Supernatural Sleuths

22 Apr

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.

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14 Responses to “Supernatural Sleuths”

  1. Sandra April 22, 2012 at 4:11 pm #

    Interesting blog, thanks and I totally agree with you. I was raised in the North of England too. County Durham and then North Yorkshire.

    • anilbalan April 22, 2012 at 7:08 pm #

      Always good to hear from a fellow Northerner 🙂

  2. nzumel April 22, 2012 at 4:53 pm #

    I love this genre. I’ve read the John Silence and Carnaki stories (and Hesselius), but am not familiar with Flaxman Low or Mr. Dyson. Thanks for introducing them to me!

    • anilbalan April 22, 2012 at 7:08 pm #

      Yes, they’re a little more obscure but definitely worth checking out!

  3. thedeadguy666 April 22, 2012 at 5:26 pm #

    Nice post. I read a lot of Sherlock Holmes stories as a kid, and while I liked the endings where logic was used to disprove the supernatural theories, I think it was the possibility of them at the beginning that got me interested in reading the stories in the first place.

  4. Patrick April 22, 2012 at 9:53 pm #

    My investigation of an abandoned property last night got me wondering about the stories and memories of life within those walls. I know it has a story to tell, so I can’t wait to go through the evidence. It has been a long time since I’ve been into fiction… but if I were to ever pick one up I suppose it should be from this genre!

  5. IntrovertedAnalyst April 23, 2012 at 12:35 am #

    The John Silence character sounds really interesting- I’ll have to try and get hold of some of those stories.

  6. sinistmer April 23, 2012 at 12:53 am #

    This post made me think of the Harry Dresden files. I haven’t read many of them, but I really got a kick out of the first one.

  7. thedeadguy666 April 23, 2012 at 8:02 am #

    I like your blog, you have discussed many of my favorite subjects. I nominated you for the Kreativ Blogger Award.

    Rules and pic: http://deadgrimandfrostbitten.wordpress.com/2012/04/23/kreativ-blogger-award/

  8. chrisdevoss April 26, 2012 at 3:03 pm #

    Reblogged this on Here A Blog, There A Blog.

  9. blackwatertown April 29, 2012 at 10:27 am #

    Fascinating ideas. Silence, Carnacki and Sheridan Le Fanu sound interesting. This is a new area for me. Thanks.

  10. Tim Prasil April 9, 2013 at 4:41 pm #

    I realize I’m coming to this conversation rather late, but I thought you might enjoy wandering through my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives at http://timprasil.wordpress.com/ . I also have several posts that chronicle my hunt for — and challenges with defining — many more examples of this character type.

    So far, the list goes from 1855 through 1925. You might find some surprises.

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