WTD: John Silence

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.

As I mentioned in my review of T. Kingfisher’s The Hollow Ones, I have views on Algernon Blackwood. The views in question revolve around the fact that Blackwood’s strength lies in his movement from town to country or, to be more specific, from urban home to foreign exoticism. In this respect, Blackwood is an interesting counterpoint to Lovecraft as while Lovecraft seemed to be suspicious of everyone and everywhere outside of Providence, New England, Blackwood’s fiction embodies a more nuanced attitude. On the one hand, a lot of Blackwood’s most memorable stories revolve around a doughy English person going on a foreign holiday and losing their mind when confronted with the awe-inspiring vastness of nature, that sense of fear is always marbled with feelings of joy and exaltation. One reason for Blackwood being more readily associated with the Weird than conventional horror is that a lot of his stories are about the sublime rather than the horrifying.

Given that I have these views on Blackwood and that these views have only grown stronger the more I have read of his stories that aren’t based on the sublime power of nature, I was intrigued to see how I would respond to Blackwood’s paranormal detective stories. Thankfully, the John Silence stories have been collected and re-printed fairly recently and can be found in a variety of formats including audiobook. So if you are interested in seeing what one of the giants of Weird fiction was able to do with ghost-breaking stories then you shouldn’t have much trouble tracking them down.

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WTD: David Ash

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.

The further we advance into the 21st Century, the shorter our memories become. Social media platforms run on engagement and engagement demands content. This perpetual demand for greater and greater amounts of content has resulted in hype cycles that last days, trends that burn out after a couple of weeks, and identities that collapse after a few months: Blink and you’ll miss a punk-pop revival or a 90s fashion flashback.

We live in an age of ever-accelerating cultural churn. A churn designed to produce cultural moments that matter intensely right up until the second they are dropped and everyone moves on. Back in October, saying that the trailers for Marvel’s Eternals looked terrible would get you denounced in the worst terms imaginable and then everyone just stopped caring and moved on to the next vale of tears.

This sense of perpetual acceleration can make it intensely strange to look back at older cultural products. Some IP is forever green because people have devoted billions to ensure it stays that way but move beyond the narrow range of intellectual property supported by 21st Century capitalism and you start stumbling across stuff that feels like it might have fallen through the cracks from another universe.

For example, James Herbert began his writing career in the 1970s and went on to sell 54 Million books in dozens of different languages. The son of a market trader who insisted upon designing all of his own covers, Herbert died in 2012 a multi-millionaire with an OBE and yet, for all the excitement his name bears in the 21st Century, he might as well have been a 1980s TV presenter or one of the Tudor playwrights who didn’t happen to be either Marlowe or Shakespeare.

What little fame the Herbert name retains is born of his first two novels; The Rats and The Fog. However, Herbert would go on to write a further 21 novels of which the David Ash series comprises three: Haunted, The Ghosts of Sleath, and Herbert’s last novel Ash. Though the series may have begun in the late 1980s and spanned four decades, the vibe of the series remained rooted in the 1970s of tight trousers and shirts unbuttoned to reveal suggestive amounts of chest hair.

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WTD: Sapphire and Steel

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.

What if someone made a detective show in which the central crime was never actually addressed? What if someone made a detective show in which the primary antagonist was time itself?

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WTD: Marebito (2004)

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.

J-Horror is a bit like New Metal in so far as its cultural impact seems to bear little or no relation to the quality of the art produced under that label.

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WTD: Hellier

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.

Streaming services may have been sold to the general public as a means of gaining instant access to the past, present, and future of cinema, but the reality is a good deal more depressing. For example, one of the things that happened when Amazon launched Prime in the UK was that they went and trawled YouTube in search of paranormal investigation channels that could be repackaged and sold as TV shows.

In hindsight, it is fairly obvious why this happened: Paranormal investigation shows are not only insanely cheap to make, they also have an audience that is almost absurdly easy to please as the genre has seen little to no evolution since the launch of Most Haunted in 2002.

The formula is easy to reproduce: Open with a series of to-camera pieces about the location that establish the lore. Then you break out the night-vision cameras and take a selection of excitable personalities into a darkened place and shoot for hours and hours. You then retreat to the safety of the editing suite and comb through the hundreds of hours of footage in search of a few seconds of ambiguity that can be presented as evidence of some form of paranormal happening. Some shows go long on the lore, other shows go long on the personality of the people in front of the camera, and some go to the trouble of hiring skilled film-makers who can evoke a particular mood without the need for ambiguous footage shot on consumer-grade cameras.

Some shows are better than others, but the overwhelming majority of paranormal investigation shows remain wedded to a playbook laid down during the early years of the Most Haunted phenomenon.

Even setting aside the genre’s refusal to show us anything that we haven’t seen before, it is interesting to note how little development there has been at the level of lore. Taking its cues from National Trust properties and rural pubs, the paranormal investigation genre is still struggling to move beyond its limited bestiary of white ladies, sad children, and ghostly misogynists. Even when the genre jumped the Atlantic and in so doing severely restricted its access to buildings that were more than 150 years-old, shows found themselves returning again and again to the same limited range of ideas flowing from the same narrow set of fears.

In order to understand the paranormal investigation genre, you first need to recognise that the genre did not proliferate across platforms devoted to SFF and Horror, but across platforms devoted to lifestyle and reality TV. Most paranormal investigation shows go out after home makeover shows and not horror films. This means that there is both a hard ceiling on the complexity of the lore that a show can have, and a limit on the range of themes that a show can address. In truth, most paranormal investigation shows are less about the afterlife than they are about the weird psychological backwaters of home ownership.

Aside from being the historical means through which middle-class liberals are transformed into conservatives, home ownership involves making a huge financial and psychological commitment to an object whose past is largely inaccessible to present-day owners. The ghosts dug up by paranormal investigation shows are simple because they reflect the simple fears that accompany home ownership: Is it possible to live in this house and be happy? If I die in this house, will all trace of my existence be erased by the people who move in once the house is sold? The Amityville Horror and The Money Pit are the same exact story told through the lens of different genres and it is no surprise that one of the few recent innovations in the genre came in the form of a show that splits the investigation into two parts: First comes the medium, and then the building inspector.

Watching Hellier is like watching someone blow up a dam. After decades of shows sticking to the same limited range of themes, ideas, and modes of visual expression, Hellier unleashes the full power of 21st Century prosumer film-making technology as well as seemingly every weird idea to have emerged from Fortean culture in the last half century. The result is a show which, though not entirely successful, is certainly fascinating when viewed through the lens of RPGs.

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WTD: Merrily Watkins

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.

As of 2021, Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series runs to fifteen books, a short story, and a photobook describing some of the locations to feature in the series. The books are set in rural Herefordshire and revolve around a female vicar, her friends, and their tendency to run into a variety of occult menaces including ghosts, demons, and satanic cults.

I decided to begin the Watching the Detectives strand by writing about the Merrily Watkins books as they are quite unlike any other paranormal investigation story. If this were an elevator and you were a cigar-chomping Hollywood producer, I would pitch the series by asking you to imagine what it would be like if Miss Marple joined the cast of the Archers as village exorcist.

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