Critical Histories of Occult Detective Fiction

The sources below address the history of occult detective fiction (a.k.a. psychic detective fiction). These works confirm that everyone tells a different story about the development of this body of literature — if only slightly different at times.

The Usual Detectives: Six key characters appear often in these works: 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, Sax Rohmer’s Moris Klaw, and W.H. Hodgson’s Thomas Carnacki. Below, I refer to these as the “Usual Detectives.”

Adrian, Jack. Introduction. The Occult Files of Francis Chard: Some Ghost Stories. By A.M. Burrage. Penyffordd: Ash-Tree, 1996. ix-xvi. [Though noting Hesselius as an important figure, Adrian joins those who work on the assumption that Sherlock Holmes had to precede occult detectives. The Usual Detectives (except Flaxman Low) and a few others are then reviewed before focusing on A.M. Burrage’s two contributions to the cross-genre: Derek Scarpe and Francis Chard.]

Ascari, Maurizio. A Counter-History of Crime Fiction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print. [As the title suggests, this is a new history of crime fiction. Maurizio discusses psychic detectives in his fifth chapter, “Pseudo-Sciences and the Occult,” adding a few characters to the Usual Detectives.]

Ashley, Mike. “Fighters of Fear: A Survey of the Psychic Investigator in Fiction.” Voices from Shadow. Ed. David Sutton. Birmingham: Shadow Publishing, 1994. 32-52. Print. [Impressive in its breadth, this article reviews several earlier works before declaring L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace’s debunking detective John Bell — followed closely by Flaxman Low — as the first “genuine” occult detectives (35-37). It then reviews the Usual Detectives along with several others.]

– – -. “Occult Detectives.” The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. Orbit, 1 June 1997. Web. 10 Feb. 2014. [Ashley’s much shorter variation of the article above.]

– – -. “The Strange Case of Max Rittenberg.” Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene. Ed. Curtis Evans. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014. 33-42. Print. [This overview of Rittenberg’s life and mystery fiction includes discussion of his occult detective, Dr. Xavier Wycherley.]

Briggs, Julia. Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story. London: Faber, 1977. Print. [As the title suggests, this is a history of English ghost fiction, but the second chapter, “Mesmerism, Drugs and Psychic Doctors,” discusses the psychic doctor tradition, looking at the Usual Detectives.]

Cornwell, Neil. Odoevsky’s Four Pathways into Modern Fiction: A Comparative Study. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2010. Print. [The third chapter of this study of Vladimir Odoevsky’s fiction is titled “Seerman: The Rise of the Psychic Detective.” There, Cornwell argues that the character Uncle in Odoevsky’s The Salamander (1841) is, “at very least, a figure pointing in the direction of the ‘psychic doctor’” (71) and then discusses the Usual Detectives and a few others.]

Fonseca, Anthony J. “Detective Fiction.” Ghosts in Popular Culture and Legend. Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2016. [This encyclopedia entry starts with Fitz James O’Brien’s two Harry Escott tales (1855 and 1859), Charles Felix’s The Notting Hill Mystery (1862), Charlotte Riddell’s The Uninhabited House (1875) and “The Open Door (1882) before moving to most of the Usual Detectives and other characters from the early 20th century. Fonseca ends with a look at characters from later in that century, including television’s Carl Kolchak, whom he describes as “arguably the most well-known occult detective….” No doubt, such an argument would also name Agents Mulder and Scully, if not Sam and Dean Winchester.]

Leslie-McCarthy, Sage. The Case of the Psychic Detective: Progress, Professionalisation, and the Occult in Psychic Detective Fiction from the 1880s to the 1920s. Diss. Griffith U, 2007. Print. [An outstanding source in that it departs from the traditional history of occult detective fiction, bringing in several amateur occult detectives who preceded the Usual Detectives.]

Lembert, Alexandra. “‘Thoughts are Things’: Magical Objects, Objective Magic and Sax Rohmer’s The Dream Detective.” Magical Objects: Things and Beyond. Ed. Elmar Schenkel and Stefan Welz. Berlin: Galda & Wilch, 2007. 127-44. Print. [While Lembert focuses only on Moris Klaw and barely touches on occult detective fiction in general, this is of interest because it indicates the growing academic interest in fictional occult detectives. The writer situates Klaw in the context of magical objects and thought-photography.]

Parlati, Marilena. “Ghostly Traces, Occult Clues: Tales of Detection in Victorian and Edwardian Fiction.” European Journal of English Studies 15.3 (2011) 211-20. Print. [In this analysis of how occult detectives use visual technology, Parlati limits her discussion to the Usual Detectives, presenting Hessellius as the first occult detective.]

Roden, Barbara. “No Ghosts Need Apply?” Ghosts in Baker Street. Ed. Martin H. Greenberg, John Lellenberg, and Daniel Stashower. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2006. 200-22. Print. [Roden presents Hesselius and Van Helsing as prototypes of the first “true psychic detective,” Flaxman Low, and then discusses the rest of the Usual Detectives along with several others.]

Smajić, Srdjan. Ghost-Seers, Detectives, and Spiritualists: Theories of Vision in Victorian Literature and Science. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print. [The eleventh chapter, “Inner Vision and Occult Detection: Le Fanu’s Martin Hesselius,” looks closely at Dr. Hesselius, who Smajić dubs “the first overtly occult detective in literature” (150). The thirteenth chapter, “Psychic Sleuths and Soul Doctors,” reviews the rest of the the Usual Detectives except for Van Helsing.]

Tibbetts, John C. “Phantom Fighters: 150 Years of Occult Detection.” The Armchair Detective 29.3 (Summer 1996): 340-45. Print. [A brief overview of occult detectives, including the Usual Detectives except for Van Helsing and going well beyond them.]

Weinstein, Lee. “The Roots of the Psychic Detective in Fiction.” Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine 7 3.1 (Spring 2012): 29-37. Print. [Refuting unnamed authors, Weinstein contends that “neither Hesselius nor Van Helsing are series characters and neither are really detectives.” Low is presented as “the first example of a true psychic detective.” The Usual Detectives are discussed along with several others.]