The Gateway of the Monster… The Red Hand… The Ghost Hunter… To Sherlock Holmes the supernatural may have been a closed book but luckily for us other great detectives have always been ready to do battle with the forces of darkness instead. There are the casebooks of the Victorian haunted house investigators John Bell and Flaxman Low; Thomas Carnacki, William Hope Hodgson’s Edwardian battler against the abyss; horror master Arthur Machen’s Mr Dyson, a man about town and meddler in strange things; Robert Barr’s Eugene Valmont (who may have inspired Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot) and Donald Campbell’s young explorer Leslie Vane, the ‘James Bond of the jazz age’, who battled against occult enemies of the British Empire. More modern times have seen the introduction of Phil Rickman’s ‘Deliverance Consultant’ (diocesan exorcist) Merrily Watkins and James Herbert’s psychic investigator and ghost hunter David Ash to the genre. Sherlock Homes may have shunned all suggestion of supernatural agency, but thankfully his many rivals and literary descendants have not, leaving us with a delightfully large number of deliciously dark detective cases to enjoy for generations to come.
Stories in which detectives encounter the eerie, macabre and seemingly supernatural had been part of the techniques for building up mysterious atmosphere ever since the genre had begun – the cases of Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin and Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone and The Woman in White being perhaps the most striking examples. Abraham Van Helsing, the vampire hunter in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, if not exactly a detective, is certainly a combative investigator who pursues the Count as any crimefighter would a master criminal. A surprising number of the Sherlock Holmes stories start with strong hints that some supernatural or uncanny agency is in play, even if in the end these are always rationalised. Perhaps the best example of an occult detective or psychic sleuth is the aforementioned Carnacki, but he is by no means the only one, or even the first. Some would give this honour to Dr Martin Hesselius, created by the master Irish ghost story writer Sheridan Le Fanu; but he is kept off stage for most of the action in the few stories in which he appears. In essence, Le Fanu used him as a framing device and he does not actively investigate the strange happenings. A more satisfactory candidate is Flaxman Low, created by E & H Heron, whose adventures in various haunted houses in the late 19th century were first chronicled in Pearson’s Magazine in 1898. The Heron pen-name disguised a mother and son literary partnership, Kate and Hesketh Pritchard. The latter was a sportsman, hunter, soldier and prolific author, and the Flaxman Low stories bear the impress of his vigorous character.
However, probably the most famous sleuth of this breed was John Silence, created in the early years of the 20th century by Algernon Blackwood, who described him as a ‘psychic detective’, a character who investigated supernatural evil – hauntings, poltergeists, inexplicable manifestations and the like – rather than human misdemeanours. This idea was picked up indirectly by William Hope Hodgson for his series of tales featuring the occult investigator Carnacki, ‘the ghost-finder’. Carnacki is constantly challenged by spiritual forces beyond our knowledge but, to complicate matters, he also encounters human skullduggery – indeed part of the fun of Hodgson’s stories is working out whether what is going on is actually supernatural or not. Another ‘ghost-exposer’ was John Bell, the creation of Robert Eustace and L T Meade. In A Master of Mysteries, published in 1898, the authors present a collection of stories in which John Bell finds all sorts of explanations for the apparently supernatural. Another giant of the horror genre, Arthur Machen, created a memorable connoisseur of the curious and sleuth of the singular in the form of Mr Dyson. He made his first appearance in The Inmost Light and went on to feature in a series of tales in which he was drawn into networks of evil that included strange crimes, ancient talismans and implications of the supernatural.
Despite all of the excellent examples above, there have always been those – particularly fans of mainstream crime fiction – who are unhappy about the hybrid that is the occult detective, feeling that such a thing is a contradiction in terms. Thankfully, however, there are just as many who disagree with these dismissals and the figure of the supernatural sleuth has remained persistently popular. Whether it is the foursome of hapless paranormal investigators in the hilarious Ghostbusters, or the film-makers and folklore researchers in the enigmatic The Blair Witch Project, cinema has always made use of such characters. Television has also provided numerous haunted house investigations, including some which led the viewer into thinking they were watching real supernatural incidents, such as Ghostwatch. Sophisticated cosmic conspiracy series such as The X Files also mixed the paranormal and intrepid investigators to great effect for a modern audience. The continued popularity of films like Paranormal Activity, TV series like Supernatural and novels like The Ghosts of Sleath and The Wine of Angels are all testament to the fact that supernatural sleuths continue to flourish in our own day. I’ll leave you with the story of Yand Manor House, a fine family curse tale from the Flaxman Low collection.