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Mobile Holmes and Imperial Weird: Strange Tales of Empire

Welcome, dear listener. Sherlock Holmes again, the shadows of the British Empire, new magazines and general chaos. We’ll have to call this one a midweek medley. And we need to investigate Django’s bald spot anyway, so our Edwardian Arcane series will have to wait a day or two. The daft little donkey has developed one of those patches on his tail which may be a sebaceous gland problem, a flea allergy, or mites, and as he will keep chewing at it, no doubt the vet will have an extra holiday this year.

hot dog day
hot dog day

So while we employ hibiscrub and a medicated shampoo, we’ll update you on that other stuff…

Strange Empire

A map of the world, showing the British Empire coloured in red at the end of the nineteenth century. Date: late 19th century
A map of the world, showing the British Empire coloured in red at the end of the nineteenth century. Date: late 19th century

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Carnacki: The Second Great Detective

Here’s a thought. Astonishingly, there are more stories written in homage to Carnacki the Ghost Finder than there are of any Victorian or Edwardian detective save Sherlock Holmes. That’s not just occult detectives, that’s all of them, from the amateur investigator to the perspicacious policeman. He may be a niche interest to some, but he’s an impressive one. His creator William Hope Hodgson would probably be shocked, and H P Lovecraft a little puzzled (he wasn’t fond of Carnacki).

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copyright m s corley 2016

There were rumours of C Auguste Dupin (from Edgar Allan Poe) in the side-wings, but as you’ll see below, I think we can show that Carnacki has the distinct edge over any other detective of the period. We’re discounting multi-authored characters such as Sexton Blake or Nick Carter. Sexton Blake first appeared in 1893, and was a ‘house’ character written by dozens of people (including even the SF author Michael Moorcock, later on) for various magazines.

Nick Carter, first appearing in 1886, was the same, a ‘house’ character with at least a dozen authors, though this series does bear the distinction of being one of the first of its kind to have one or two female authors contributing over the years.

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Last October we had a month-long celebration of William Hope Hodgson, in which we ran a series called The Inheritors, covering writers who had taken his themes or characters and written new, related fiction. Today we’re concentrating only on the Ghost Finder and those who follow in his footsteps. You’ll find some cracking stuff below, if you haven’t already been there before us.

inheritors

We’ve argued elsewhere why Carnacki might be so popular, so here we’re only going to do a head-count. But given that we’ve pitted Carnacki against Holmes, it may be worth reminding ourselves of their approaches, which must be part of the attraction. Both Great Detectives believed in:

  • Looking for logical, realistic explanations for unusual or unlikely events
  • Utilising the latest scientific methods when pursuing a case
  • Drawing on a collection of monographs and papers for key aspects of their work

As to their views on investigation and the supernatural:

“I am what I might term an unprejudiced sceptic. I am not given to either believing or disbelieving things ‘on principle,’ as I have found many idiots prone to be, and what is more, some of them not ashamed to boast of the insane fact. I view all reported ‘hauntings’ as unproven until I have examined into them, and I am bound to admit that ninety-nine cases out of a hundred turn out to be sheer bosh and fancy. But the hundredth! Well, were it not for the hundredth, I should have few stories to tell – eh?”

Thomas Carnacki, The Thing Invisible

“If Dr. Mortimer’s surmise should be correct, and we are dealing with forces outside the ordinary laws of Nature, there is an end of our investigation. But we are bound to exhaust all other hypotheses before falling back upon this one.”

Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles

Holmes does not state that such things cannot be (although he debunks much superstition as nonsense in other stories). He says that it is outside of his concept of scientific deduction. The crucial difference, of course, is that Carnacki believed that you could apply deduction to a situation where ‘forces outside the ordinary laws of Nature’ were at work. He categorised and studied what he called ab-natural phenomena, and investigated them, when they were genuinely present, with the same keen eye. Holmes Plus, as it were.

(You can find more reflections on Holmes issues and pastiches in this posts: shades of sherlock holmes )

There are stories written since which include both characters. In Kim Newman’s short stories about the Diogenes Club, from the Holmes stories, it is mentioned that Carnacki was a member of the Diogenes Club as a special occult investigator; when he retired, his position was taken by Newman’s character Richard Jeperson. Carnacki is also mentioned as having investigated several cases alongside Sherlock Holmes.

Barbara Hambly and A F (Chico) Kidd have both written stories which feature Carnacki aiding Sherlock Holmes in occult investigations (The Adventure of the Antiquarian’s Niece and The Grantchester Grimoire respectively, whilst Spanish author Alberto López Aroca wrote the short story Algunos derivados del alquitrán (Some Coal-tar Derivatives) which apparently featured Carnacki visiting a retired Sherlock Holmes in Fulworth.

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Sherlock Holmes: The Breath of God (2011) is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche novel by Guy Adams which concerns a mystery involving the supernatural deaths of people. In the course of his investigation, Holmes meets Aleister Crowley and Thomas Carnacki.

But back to the main Inheritors. Since we last brushed on this, the number of stories has grown yet again, and so we’ll freshen our ab-natural glasses. We won’t mention comic book or graphic novels appearances today, except to remind you that we recently featured M S Corley, who is producing a new illustrated series specifically about Carnacki, with some spectacularly stylish artwork. More about that when it’s available (you do, however, have a chance to get an M S Corley mini-poster if you support the Kickstarter for Occult Detective Quarterly  – see end of article).

Let’s see if we can do some number-crunching. We’ll have to re-mention people we’ve covered over the year, but we’ve added latest tallies and publications.


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The most prolific author is Willie Meikle, who has now written nearly forty stories of Carnacki, with more on the way. Willie says of this work:

“Carnacki resonated with me immediately on my first reading many years ago. Several of the stories have a Lovecraftian viewpoint, with cosmic entities that have no regard for the doings of mankind. The background Hodgson proposes fits with some of my own viewpoint on the ways the Universe might function, and the slightly formal Edwardian language seems to be a “voice” I fall into naturally. I write them because of love, pure and simple.”

We’ve featured Willie before, but you can now find a full list of his Carnacki stories here:

william meikle: carnacki and me

His latest collection, Carnacki: The Watcher at the Gate, has just been released in e-book format.

carnacki: the watcher at the gate

BALLPARK TOTAL: 40

joshstitch

Joshua M Reynolds is the other most prolific writer in this area, having started with Carnacki and taken the concept further with his tales of Charles St. Cyprian, The Royal Occultist, who is Carnacki’s successor in that role. Josh has produced, so far:

  • Several pure Carnacki stories
  • Three tales of Carnacki and St Cyprian
  • A host of stories going through 1919 to 1925, revolving around St Cyprian and his ‘assistant’ Ebe Gallowglass

“I first came across Hodgson in an anthology called Grisly, Grim and Gruesome. The story was “The Horse of the Invisible”, which is still perhaps my favourite Hodgson story – Hodgson’s descriptions of the sounds the eponymous phantom makes still creep me out a bit, even today. Even then, I was drawn to the idea of someone investigating a haunting as if it were a mystery. I credit that story with sparking my love of not just Hodgson, but occult detective fiction as a whole, really.”

Joshua’ latest full-length Royal Occultist novel is The Infernal Express.

the infernal express

You can find a fairly exhaustive and useful list of Royal Occultist adventures, including Carnacki’s direct appearance, here:

royal occultist chronology

BALLPARK TOTAL: 45

brandonstitch

Brandon Barrows wrote The Castle-Town Tragedy last year, three novellas covering new exploits of Carnacki (illustrated by the terrific Dave Felton), and has further Carnacki stories in the pipeline. We recently asked Brandon what his Ghost Finder roots were:

“One of the reasons I wanted to write Carnacki was that, while he’s very much steeped in the occult, he was first and foremost a man of science. He went in wanting to DISBELIEVE and only allowed himself to consider the supernatural when all other options were pushed aside. So many classic occult-detectives seem like little more than vehicles to get to whatever neat demon or ghost the writer has thought up, but with Carnacki, WHH brought an element of real detective work into the mix that I’ve always found immensely satisfying.”

Castle-Town is a great read, available as a limited edition first run at the moment, but we hear that it may also be available in e-book next year, along with a possible trade-paperback.

the castle-town tragedy

BALLPARK TOTAL: 5

Chico Kidd and Rick Kennett have separately or in collaboration written more than a dozen Ghost Finder tales, the bulk of which are collected in No. 472 Cheyne Walk.

no. 472 cheyne walk

BALLPARK TOTAL: 15

grantstitch

John Linwood Grant, late as always, has written a number of Carnacki stories, and is in process of writing and getting published a rather larger number of his Tales of the Last Edwardian stories, which concern the activities (and fates) of the four men who listened to the Ghost Finder’s own recounting of his investigations all those years ago at Cheyne Walk.

a study in grey

BALLPARK TOTAL: 10

So from six authors alone, we have some 115 stories related to Carnacki. That’s not counting further works in the pipe-line, the Holmes/Carnacki crossovers mentioned at the start, or those writers who have written individual Carnacki stories for other anthologies. If we add Carnacki: The New Adventures, and Carnacki: The Lost Cases, anthologies edited and published by Sam Gafford, we have maybe another 25 entries by numerous authors.

samstitch

And we could add in David Langford’s excellent Carnacki parodies, with his character Dagon Smythe, for another 5.

We’re talking 150 or more stories which are either specifically Carnacki in action, or which continue his work in the early part of last century and reference him regularly. Given that the larger part of these were written a century after Hope Hodgson penned his original stories, we think we proved that The Second Great Detective deserves a certain amount of recognition.


It would be foolish not to point out that some of the above authors will be appearing in the forthcoming Occult Detective Quarterly – advertising rarely hurts – and that there may even be a story or two relevant to this article.

odqillo5occult detective quarterly kickstarter

If you support the Kickstarter, not only will you be in at the start with generous subscription offers, but there are some excellent rewards available, including an M S Corley mini-poster and FREE e-books from 18thWall Publications (see Kickstarter Updates), who have published both Joshua M Reynolds and the tragic John Linwood Grant.

Pledge now, and get happy…

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More Shades of Sherlock Holmes

So, dear listener, we escape occult detectives only to find that we haven’t, not quite. We thought we’d have a look at the Sherlock Holmes themed issue of Mystery Weekly, share a 1904 parody by P G Wodehouse and mention more Conan Doyle trivia than you could possibly want, but in the process we found that one of the Mystery Weekly Holmes stories is itself an occult detective tale. There is a joyous doom upon us, we fear (see also our earlier article on pastiches – shades of sherlock holmes  ).

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Shades of Sherlock Holmes: Pastiche, Paranormal or Piffle?

In which we consider the Holmes pastiche, for better or for worse…

Holmes forced more of the vile Turkish tobacco into his pipe, wincing as he realised that yet again he was smoking the damnable stuff in order to keep up appearances.

“Despite the fact that you are secretly my half-brother, Watson, and that you were never in the Army, I have tolerated our acquaintance. However, your medical certificate (Failed) from Goa Community College is fooling no-one, and your relationship with ‘Mary’ is an embarrassment.”

I nodded, perhaps relieved that all was being exposed at last.

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“And as for you, Lestrade,” the great man continued, “It is clear that you are a Nigerian prince only working within the British police force in order to transfer surprising amounts of money from bank accounts in your homeland. The talcum powder and gum arabic disguise is obvious to even the butcher’s boy – who is, by the way, a midget in the employ of some Oriental genius.”

Lestrade looked at me and sighed, wiping a sweaty hand across his face to reveal a swathe of his true colouration.

Holmes smiled.

“I am, however, a man who relies on empathy and wild hunches, as you know, so tedious deductive reasoning has no place here. I welcome you both as comrades, and am eager to continue our investigations into the supernatural. Carnacki and Silence be damned – let us surge forth and grapple with ectoplasm in our own right.”

He threw his pipe out of the window.

“Mrs Hudson – prepare the submersible. We are bound for Arkham and colonial madness!”

Hello there. Today we’re having an introductory look at the world of the Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and considering what that term actually means. There are two reasons for doing this, apart from idle entertainment. The first is that I write Holmes stories, and often mull over the whys and wherefores of doing such a thing, so why not do it here? The second is that I do like weird stories as well, and Holmes is increasingly being used as a character in weird and supernatural fiction.

Holmes pastiches (artistic works in a style that imitate that of another work, artist, or period) aren’t at all new. For example, J M Barrie of Peter Pan fame wrote a pastiche in 1893, The Late Sherlock Holmes, and in 1913 an anonymous author wrote a Holmes novel, Sherlock Holmes saving Mr. Venizelos, concerning a Greek politician threatened with assassination at a 1912 conference in London.

But we’re here to look at the nature of pastiches , not to repeat lists which others have more ably researched and compiled. Personally, I’m a great enthusiast of accurate, canonical Holmes stories. To some extent those tales fit comfortably with my non-supernatural Edwardian tales of mystery and murder, such as A Loss of Angels.

SH-casebook-sherlock-holmes-doyle

The canon, the authentic body of work by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is important, because it offers an unprecedented single time-line for a major fictional character and his associates (we’re talking novels and short stories here, by the way. The world of comics, TV and film adaptations is too large to dare contemplating today).

I do like reading and writing Holmes stories which could have happened within that time-line, and within the framework of historical circumstances, characteristics and abilities laid out by Conan Doyle. This allows for a number of enjoyable challenges, such as:

  • Exploring cases mentioned within the canon but never delineated by Conan Doyle;
  • Inserting cases within those periods of Holmes’ active investigative career where there is nothing currently documented (and Holmes seems to have investigated more than one case at a time on occasion);
  • Extending the time-line for the detective before and after Baker Street, even into the period during and after the Great War;
  • Re-interpreting cases and events to consider alternative explanations which are still fully plausible within the canon and historical reality;
  • Expanding secondary characters such as Mrs Hudson, Lestrade, Moran etc. and depicting episodes which relate to their lives but again stay within the framework;
  • Spending more time on character qualities – flaws, addictions, attitudes, tics and curiosities – without directly challenging Conan Doyle’s basics (this one can drag you out of the canon, so beware).

David Marcum, an experienced writer, editor and scholar in this area, has devoted a lot of time to an extensive chronology of stories which fall within the canon.

mx-part-i

He edits the very successful MX Books of New Sherlock Holmes Stories, and expressed some of his own views (and commented on the BBC TV version) in an interview on the website I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere last year:

the tangled skeins of sherlock holmes

Of course, if you disapprove of even canonical pastiches, there are still genuine period detectives and investigative mysteries a-plenty. Try The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (ed. Nick Rennison, 2013), or Shadows of Sherlock Holmes (ed. David Stuart Davies, 1998).

shadows-of-sherlock-holmes-wordsworth-classics-1-500x500

But back to our ramble. Where does this leave the deliberately non-canonical writer? How heretical might he or she be? Discounting the irreverent nature of our opening passage, there are a number of approaches which occasionally yield a good yarn. The most important question is whether or not to keep Holmes (and/or Watson), fully within character and within their range of abilities as described by Conan Doyle.

If you’re not going to stay anywhere near the originals, then it begs the question as to why you’re doing it. One obvious answer is The Brand – the name sells. Stick ‘Sherlock Holmes’ on a story and you have a few people automatically interested. But that’s a bit cheap. I’m tempted to say that you should cut loose at that point and write your own, individual period consulting detective with a proper name, background and set of characteristics. Why half-Holmes it when you’ve gone that far? Be original.

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And what might you bear in mind if you write tales which are non-canonical but still contain a distinct Holmes? I’ve nothing against complete spoofs, which can be amusing. However, if you want to retain the Holmesian connection with any dignity, then some thought is needed (for those who take Holmes very seriously, please don’t jump on the messenger. This already happens and there’s inevitably more to come, so the stable door is no longer relevant).

Broadly, you end up with a range of options which include:

  • Sherlock dislocated – keeping the canonical figures in Victorian/Edwardian settings with the same abilities and resources but written as steampunk, explicit horror, Lovecraftian horror or alternative history stories;
  • Sherlock transported – taking Holmes and other characters completely out of their natural setting and re-employing them in chronological or geographical settings which would be quite unfeasible within the original body of work;
  • Sherlock evolved – applying Holmes to fringe period scenarios, such as psychic, supernatural, political or technological mysteries which might eventually require Holmes to change some of his views and approaches;
  • Sherlock reconfigured – altering one major aspect of the character or abilities but retaining the bulk of the canon. A hard one, because it automatically makes serious Holmesians wince, and it takes us back to the question ‘Why not invent your own detective instead?’

If you want to look at different approaches, then you could peruse books like The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (ed. John Joseph Adams, 2009), an anthology where notable authors explore mysterious and sometimes quite fantastical alternatives to the canon.

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Combining a recognisable Holmes and the weird or supernatural is one of the most popular routes. An introduction to this area is the anthology Shadows over Baker Street (2003), edited by Michael Reeves and John Pelan. It’s a mixed bag of stories from eighteen different authors which nevertheless has some very enjoyable moments. The Gaslight Arcanum (ed. Jeff Campbell and Charles Prepolec, 2011) is another more recent collection of uncanny tales.

By the way, Holmes’ most quoted comment on the supernatural is not quite as definite as some think. In The Hound of the Baskervilles he merely refers to his belief that normal investigative techniques and logical deduction would be of no use in supernatural cases.

“If Dr. Mortimer’s surmise should be correct, and we are dealing with forces outside the ordinary laws of Nature, there is an end of our investigation. But we are bound to exhaust all other hypotheses before falling back upon this one.”

Giving in to temptation last year, I ended up with a curious compromise, and wrote a novella, A Study in Grey, which was historically accurate and included a canonical Holmes (nothing changed at all), but also contained a separate plot strand concerning genuine psychic issues. The intent, and possibly the result, was to leave the Great Detective unchallenged but allow the reader to experience that little bit more.

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Others too numerous to name have gone further, some of them excellent authors in their own right. William Meikle, a master of the supernatural adventure tale who also contributed to The Gaslight Arcanum, has had the confidence to take a strong, recognisable Holmes and place him in weirder situations than Conan Doyle envisaged (as in Sherlock Holmes: Revenant, 2013), with more to come. Neil Gaiman himself produced one of the best known ‘weird Holmes pastiches’ in his story A Study in Emerald, which is in Shadows over Baker Street, also mentioned above.

Last Minute Addendum: We should also point out that Willie Meikle is ambidextrous in his Holmesian fiction – he has also written several canonical tales, in THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF SHERLOCK HOLMES ABROAD, THE ASSOCIATES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, and the forthcoming SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SCHOOL FOR DETECTION.

I make no value judgements. As writers and readers we can choose pastiches which are canon or non-canon. We can even have both, if we’re wild enough.

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If you prefer your Holmes straight, but still like detectives who investigate strange and supernatural mysteries, then the brand new Occult Detective Quarterly is launching this Autumn. See top right for more details.


And we’re done for today. Back in two or three days with something which will be entirely different, and don’t forget that you can sign up for free (top left) to be kept in the greydogtales loop…

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