Watching the Detectives is a series of posts about drawing inspiration from fictitious paranormal investigators, occult detectives, police psychics, and monster hunters. The rest of the series can be found here.
Sometimes ghosts aren’t real and sometimes they’re just horses.
William Hope Hodgeson’s Thomas Carnacki made his first appearance in The Idler magazine all the way back in 1910. Though one of the better-remembered early occult detectives, his stories were not that well received upon initial publication. In fact, no less a luminary than H.P. Lovecraft commented that the Carnacki stories were some of William Hope Hodgeson’s poorest work and a pale imitation of Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence and Sheridan Le Fanu’s Martin Hesselius.
The problem may have been that Carnacki was just not what people expected… By 1910, Hodgeson had written the seminal horror novel The House on the Borderlands and walked away from a series of successful sea stories. How does one follow up on those kinds of successes? Well… if you’re William Hope Hodgeson you embark on a series of increasingly weird detective stories.
There was always a touch of the portal fantasy to the Carnacki stories. That vibe is established using the somewhat awkward framing device that brackets every story. Carnacki, we are told, lives on Cheyne walk in a period when the London borough of Chelsea was proving popular with artists and bohemians. We are first introduced to Carnacki through the figure of Dodgeson, a featureless member of Carnacki’s social circle. Charitable readers and literary historians may see in Dodgeson an echo of Holmes’ Watson but Watson actually went on Holmes’ adventures, served as an assistant, and witnessed events first hand while Dodgeson just turns up for dinner and relays the stories as they were told to him by Carnacki.
I was initially quite puzzled by this use of a framing device. Early genre writers would often claim that their narratives were real-life documents unearthed from old trunks and buried treasures as a way of making the events in the stories seem more real but I’m not sure that this is the effect that Hodgeson was going for.
I assumed that Dodgeson and friends were a kind of Chekov’s gun that would inevitably wind up getting fired when one of Carnacki’s horrors decided to follow him home. However, while there are only a handful of canonical Carnacki stories, Hodgeson did return to the series decades after its initial run suggesting that if Dodgeson were ever going to get pulled into one of Carnacki’s adventures it would probably have happened then.
A better way of understanding the presence of Dodgeson is to consider what he represents, namely lavish dinners eaten in the company of good friends at a comfortable home in a fashionable neighbourhood of the British capital. Under this interpretation, Hodgeson’s decision to anchor the Carnacki stories in the character’s home life serves two purposes:
Firstly, they serve to remind us of Carnacki’s social station: He is neither a knight errant nor a pest-controller but a gentleman adventurer who goes off to fight the Other and then returns home to dinner and cigars with old school chums.
Secondly, they give the stories an element of portal fantasy in so far as Carnacki is a figure who lives a comfortable upper middle-class existence in London only to then travel to another place in order to confront the Other. Under this interpretation, Dodgeson serves both as an audience stand-in and a means of providing a sense of normality that Carnacki escapes whenever he goes travelling to other places. While these other places are occasionally located in the Home Counties Hodgeson’s favoured location for Carnacki’s battles against the undead is Ireland. Thus the comfort of home and hearth are set against the violence and superstition that hold sway over the Imperial colonies. As in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the portal to Otherness is located somewhere near the Pool of London.
This being said, it would not be fair to view Carnacki as some kind of imperialist stooge. The fact that he chooses to live in a then-Bohemian neighbourhood like Chelsea speaks to Carnacki’s interstitial nature. Something that is also evident from the way that his expertise seems to straddle multiple traditions and magisteria:
First and foremost, Carnacki is a gentleman detective who knows how to interrogate witnesses and scrutinise a crime-scene for clues.
Secondly, Carnacki is imbued with the wisdom of the ancients in so far as he can draw on the knowledge contained in the Sigsand Manuscript as well as the Saaamaaa ritual with its various signs and its mysterious final line.
Thirdly, Carnacki is also a weird scientist in so far as his investigations often make us of such cutting-edge Edwardian technologies as photography and electricity in the form of his electrified pentacle. When Hodgeson returned to the character of Carnacki in the 1940s, he upgraded Carnacki’s arsenal through the addition of a series of rainbow-coloured tubes that slot into the electric pentacle allowing Carnacki to photograph the changes in colour and so detect sinister messages from beyond.
While I wouldn’t refer to Carnacki as a pulpy character, there’s something really fun and silly about the way these differing skillsets are allowed to interact and sit alongside each other on similar metaphysical footings, as though weird Tibetan rituals and photography are somehow equally real and fantastical.
The presence of these different technologies serves to blur genre boundaries in a way that makes the stories feel very modern. The ghosts and demons identify these stories as part of the horror genre, the weird science suggests SF, but the story structure screams golden age detective.
Indeed, one of the wonderful things about the Carnacki stories is that Hodgeson paid real attention to detail. When Arthur Conan Doyle hinted at the supernatural in the Holmes stories, he would often have the deception hinge on a mistake or a simple piece of trickery. When Hodgeson tricks the reader, he puts real effort into working out exactly how a trick would be carried out and how it might look in practice. This sense of rigour grounds the stories and makes them feel quite realistic even when they’re describing outlandish supernatural occurrences.
Another wonderful thing about the Carnacki stories is that while they all fit quite comfortably within the occult detective sub-genre, there are stories with no supernatural elements and some in which the supernatural elements turn out to be fraudulent. This serves to provide a useful baseline for what constitutes realism in the context of the stories.
Back when J.R.R. Tolkien was working on The Lord of the Rings, he would read out fresh passages to a group of his peers. One of these peers named Hugo Dyson reportedly responded to Tolkien’s reading with the immortal words “Oh fuck, not another elf”. While this anecdote is often read as being about someone rolling their eyes at a load of fantasy bullshit, another way of interpreting it is to recognise that different stories have different baselines for what is considered realistic in the world of the story. For example, if someone was reading you a Will Self novel and suddenly started talking about the long flaxen hair of an elf lord you would wonder what was going on. Conversely, right from the opening pages of The Lord of the Rings we know it to be taking place in a world filled with hobbits, dwarves, dragons, magic rings, and loads of fucking elves. Having elves turn up in The Lord of the Rings feels no more special or spectacular than having a bloke from Kent turn up in a story set near Brighton. Like…Yeah dude… he just drove down the A22 to get here. No big deal.
By writing a couple of stories in which the supernatural element turns out to have a mundane explanation, Hodgeson is setting the Carnacki baseline far closer to our world than that of The Lord of the Rings or The House on the Borderlands. This means that when the supernatural does turn out to be supernatural, we are surprised and entranced. When the supernatural turns out to be really really supernatural, we are horrified.
This willingness to keep his readers guessing also extends to the ghosts and monsters themselves, which never follow rules or fall into anything approaching an identifiable type There are no type 2 full-torso apparitions here… one story has a ghost, another has a room that whistles, another has a full-grown horse, and another has a weird extra-dimensional pig. These monsters aren’t just weird; they are intoxicatingly weird in a way that destabilises readers whose expectations have been rooted in something resembling the real world.
While I did not start this series by writing about Carnacki, Carnacki was definitely at the forefront of my mind when I came up with the format: Though there are only a handful of Carnacki stories every single one of them is a delight and offers something to inspire an evening’s roleplaying:
Maybe it’s the way that Hodgeson runs science and mysticism together as though they were two sides of the same coin…
Maybe it’s the absolute rigour with which Hodgeson develops his plots and how much richer his worlds feel as a result…
Maybe it’s the way that the ghosts are incredibly weird right up until the moment where they turn out not to be ghosts at all…
William Hope Hodgeson has a lot to teach gamers about the narrative power of realism and how keeping your stories rooted in the real world makes your flights of fantasy feel more powerful.