A Weird Master's Occult Detective
William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki stories are early entries in the 'paranormal investigator' subgenre- an odd hybrid form which took many cues from the wildly popular Sherlock Holmes stories, combining aspects of Arthur Conan Doyle's idiosyncratic detective with tropes lifted from ghost stories, horror stories, and other streams of weird fiction. Weird masters Algernon Blackwood and M.P. Shiel also created their own sleuths of the uncanny. It is a strange mixture and difficult to calibrate. A detective story demands a certain level of concrete detail and effective plotting, whereas atmosphere and suggestion are key constituents of weird writing. Moreover, authors take a risk when they repeatedly expose the same character or characters to mind-bending supernatural horror- the sheer prodigality of the great weird tale is somewhat tamed when a character is shown to be familiar with the other world, making additional demands on the reader's willing suspension of disbelief; and, frankly, even the best weird author is not necessarily a master of believable characterization.
Hodgson's Carnacki is perhaps less than a living, breathing literary creation, but his adventures are fine examples of (mostly) supernatural horror which innovatively meet the demands of intermingled realism and weirdness. The tales uniformly begin when the narrator and a small group of friends are invited to dinner at Carnacki's home, where, after a good meal and little ado, the Ghost Finder narrates his latest case. The nine stories in the collection vary somewhat in quality, most feel slightly padded, and not every case is in fact, in the end, a supernatural one. One of Hodgson's "hooks" in creating Carnacki is that the investigator arrives for his cases armed with the latest early 1900's technology, including cameras and the marvelous Electric Pentacle, a sort of lighted ceremonial diagram which provides protection from beings from Beyond. Also in Carnacki's arsenal are the imaginary ancient tomes the Sigsand Manuscript and the Saaamaaa Ritual (a Lovecraftian detail which again makes me wonder why the modern Lovecraft industry has not picked up on Hodgson to an even greater degree). Despite Carnacki's rational bent, once the malevolent Outer Beings arrive outside his Pentacle, he is frank in describing his abject terror to his audience. He only seldom flirts with despair and instead is shown fighting through his fear with appealing English matter-of-factness.
The detective story trappings are diverting but the primary interest is in Hodgson's occult beings and forces. A strong atmosphere of dream and of nightmare pervades the tales whenever the dark forces make their appearance. These terrifying encounters build slowly, from 'old dark house' Gothic setups to confrontations with the cosmic and irreducibly strange. In "The Whistling Room", one of the strongest pieces, Carnacki describes the ultimate encounter thus: "And then, suddenly, the Unknown Last Line of the SaaaMaaa Ritual was whispered quite audibly in the room. Instantly, the thing happened that I had known once before. There came a sense as of dust falling continually and monotonously, and I knew that my life hung uncertain and suspended for a flash, in a brief, reeling vertigo of unseeable things." The reader never knows who whispers the Last Line; Carnacki never specifies when this thing happened that he had known once before- these internal vistas simply fly open in the moment of supreme fear and add psychological weight to the character's experience of the impossible.
While Hodgson's excellent seafaring horror tales or his brilliant novel House On The Borderlands would probably be better entries for those unfamiliar with his work, the Carnacki stories might hold a special appeal for readers weaned on Sherlock Holmes (or Kolchak the Night Stalker, or The X-Files, for that matter).