ability to intuit someone’s criminal nature or to sense clues that are beyond empirical perception. It’s certainly a handy ability to have when investigating a crime, so handy that some advocates of traditional mystery fiction deem such detectives to be cheats! Still, even when they investigate entirely “natural” crimes, these stories are worth considering because of how they mix the detective genre with the supernatural possibilities found in Gothic horror. That mix, after all, is at the heart of occult detective literature.
- The Specialist-Detective — Some doctor-detectives and clairvoyant-detectives specialize in occult cases. Other occult detectives share that specialty but have neither a medical degree nor extra-sensory ability. Fitz-James O’Brien’s Harry Escott, for instance, says he “had devoted much time to the investigation of what are popularly called supernatural matters,” and Robert Bulwer-Lytton’s narrator in “The Haunted and the Haunters” claims to have “witnessed many very extraordinary phenomena . . . that would be either totally disbelieved if I stated them, or ascribed to supernatural agencies.” They draw from their specialized knowledge and experience to probe the haunting at hand. This category, then, is reserved for such non-doctor, non-clairvoyant characters, who have training or background in handling occult mysteries with methods of investigation like those in detective fiction.
- The Novice-Detective — In the made-for-TV movie The Night Stalker (1972), newsman Carl Kolchak discovers that a string of murders is being committed by a vampire. Along with having to deal with that monster, Kolchak has to adjust to living in a world that includes such things as vampires. This, then, is a tale of how a character becomes an occult detective. Now, Kolchak went on to become a specialist-detective in his subsequent encounters with the supernatural. However, even if a character has no further cases (that we know about), such stories give worthwhile insight into the occult detective as a human being. For instance, in a few stories, an ordinary detective investigating an ordinary crime experiences a supernatural event for the first time. That event might reveal very little about the case, but it reveals a lot about the detective’s expanding worldview.