Apr 17 2009 6:41pm

Choosing the Correct Victorian Psychic Detective

A good psychic detective can often be the best defense against paranormal intrusion and a lifetime of gibbering madness. Of such talented detectives, two stand out above the rest: John Silence and Carnacki the Ghost Finder.

John Silence was the creation of Algernon Blackwood, and he’d probably call himself more of a psychic investigator than a detective. His stories feature mysticism, reincarnation, and psychoanalysis. They are brooding and a bit like Sherlock Holmes as if penned by Edith Wharton.

In the story “The Camp of the Dog,” Silence helps a pair of young lovers, a lycanthrope divinity student and a somnambulistic preacher’s daughter, get together under the noses of their good Christian guardians. The story makes use of unconscious psychic manifestations and past life regressions. Blackwood could also pull out the stops when he wanted to. “Nemesis of Fire” gives us a tub of pig’s blood, along with mummies, séances, and a stone circle in a forest, while in “Secret Worship” there’s the requisite horrifying yet unknowable face of some blasphemous entity.

Throughout it all, John Silence remains nonjudgmental. He never censures the victims, even if they have often brought their fates upon themselves. They transgress, suffer, and are punished—but if they survive the ordeal, they are often healthier individuals afterwards.

On the other end of the spectrum sits Carnacki the Ghost Finder. He is basically Dr. Strange with gizmos.

The creation of William Hope Hodgson, Carnacki resides squarely in the realm of the “ripping” good yarn. He makes use of an array of strange implements and rituals: the Electric Pentacle, the Broom of Hyssop, the Saaamaaa Ritual (I have no idea how to pronounce that), and the Sigsand Manuscript. Not all of his stories have supernatural culprits. Along with the ghosts and the general breakdown of reality, there’s also madness, fraud, and ingenious criminals. Carnacki can punch his way out of a hold-up, just as easily as he can banish an Outer Monstrosity. As we read each story, the joy comes from being unsure whom or what will be responsible.

Much of Hodgson’s work presages that of Lovecraft. What’s the Necronomicon but the lovechild of the Sigsand Manuscript and Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow? And certainly the Old Ones resemble more than a little bit Hodgson’s Outer Monstrosities. Overall Carnacki the Ghost Finder is familiar territory. Only each story ends with a hearty goodnight, instead of a gibbering descent into madness. Not to mention Hodgson actually has a sense of humor and can write a story like “The Find,” entirely about a rare book of acrostics.

So ask yourself. Does your paranormal dilemma require the two-fisted approach and possibly a sharp spike in your electricity bill, or would a more holistic solution bring about the proper alignment of your psyche with the forces of the supernatural?

The choice is yours.

The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder

Three John Silence stories: “A Psychical Invasion,” “Ancient Sorceries,” and “Nemesis of Fire”

Ben O'C
1. Ben O'C
Thanks for highlighting the psychic detective genre. It's just one of the many fun alleys waiting for readers to discover if they start to explore Victorian short fiction. Ghosts, ghouls and detectives abounded.

While it's largely gone the way of the Dodo, there are still a few writers out there playing with psychic detectives. Mark Valentine and John Howard have three collections of short stories concerning the adventures of The Connoisseur. Valentine also edited a collection for Wordsworth (THE BLACK VEIL) that will introduce readers to a few psychic detectives, including Carnacki, Flaxman Low and Mr. Dyson.

Also, a small press released a new collection of Carnacki stories some years back. A number of detective and ghost story writers all took a hand at a new story featuring the detective. While I've not read this collection, I've heard nothing but good things about it.
Jason Henninger
2. jasonhenninger
I've not read either of these, but I'm definitely intrigued.
James Goetsch
3. Jedikalos
What great stories! I was not even aware that they existed. I am enjoying them immensely. Many thanks for bringing them to my attention.
Patrick Garson
4. patrickg
Ahhh, Carnacki. I think you're completely on the money, Justin: it's the uncertainty whether Carnacki is facing an otherwordly menace, or whether it's simply a devious crook that makes those stories hum.

On another note, the reason why they're so damned good - and surprisingly scary - it that Hodgson really gets what makes a ghost story eerie.

It's not the ghost, nor the menace, it's the fear itself. If you read those stories, look at how many sentences Hodgson spends on letting Carnacki tell us how scared he is. Not about what he's seeing, or the sounds of a scratch on the glass, but the goosebumps, the queasiness in the pit of his stomach. The shaking.

People may not have seen a ghost, but everyone knows the taste of fear, and I truly think it sets these stories apart.
Ben O'C
5. clovis
Personally, I'm a Carnacki man but still enjoy John Silence. I can also recommend Aylmer Vance: Ghost Finder (Alice & Claude Askew, Wordsworth Press) and R. Chetwynd-Hayes Francis St Clair. Of contemporary writers, Kim Newman is doing sterling work with his Diogenes Club stories, Richard Jeperson is a particularly fine creation.

Thanks for a piece in praise of the psychic detective. Maybe (s)he is due for a resurrection. Watch the dark.
Kate Nepveu
6. katenepveu
Ah-ha, so this is partly what the book _The Somnabulist_ was riffing off of! I couldn't figure out why it bothered to give its detective protagonist possible mind-reading powers when it didn't do anything with them.

(I didn't much like the book, as you might have inferred.)
Ian Tregillis
7. ITregillis

Thanks for pointing this out! Now I suddenly get The Somnambulist. Part of it, anyway.
Justin Howe
8. JustinHowe
@ Clovis and Ben O'C: Thanks for the recommendations. I am looking forward to reading the work you both mention. Now it's just a matter of finding the books...

@ Jason Henninger & Jedikalos: Enjoy! The stories are great fun.

@ Patrickg: Yes! Great point. Hodgson goes to great lengths to describe the fear and preparations to counter it well before the "monster" shows up. "The Thing Invisible" is a classic for this, when Carnacki spends the night in a haunted chapel.

@ Katenepveu: Interesting. I picked up The Somnambulist in a store and read the first few pages. It was a bit too earnest in its attempt to grab my attention, and I set it down. I'm still curious to read it (and yes, that's after reading your review) but maybe not in so much of a rush.
Ori Avtalion
9. salty-horse
A good source for the Carnacki stories is Feedbooks:

It is available in various formats, and looks better than Gutenberg.
Kate Nepveu
10. katenepveu
Justin Howe @ #8, a bit too earnest in its attempt to grab my attention is a very good way of putting it as far as I'm concerned.
Kate Nepveu
11. katenepveu
Justin Howe @ #8, a bit too earnest in its attempt to grab my attention is a very good way of putting it as far as I'm concerned.
Ben O'C
12. Jim Henry III
Another good occult detective series is Seabury Quinn's Jules de Grandin stories. As with the Carnacki stories, you don't know, going into any of them, whether the supernatural events will turn out to be real, or Scooby-Doo'ish hoaxes. (Although I think all the Jules de Grandin stories in the Arkham House collection The Phantom-Fighter are fantasies, there are a couple of editions that reprint the whole series, mundane and occult detective stories both.)
Ben O'C
14. Tim Prasil
I've put together a list of early occult detectives -- many with links to etexts -- at Look for the Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives. Right now, I cover 1855 to 1925.

Along with the standards (Carnacki, Silence, etc.) I've included stand-alone stories that feature an occult detective. Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, Fitz-James O'Brien, and others are there. Of course, there's some debate over what should and should not be included under that character heading, but that's part of the fun.
Ben O'C
15. Meme
This is intriguing . I wonder on such things truly. I've seen clues and such but have not investigated it much . I may like to try.

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