The Writer on the Borderland 1.5: Carnacki and More

The talented ones, the believers and the dreamers are gone. John Silence, insane until the end. Aylmer Vance, a gentler soul – we buried what little we found. Thomas Carnacki, never seen again after that night at Roulston Scar. They risked their lives on a battery and a gun, or wielded half-truths and psychology against the dark. They lost, and their time is over.

Yet I am still here. I squat by a burning oil-drum in the wastelands of the estuary, and I look at the shadows as they play across John Canoe’s smooth black skin, at the gris-gris in his hands. He smiles, because he knows me, and what I am.

I am Henry Dodgson, the Last Edwardian.

john linwood grant

We continue our William Hope Hodgson festival with our last chunk focussing on his character Carnacki the Ghostfinder. WHH did write a lot of other good stuff, after all!

I mentioned in our last post that there were nine Carnacki stories in total. Only six stories were actually published in his lifetime. A seventh was submitted by his wife and published in 1929, eleven years after his death, while the eight and ninth were published by August Derleth in 1947. Four of the stories (1, 2, 3 and 5 below) were later combined by WHH to form a single tale which was to be issued as a pamphlet with an accompanying poem. This abbreviated version can be found in Sam Moskowitz’s collection The Haunted Pampero (1991).

Descriptions have been kept to a minimum. As you know, some of the stories have a less than supernatural explanation, but I’m not saying which…

1) The Gateway of the Monster (1910) The Idler
Carnacki is asked to look into a presence troubling an old house, where the Grey Room is subject to violent disturbances, with slamming doors and bedsheets torn away in the dark of night.

2) The House Among the Laurels (1910) The Idler
The derelict Gannington Manor in Ireland is reputed to be haunted, with two men found dead in there. Carnacki gathers locals and police to support his investigation of what is happening.

3) The Whistling Room (1910) The Idler
A personal favourite because of the rather nice imagery. A disturbing whistling sound troubles an Irish castle. Is this a real psychic presence or the work of disgruntled locals? Also my introduction to the word ‘hooning’, which I love.

4) The Searcher of the End House (1910) The Idler
Carnacki recalls an investigation from his past, when he looked into late night knocking, door slamming and stagnant smells at his mother’s house, a place which had a peculiar history of its own.

5) The Horse of the Invisible (1910) The Idler
The Hisgins family of Lancashire have a legend that any first-born daughter will be attacked by a ghostly horse if she begins courting. When the only first-born daughter in seven generations finds her fiancee assaulted, they fear that worse is to come and ask for Carnacki’s help.

6) The Thing Invisible (1912) The New Magazine
When the chapel attached to an old mansion in Kent appears to be haunted by a murderous dagger, the owner’s son calls Carnacki in to solve the mystery.

7) The Haunted Jarvee (1929) The Premier Magazine
Carnacki’s friend Captain Thompson invites him to sail on his ship, but there are rumours that the Jarvee is not a normal vessel. Mysterious shadows seem to converge on the ship, and there are fears that both ship and crew may be lost.

8) The Find (1947) Carnacki the Ghost Finder
The slightest of the nine stories. A book forgery which seems impossible has to be investigated.

9) The Hog (1947) Weird Tales
Perhaps the most disturbing Carnacki story. The Ghost Finder is faced with a client who has terrible nightmares and is seemingly being assailed by a powerful psychic force. New methods must be employed to deal with this terror.

There were no further Carnacki stories from Hodgson, but we will have more on those writers who have resurrected the Ghost Finder (in various forms) later in the month.

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Our brief visual interlude is due to two recent greydogtales discoveries. The first is an artist with whom I’ve been in contact recently, one Sebastian Cabrol. Some of you will have noticed that the initial WHH covers gallery is now up and running (if you haven’t, it’s a drop-down under October Horror on the top menu). Sebastian has recently completed a cover and interior illustrations for a Spanish WHH reprint, and also produced the cover for a Spanish edition of The Night Land, published by Hermida Editores.

Hermida Editores; artist Cabrol
Hermida Editores; artist Cabrol

I loved the artwork (cover reproduced above), and also found much to admire on Sebastian’s website, which can be checked out here:

Cabrol Art

The second is La Brigade Chimerique, a French graphic series from 2009. I am forced to confess that when browsing past the title previously, I had made the stupid assumption that it was a translated version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It’s not. Written by Serge Lehman and Fabrice Colin, drawn by Gess and colored by Céline Bessonneau, it’s set in 1939 (I think) and includes characters from both history and fiction. Including one Thomas Carnacki.

chimerique

I’m hoping to find out more before the end of the WHH blog-fest.

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Now, back to Carnacki the Ghost Finder, and a note on why Tales of the Last Edwardian came into being.

I don’t generally write stories about Carnacki myself. There are others who have taken this path, and have done, or are still doing, a fine job of it (William Hope Hodgson: The Inheritors will cover this aspect). And I would rather sit back and read those than try my own hand at it. I have done the odd pastiche, but mostly for pleasure. My interest is slightly different.

Some twenty or more years ago, I was re-reading Carnacki, and for some reason (probably pale ale as usual) I found myself focussing not on the man himself but on those who turned up to listen to him – Dodgson, Taylor, Arkright and Jessop. I saw Cheyne Walk, and the flat where they dined, where they sat down to hear his latest case, and I wondered what the heck was going on.

Who were these four men who put up with brusque summons and a host who laid out rules for his dinner evenings? Why did they turn up, and what did they do when they weren’t waiting for a card from the occult detective? They must have had lives of their own, jobs, even, God forbid, emotional attachments. Was there a Mrs Taylor somewhere who gave Taylor’s dinner to the cat after being informed, without notice, that it was a ‘Carnacki night’?

I began to flesh out the four of them in my mind, trying to find even the vaguest clues in the stories. Having strolled around examining the older cemeteries of Keighley a few days before, I conceived a folly. What were Dodgson, Taylor, Arkright and Jessop without Carnacki? If he died on a case or disappeared in mysterious circumstances, what would happen? Keighley settled me on death. Carnacki was dead, and there would be a funeral.

Although the roots of some stories go back to the Second Boer War, Tales of the Last Edwardian truly begins with the funeral of Thomas Merton Carnacki in a small graveyard in West Yorkshire. None of his four friends understands why they have had to come north, or who else they will meet when they arrive. In fact, it turns out that they knew a lot less about him than they thought…

I left Carnacki in his canon, out of respect for old WHH. Nothing I write alters his recorded cases or turns him into a transvestite werewolf, a re-incarnation of John Dee or anything interesting like that. I merely read between the lines, and move on from there. With added women, emotions and other real-life things.

And so there are twelve Tales of the Last Edwardian stories in existence at the moment, either in completed or draft form, some out in the wide world, some under one of the lurchers, probably. They cover a period from 1899 to now, and are bound together by their connection, tenuous or direct, to one man.

Henry Dodgson, narrator, is not dead. I know why, and it’s not what you think. Really, it’s not. Far too aware of the psychic and occult world, Dodgson continues, however reluctantly, to face those threats from the Outer Monstrosities, manifestations, astral vibrations and other sources which imperil the human soul. He survived the gas clouds across Europe, the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War and more. He is tired, yet he carries on…

He is the Last Edwardian

Please join us next time for The Voice of Horror, a feature on Wayne June and audio horror, with all sorts of snippets and goodies, including some I hadn’t heard myself until we started this condemned rollercoaster of William Hope Hodgson fun.

The Writer on the Borderland 1: Hodgson and Carnacki

Welcome, dear listeners, to our celebration of the works of William Hope Hodgson. A whole month of dark murmurings, meanderings and morbid musings, brought to you by a range of authors and enthusiasts. And me, but you can skip those parts if you want.

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It must be over forty years, dear listener, since I, the celebrated author and longdog wrangler J Linseed Grant, became an avid fan of William Hope Hodgson. How time flies when your bones are crumbling! And how did this come about, you ask?

It was Carnacki what done it, as you might have guessed. Of course, I did move on to Hodgson’s other short stories and his novels not long after, and with great enthusiasm, but I always came back to the Ghost Finder. And that’s why I’ve chosen to begin with the occult detective himself.

In this introductory post I’ll say a little about why Carnacki inspired me, and the erudite Tim Prasil will set the literary context for Hodgson’s renowned occult detective. But let us address first the monstrous slime-encrusted elephant in the room…

The Carnacki short stories are not Hodgson’s most accomplished works. There, I’ve said it. There are nine of them, and they contain neither his finest writing nor his finest characterisation. H P Lovecraft was quite fulsom in his praise of Hodgson, yet found these stories inferior to his other work.

“We here find a more or less conventional stock figure of the “infallible detective” type – the progeny of M. Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, and the close kin of Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence.” Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927, revised up to 1935)

Heresy must out. Dear HPL was mistaken, not in his general views but in his assessment of the character himself. I loved Carnacki because he wasn’t Holmes or Silence, and that is his strength.

Thomas Carnacki, as an occult detective, was not one who claimed mastery in psychological and parapsychological disciplines, or in his procedural skills. He hadn’t been tutored in the mystic east, nor was he overly ‘sensitive’ in ways which were ascribed to others of the time. He was a moderately intelligent man who had read a lot of fragments and monographs, slogged it out in the field, and constructed a working theory (and some working equipment) on that basis. He put his time in, rarely made claims to superiority and got quite spooked by it all.

Compare these two extracts to see what I mean. The first is Dr John Silence, sitting in a haunted room in A Psychical Invasion by Algernon Blackwood (1908):

For this spiritual alchemy he had learned. He understood that force ultimately is everywhere one and the same; it is the motive behind that makes it good or evil; and his motive was entirely unselfish. He knew—provided he was not first robbed of self-control—how vicariously to absorb these evil radiations into himself and change them magically into his own good purposes. And, since his motive was pure and his soul fearless, they could not work him harm.

Measured and self-confident, eh? Now Thomas Carnacki, also sitting in a haunted room in The Gateway of the Monster by WHH (1910):

“I knelt again in the centre of the pentacles, watching myself with more fear, almost, than the monster; for I knew now that, unless I guarded myself from every sudden impulse that came to me, I might simply work my own destruction. Do you see how horrible it all was?

“I spent the rest of the night in a haze of sick fright, and so tense that I could not make a single movement naturally. I was in such fear that any desire for action that came to me might be prompted by the Influence that I knew was at work on me.”

This is an entirely different kettle of spaniels. Carnacki isn’t pure or fearless, he’s close to needing a clean pair of pants.  Gateway again:

“I was on my knees, and I jerked back, falling on to my left hand and hip, in a wild endeavour to get back from the advancing thing. With my right hand I was grabbing madly for my revolver, which I had let slip… I believe I yelled.”

That’s the kind of occult detective that I can get my head round. A human being, not a psychological or intellectual genius. When asked what the hell is going on, he doesn’t make up guff about having worked it all out halfway through the case. He admits puzzlement and doubt. He tells his friends how scared he was, and how much he wanted to get out of there. He runs away, when prudence demands it. Yes, he could be a little pompous occasionally, as in the ritualistic way he summoned and dismissed his friends (an aspect I explore in my uncirculated story Grey Dog), but on the whole he is more human than most of his contemporary occult detectives.

Another strong-point is the way in which Carnacki embraces new technology. The battery powered pentacle is entirely his own invention; the camera and the revolver were his other main armaments. He set up phonographic recording devices, tell-tale wires and measured everything for inconsistencies, often without useful result.

This workaday approach is part of his attraction. Carnacki never sweeps into a room wielding his intellect and says “As I deduced. The ghost is under the third armchair, you have obviously spent some time in New Guinea recently and your sister-in-law is having an affair with the coalman.” He photographs the furniture over a number of nights, asks where people have been, and then sets traps in case the coalman really is involved somehow…

I argue, therefore, that Carnacki the man deserves a place in our hearts. You can follow and enjoy his organised investigations, or you can revel in the variety and imagery of what he encounters. And some of the imagery, such as in The Whistling Room and The Hog, is pretty damn scary. Even Lovecraft gave grudging praise occasionally:

“A few of the episodes, however, are of undeniable power.” (Supernatural Horror in Literature again)

More of Lovecraft’s views on Hodgson later in the month, but I get the last word on the Carnacki stories for this segment.

They’re damned good fun, with some serious thrills.

On to a different aspect of the Carnacki stories. I recently heard from a friend who had picked them up without foreknowledge. He had been surprised to find that you could never be sure at the start of a Ghost Finder tale – was it really supernatural, or would it turn out to have a mundane explanation? This is another pleasure of first reading the stories, so we turn to Tim Prasil.

Tim is a man who spends a frightening amount of time tracking down and dissecting period occult detectives. Which should be worth a piece of fiction in its own right. The flayed skin of Flaxman Low would make a nice hearth-rug, for example. Tim explores the blending of supernatural and mystery in the fiction of the era, and puts Carnacki in his ‘place’ far more eloquently than I. Enjoy.

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As I look at the historical position of William Hope Hodgson’s character Thomas Carnacki in my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives, what springs to my mind is a debate that was growing in the first decades of the twentieth century. It was growing among writers of mystery fiction and addressed whether or not supernatural elements should be brought into their work.

Now, back in the 1840s, Edgar Allan Poe himself had his founding detective C. Auguste Dupin take a stand against turning to supernatural explanations in The Murders of the Rue Morgue, and the stance is echoed in its sequel The Mystery of Marie Rogêt. However, as my Bibliography suggests, there were plenty of authors eager to explore the possibilities of crossing the mystery genre with supernatural fiction. Sometimes, a regretful or wronged spirit returns to seek restitution from someone still living, and that someone must do a good deal of detective work to set things right. Sometimes, the detective figure must battle a criminal who turns out to have powers beyond the limits of science and nature. Sometimes, the detective is the one with special powers—usually, some form of divination—upon which to build a case in apprehending a villain.

Authors had tinkered with and twisted the possibilities of a mystery/supernatural cross-genre for almost a century before 1910, the year Thomas Carnacki debuted in a London-based magazine called The Idler. (That same year, H.M. Egbert’s occult detective Dr. Ivan Brodski appeared in a newspaper series across the U.S., and C. Ashton Smith introduced yet another supernatural sleuth in The Ghost of Mohammed Din, first printed in Overland Monthly, a magazine published in San Francisco.) Of course, skeptical detective characters like Sherlock “No ghosts need apply” Holmes routinely found perfectly natural solutions to crimes—even those that appeared to involve, say, ancient hellhounds going around and killing perfectly pleasant members of the Baskerville family. Mundane detectives certainly overshadowed their occult cousins throughout the history of the mystery.

Nonetheless, the success of Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence, Physician Extraordinary in 1908, followed quickly by Hodgson’s contribution to the cross-genre, seems to have worried some who wanted to keep mystery fiction a neat and narrow affair. In 1907, Julian Hawthorne introduced the six-volume Library of the World’s Best Detective and Mystery Stories by saying that resorting to the supernatural to explain a mystery is a cheat. Otherworldly elements are permissible if a mystery writer announces them upfront, but even so, Hawthorne “would as lief have ghosts left out altogether; their stories make a very good library in themselves, and have no need to tag themselves on to what is really another department of fiction.”

A decade later, prolific mystery writer Carolyn Wells would insist, “I have no patience with the occult, the psychic, the spiritualistic in detective stories.” Segregating the supernatural from crime detection was next formalized into rules. In 1928, S.S. Van Dine wrote Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Fiction. Number 8 makes the matter clear: “The problem of the crime must be solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic séances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo.”.  A year later, the Right Reverend Monsignor Ronald Knox pared the rules down to only ten commandments for writing a mystery. One need only go to the second rule to read: “All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.”

Interestingly, many would say that these same decades were the heyday of the occult detective. Semi Dual, Moris Klaw, Aylmer Vance, Simon Iff, Shiela Crerar, and many more were solving mysteries that either involved the violation of criminal laws—or the violation of natural laws—in imaginative realities that extended to the supernatural. One such character, Dr. Payson Alden, even appeared in a 1916 movie serial.

Of course, Carnacki takes on both kinds of mystery, often confronting the supernatural but occasionally happening onto the merely mundane. This presents an interesting compromise in the debate over how far mystery fiction should reach. While some writers wanted the genre to confine itself to the physical—and others wanted to stretch beyond that point—Hodgson took a unique position with his Carnacki tales. In essence, he submits that, indeed, our world of mysteries does not end with the physical.

And yet that doesn’t mean that one should demand supernatural solutions all the time.

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Tim Prasil’s own occult detective, Vera Van Slyke, flourished within the time frame that he discusses above. Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries (1899-1909) is available in paperback or Kindle editions at Amazon. To learn more about the true history behind these mysteries, visit Prasil’s Vera Van Slyke – Ghostly Mysteries site. His author’s blog is called Tim Prasil – Inventor of Persons.

In the next post, I say something about why Carnacki caused Tales of the Last Edwardian to come about (the link on the right will take you to the series so far). A few days after that, we will have our second major section, The Voice of Horror, featuring the Narrator Supreme, Wayne June, and discussing the range and role of audio horror. With some audio clips from William Hope Hodgson’s and others’ work, if I ever figure out how to embed them here. You may just have to hum along to yourselves…

Blood in the Snow

Despite trying to get ready for the start of our William Hope Hodgson festival in a day or so, I’m also trying to support the October Frights blog-hop. This is, as best as I can understand it, a venture where a load of blogs with similar interests link up to each other and share the goodness (or as this one’s about paranormal and horror fiction, the weirdness, perhaps). There are many neat offerings – poetry and prose.

There are 49 blogs involved, loads of cracking authors, so give it a go. The links should be at the end of this post, but as my blog works on low-grade coal and steam, you never know what might happen.

Halloween Button w SKULL

I offer my short story called Montana,  a finished, stand-alone tale from a much longer unpublished draft. A slice of horror but not too bloodthirsty. Oh, and no, it’s nothing to do with werewolves, vampires, zombies or Edwardians…

April 2016 Note: As these revenant stories are now seeing print, this one’s gone off-line, at least for the moment. A Stranger Passing Through should be the first one published, and news will be added in due course.

 

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Writer(s) on the Borderland

greydogtales is pleased to announced the finalised schedule for this month-long celebration of William Hope Hodgson’s extraordinary fiction. A series of blog posts will be presented for your delectation, with contributions from authors and enthusiasts, along with a gallery of WHH covers and other sundries. We look forward to seeing you…

2 October – PART ONE: Hodgson and Carnacki
We commence with an introduction to WHH and an unapologetic nod to perhaps his best-known character, Carnacki the Ghost Finder. With comments by Tim Prasil, occult detective chronologist and author, and musings by John Linwood Grant on Carnacki and the Cheyne Walk origins of Tales of the Last Edwardian.

9 October – PART TWO: The Voice of Horror
In which we interview the talented Wayne June, covering his narration of WHH stories and some of his other excellent horror recordings. Includes honourable mentions of related creepy audio for those who like fear and anxiety to seep in through their ears.

16 October – PART THREE: Hodgson’s Legacy
In which we provide an unscientific examination of those authors writing stories influenced by WHH, lead by an interview with the prolific William Meikle. We also delve into David Langford’s ‘Dagon Smythe’ parodies, Chico Kidd & Rick Kennett’s 472 Cheyne Walk, and other works inspired by WHH.

19 October – PART THREE AGAIN: More Hodgson’s Legacy
In which we delight in a bibliography of Hodgson pastiches by James Bojaciuk, with more coverage of authors who have drawn inspiration from Hodgson’s work.

23 October – PART FOUR: Hodgson the Innovator
In which we praise his originality – his weird sea stories, The Night Land, The House on the Borderland and critics’ views. Features Hodgson scholar Sam Gafford on his noted involvement in the field, WHH’s publishing history and mention of others researching or promoting WHH.

30 October – PART FIVE: The Diskos is Sheathed
In which we switch off the electric pentacle and relax with a few closing comments, including a free creepy story from John Linwood Grant and a hearty thanks to all who have participated.

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Terre de Brume Edition, France

Note to the Curious Reader: Everything in the schedule above is, of course, subject to change, as this is unfortunately Reality and not a work of fiction. Damn you, Reality!

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Literature, lurchers and life