The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder, by William Hope Hodgson
William Hope Hodgson was a sailor, a bodybuilder and physical trainer, a writer of nautical and supernatural fiction and from 1914 a volunteer in the Great War. He was discharged in 1916 after an injury, but once recovered he reenlisted and was killed at Ypres in April 1918. He was forty years old.
Despite his brief writing career (he was only first published in 1905) he produced a reasonable body of short stories, novels and poems. He’s not a well known writer today, but he’s well regarded by those who do know him. He’s best remembered for his weird fiction and supernatural detective fiction, and the interesting thing about that is that neither genre really still exists today. I’ll talk a bit about how genres come into existence and are forgotten in a follow-up post.
Among Hodgson’s various short story collections is one about a supernatural investigator named Thomas Carnacki. Six Carnacki tales were published in Hodgson’s lifetime, and in 1913 those six tales were collected together and released under the title Carnacki the Ghost Finder. Three other tales were written but not then published, I don’t know why not, and in 1947 another edition was released with those three included. The original 1913 version is available on Project Gutenberg. The full nine are available in a Wordsworth Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural print edition with an excellent forword by David Stuart Davies.
I read the original six stories on my iphone, but decided to hold off on talking about what they were like until I’d read the final three. Having done so, I now find myself wondering if the reason those final three weren’t published was that they weren’t as good as the six in the 1913 version.
Generally the Carnacki stories aren’t Hodgson’s best work. I said recently on this blog that I sometimes preferred them to MR James, but having finished the whole set I went too far. MR James at his best created masterpieces of chilling tension in a handful of pages. There’s a reason he’s the touchstone for the ghost story. James took that form and developed it as far as it would go in its traditional form. I won’t say he can’t ever be bettered in that vein, but I will say I personally doubt he ever will be.
The Thomas Carnacki character was born of a different tradition to that James drew on – Carnacki’s literary ancestor is Conan Doyle’s spectacularly successful Sherlock Holmes’ stories. Holmes was a huge success, and naturally he had a lot of imitators and competitors (I rather like the now quite obscure Glasgow Detective stories for example). Some of those competitors were pretty much direct copies of Holmes, but a lot of them came with a twist. Thomas Carnacki’s twist (not unique to him by any means) is that he is a consulting detective who specialises in investigating hauntings.
The framing device for each story is of Carnacki inviting friends round to hear of his latest adventure. One of those friends writes the stories, a Watson to Carnacki’s Holmes (save that he’s only a scribe, he never actually accompanies Carnacki). Carnacki makes plain to his guests that the stories he tells them are just one hundredth of his investigations. That’s because in ninety-nine out of each hundred he discovers a mundane explanation and nothing of any real interest, but the hundredth on the other hand…
Even with that one per cent. caveat, not all the tales in the collection actually involve the supernatural. In some of them it’s a case of pure fakery with what’s really going on being interesting enough to merit a tale but really being a story of human greed and duplicity. In others there is a supernatural element, but enhanced by trickery with someone taking advantage of the haunting for their own ends and exaggerating it. And then in a few it really is the genuine article. An intrusion from beyond. From the “outer spheres”.
The consequence of all that is that when you start a tale as a reader you’ve no way of knowing what you’re getting into. Will there be something supernatural? If so, is that the whole story? Is there perhaps just some crime being committed under a supernatural disguise? Carnacki doesn’t know, and nor do you.
What’s also wonderful about that is that Carnacki frequently spends nights alone in atmospheres of dread and gloom without knowing how much of his terror is supernatural influence and how much his own imagination. In some tales he feels a dreadful presence and a malignant intelligence at work yet later learns that there never actually anything there.
The other interesting thing with Carnacki is that he’s a very scientific investigator (Holmes’ influence again). Here he prepares to investigate a room reputed to be haunted by a mysterious force that slams the room door and pulls sheets from the bed during the night. The night before this scene, he’d strung ribbons at ankle height throughout the room to detect signs of anyone moving through it in secret:
‘First, I cleared away all the ribbons across the floor; then I carried the cat – still fastened in its basket – over towards the far wall, and left it. I returned then to the centre of the room, and measured out a space twenty-one feet in diameter, which I swept with a “broom of Hyssop”. About this, I drew a circle of chalk, taking care never to step over the circle. Beyond this I smudged, with a bunch of garlic, a broad belt right around the chalk circle, and when this was complete, I took from among my stores in the centre a small jar of a certain water. I broke away the parchment, and withdrew the stopper. Then, dipping my left forefinger in the little jar, I went round the circle again, making upon the floor, just within the line of chalk, the Second Sign of the Saaamaaa Ritual, and joining each Sign most carefully with the left-handed crescent. I can tell you, I felt easier when this was done, and the “water circle” complete. Then, I unpacked some more of the stuff that I had brought, and placed a lighted candle in the “valley” of each Crescent. After that, I drew a Pentacle, so that each of the five points of the defensive star touched the chalk circle. In the five points of the star I placed five portions of the bread, each wrapped in linen, and in the five “vales”, five opened jars of the water I had used to make the “water circle”. And now I had my first protective barrier complete.
‘I turned now to fit the Electric Pentacle, setting it so that each of its “points” and “vales” coincided exactly with the “points” and “vales” of the drawn pentagram upon the floor. Then I connected up the battery, and the next instant the pale blue glare from the intertwining vacuum tubes shone out.
Yes, an electric pentacle. Carnacki is nothing if not modern.
One of the strengths of the stories (save the last one, not in the original six) is an implication of some wider logic to everything that occurs. Carnacki refers in his tales to other incidents not described (“but you all remember the Black Veil case, in which I believe my life was saved with a very similar form of protection, whilst Aster, who sneered at it, and would not come inside, died.”). He categorises the entities he encounters and speculates about the rules of the realms they emerge from. He draws on ancient magical practices, but tries to systematise them and work out the principles. Above all that though is a sense that every supernatural (ab-natural as he says) phenomenon he investigates forms part of a pattern, a (super)natural order, that we can’t perceive but which is present all the same.
Two of the final three stories fail for me in part because they depart from that approach. One is an investigation into an entirely mundane crime with no supernatural element at all, turning Carnacki into a second-rate Holmes. The other contains something definitely supernatural but also pages of exposition explaining how Hodgson’s cosmology works. An implied cosmology creates a sense of a greater reality than that we read, an explained cosmology is dull and worse a bit silly.
The problem with the Carnacki’ stories’ modernity is that it now makes them a little bit dated. Characters exclaim things like “by Jove!” which to a contemporary ear is comic rather than dramatic. That said, there is still a charm to the combination of bruised garlic, ancient rituals and electric pentacles that Carnacki employs. The hauntings that are real are interesting in being manifestations of powers wholly inhuman in origin rather than simply ghosts. Above all, although the framing device of a friend retelling Carnacki’s post dinner conversation is slightly creaky Hodgson is good at building mood and suspense. Here Carnacki sits in a chapel haunted by an apparently knife throwing spirit, clad in a suit of antique plate mail in case it attacks:
‘And so you must picture me sitting there in the dark; clumsy with armour, and with my revolver in one hand, and nursing my lantern, ready, with the other. And then it was, after this little time of partial relief from intense nervousness, that there came a fresh strain on me; for somewhere in the utter quiet of the Chapel, I thought I heard something. I listened, tense and rigid, my heart booming just a little in my ears for a moment; then I thought I heard it again. I felt sure that something had moved at the top of the aisle. I strained in the darkness, to hark; and my eyes showed me blackness within blackness, wherever I glanced, so that I took no heed of what they told me; for even if I looked at the dim loom of the stained window at the top of the chancel, my sight gave me the shapes of vague shadows passing noiseless and ghostly across, constantly. There was a time of almost peculiar silence, horrible to me, as I felt just then. And suddenly I seemed to hear a sound, nearer to me, and repeated, infinitely stealthy. It was as if a vast, soft tread were coming slowly down the aisle.
For whatever reason, the tales of MR James are often enjoyed by those who do not otherwise enjoy genre fiction. I’m not sure that would be true for Hodgson. The elements I like best in these stories are where he draws on the weird fiction tradition rather than the ghost story, and weird fiction has never really achieved wide appeal. As I often mention, I love the pulps and Hodgson is pretty pulpy. If you don’t share that love, you might find this collection less enjoyable. If you only read one, The Gateway of the Monster is probably as good as any to see if he’s to your taste.