The Terrible Occult Detectives of the Victorian Era |

The Terrible Occult Detectives of the Victorian Era

In the wake of Sherlock Holmes’s massive success the world was so overrun by lady detectives, French detectives, Canadian lumberjack detectives, sexy gypsy detectives, priest detectives, and doctor detectives that there was a shortage of things to detect. Why not ghosts?

And thus was spawned the occult detective who detected ghost pigs, ghost monkeys, ghost ponies, ghost dogs, ghost cats and, for some strange reason, mummies. Lots and lots of mummies. Besides sporting ostentatiously grown-up names that sound like they were randomly generated by small boys wearing thick glasses (Dr. Silence, Mr. Perseus, Moris Klaw, Simon Iff, Xavier Wycherly) these occult detectives all had one thing in common: they were completely terrible at detecting.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, changed everything in mystery fiction when his first story “A Study in Scarlet” appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887, but before him came a whole host of proto-detective stories reaching back to Germany’s true crime family fun classic, A Gallery of Horrible Tales of Murder (1650), the fictionalized criminal biographies published as Newgate novels by writers like Edward “Dark and Stormy Night” Bulwer-Lytton, and Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin (“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” 1841). From out of this literary rabble emerged the very first occult detective: Dr. Martin Hesselius.

Physician, man of letters, and malpractice enthusiast, Dr. Hesselius first appeared in “Green Tea,” published in the October 1869 issue of All the Year Round, then edited by Charles Dickens. He was the creation of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu, known as “The Invisible Prince” because he rarely left his house after the 1858 death of his mentally ill wife. Obsessive and neurotic, Le Fanu was haunted all his life by a recurring nightmare in which he stood transfixed before an ancient mansion that threatened to collapse on him; when he was found dead of a heart attack in 1873 his doctor remarked, “At last, the house has fallen,” which, while witty, probably wasn’t the sort of thing his family wanted to hear.

“Green Tea” is the best of Le Fanu’s ghost stories and it immediately established that same callous tone of professional disregard for human emotions that would come to characterize all occult detectives. Recounted by Hesselius’s eight-fingered medical secretary, “Green Tea” finds Reverend Jennings approaching Dr. Hesselius for help with a phantom monkey that’s driving him bananas. Hesselius determines that too much reading while swilling green tea has inadvertently opened the reverend’s third eye. Hesselius commands Jennings to summon him immediately the next time he sees the monkey. The next time the monkey appears Hesselius is on vacation with orders not to be disturbed, so Jennings slashes his own throat. Hesselius responds with a mix of defensiveness and braggadocio. He’s successfully treated 57 cases of opened third eyes, he writes to a colleague, and he could have cured Jennings, but Jennings was a stupid weakling who died of “hereditary suicidal mania” and, technically, he wasn’t even Hesselius’s patient anyways.

Defensive, condescending, full of made-up knowledge, and absolutely lethal to patients — these are the hallmarks of the occult detective, such as Algernon Blackwood’s Dr. John Silence, probably the biggest jerk in weird fiction. Like Batman, Silence vanished for five years of international training, only to return well-versed in being obnoxious and making things up. His first adventure was “A Psychical Invasion” (1908) in which a humorist overdoses on marijuana and loses his sense of humor. Silence uses a magical collie to fight what he claims is an evil ghost lady, relays a bunch of pseudoscience as patronizingly as possible (“As I told you before, the forces of a powerful personality may still persist after death in the line of their original momentum…If you knew anything of magic, you would know that thought is dynamic…etc.”), then he has the humorist’s house torn down.

Occult detectives love tearing down houses, and they hate women, foreigners, and Eastern mysticism, in about that order. In Silence’s “The Nemesis of Fire” an outbreak of spontaneous combustion is caused by a selfish old lady who stole a scarab necklace from a mummy. Silence demonstrates his bedside manner by tossing the spinster to the pissed-off mummy which burns her to death, then Silence sneaks her charred corpse upstairs and tucks it into bed, presumably to be discovered by her maid in the morning.

Silence battled lots of foreigners, including Canadian werewolves (“The Camp of the Dog”), German Satanists (“Secret Worship”), French cat witches (“Ancient Sorceries”), and math (“A Victim of Higher Space”). Every one of his stories ends with an insufferable lecture followed by a smug smirk. His only adventure that doesn’t make you want to hurl the book so hard it travels back through time and smacks Silence in the head is also his funniest, “Ancient Sorceries.” Much of it is taken up with its narrator, a silk merchant, returning to visit his old German boarding school and recalling its catalogue of sadistic deprivations fondly (“…the daily Sauerkraut, the watery chocolate on Sundays, the flavour of the stringy meat served twice a week at Mittagessen; and he smiled to think again of the half-rations that was the punishment for speaking English.”), and it’s these giddy, parodic updrafts that William Hope Hodgson sails like a hang glider with his creation, Carnacki the Ghost Finder.

Carnacki’s cases revolve around men dressed in horse costumes just as often as they wind up being about disembodied demon hands chasing him around the room. Using a totally made-up system of vowel-heavy magic (The Incantation of Raaaee, The Saaamaaa Ritual), Carnacki spends most of his adventures crouched in the middle of his electric pentacle, taking flash photos of weird monsters like a nightmare pig (“The Hog”), a floor that becomes a puckered pair of whistling lips (“The Whistling Room”), and an indoor blood storm (“The House Among the Laurels”). His trademark is kicking his guests out of his house at the end of his stories, shouting, “Out you go! Out you go!”

Sometimes his enemy is the ghost of a jester, sometimes it’s Irish people, and sometimes he splits the difference and it turns out to be a crusty old sea captain hiding in a well and a naked ghost baby. Carnacki finds as many frauds as he does phantasms, he loves stupid scientific inventions (an anti-vibrator, a dream helmet, the electric pentacle), and he also loves John Silence-ian laser light show magic battles. And while he occasionally destroys a room or sinks a ship, he doesn’t have the taste for mayhem that characterizes other occult detectives.

One of the most satisfying of these is Flaxman Low, who combines the xenophobia of John Silence with the bogus science of Carnacki to produce an unbeatable package of super-short stories that cannot be read with a straight face. Written by Kate Prichard and her son, the improbably named Major Hesketh Hesketh-Prichard, the Flaxman Low stories move with the brisk, violent efficiency of a man who doesn’t take any guff. In “The Story of Baelbrow” he’s invited to investigate a manor house whose quaint British spook has turned violent. Low discovers that the ghost has teamed up with a foreign mummy to form a super-evil vampire-ghost-mummy. Carnacki would take its photo. Dr. Silence would give a lecture on ancient vibratory emissions. Flaxman Low shoots it about a hundred times in the face, beats its head into a pulp, and burns it.

You only hire Flaxman Low if you are truly hardcore, because his cure is usually worse than the disease. Haunted by a dead leper from Trinidad? Pull the house down (“The Story of the Spaniards, Hammersmith”). Bedeviled by a ghost cult of Greeks? Punch them in the face and move out (“The Story of Saddler’s Croft”). Plagued by a haunted bladder, a phantom taste, or family suicide? Flaxman Low is there to instantly pin the blame on a bunch of Dianists, dead relatives who meddled with Eastern mysticism, or an African man hiding inside a cabinet and using glowing poisonous mushrooms to kill off the family. Then he explodes your house.

Later would come Sax “Fu Manchu” Rohmer’s crusty old junk shop owner, Moris Klaw, and his Odically Sterilized Pillow; the lady occult detective, Diana Marburg, a palmist whose adventures include “The Dead Hand” in which she tangles with a six-foot-long electric eel imported for murder; the abnormally destructive Aylmer Vance; New Jersey’s French occult detective, Jules de Grandin, given to exclaiming “By the beard of the goldfish!” and “Prepare to meet a fully tailored porker before you are much older!” (it sounds better in French); and the man of action, John Thunstone, whose silver sword-cane finds itself frequently embedded in the breasts of a race of pre-humans who originally inhabited North America. And so, vaguely racist, extremely violent, and totally unscientific, the league of occult detectives marches on, razing houses, slaughtering other races, and generally just being absolutely awful people who couldn’t detect their way out of a haunted bladder.

The Best of the Bunch:

Originally published in December 2013.

Grady Hendrix is a writer and journalist and one of the founders of the New York Asian Film Festival. A former film critic for the New York Sun, Grady has written for Slate, the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Playboy, and Variety. His hard-rocking, spine-tingling supernatural thriller We Sold Our Souls is available September 18th from Quirk Books, and his very own occult detective series, Tales of the White Street Society, is available as a free audio stories from Pseudopod.


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