I came across this book in a Clonmel bookshop, and it became one of the pieces I submitted to SF Site based on my own reading, rather than a book sent for review. Reversing my prior blogging pattern, I will post the original review first and a few thoughts after.
Just as we have (nearly) forgotten what was then a seemingly endless string of filmic James Bond imitators of the 1960s, the vast impact of Sherlock Holmes on popular literature at the turn of the twentieth century is now underestimated. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation opened the door to a series of fictional detectives, most of whom were pale imitations of the original. Time winnows away much dross, but as W.H. Auden said, “Some books are unjustly forgotten; none are unjustly remembered.”
The psychic detective married the detective story with another cultural motif of the era, one whose prominence has diminished somewhat: spiritualism. Carnacki, created by W.H. Hodgson, is the exemplar of the psychic detective. Wordsworth Press, in a repackaged edition of their 2006 release, have published an edition of Hodgson’s The Casebook of Carnacki, The Ghost Finder, part of their Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural series.
Hodgson was one of the legion of writers and artists who would meet their deaths on the battlefield of World War I. Even by the standards of that War to End War, his death at forty was replete with tragic ironies; having been thrown by a horse and injured in 1916, Hodgson returned to the fray only to be killed in Ypres in April 1918.
Carnacki first appeared in The Idler in 1910. Carnacki is an eccentric character, who regularly has four friends to dinner. Carnacki holds forth to the company after dinner about one of his experiences, which form the narrative core of the story. All the stories end with the same rather endearing event; Carnacki falls silent, and then suddenly evicts his guests with the words “Out you go!” The friends depart, each time “through the darkness to our various homes.”
No outright religious context is mentioned, but there is a mythos behind the stories which is hinted at rather than described. We read repeatedly of the Sigsand text, and the incredibly powerful Saaamaaa ritual. There is a physicality and specificity to much of the description, especially in the story “The Hog.” Carnacki draws various pentacles and protective circles with a great deal of ritual precision. An example: “After I had drawn the circle, I took a bunch of the garlic, and smudged it right ’round the chalk circle, a little outside of it. When this was complete, I called for candles from my stock of material. I set the police to lighting them, and as they were lit I took them and sealed them down on the floor, just within the chalk circle, five inches apart. As each candle measured approximately one inch in diameter, it took sixty-six candles to complete the circle; and I need hardly say that every number and measurement has a significance.”
Sometimes Carnacki reveals, for want of a better term, a rational explanation; at other times he solemnly informs that he has been dealing with forces beyond this world. At times, Hodgson tells rather than describes — tending to directly tell the reader “it was horrible/terrible” rather than allowing the reader’s flesh to creep of its own accord. These were the relatively early days of recognisably modern horror fiction, so much which now seems old fashioned was innovative at the time.
Hodgson’s magnum opus is commonly held to be The House on the Borderland, which like two of these stories is ostensibly set in Ireland. The Irish setting is not quite incidental; early on the narrator recounts coming to an area where only Irish is spoken, not English, emphasising the strangeness of this part of what was then officially part of the United Kingdom. The House on the Borderland turns from a somewhat exciting tale of possibly supernatural beings besieging a remote house into an interminable intergalactic, interdimensional dream sequence. Its interest is now largely for historical reasons; the Irish setting, the cosmic preoccupations revealed by the reverie. These stories, however, are fresh and entertaining and don’t outstay their fictional welcome. They teeter on the edge of hoariness without quite falling over. Readers will enjoy these tales, in their various homes.
I made relatively little of Hodgson’s striking use of the “otherness” of Ireland, and have misused the word “ostensibly” in the reference I did make. Ireland and Irishness seems to have held a sort of appalled fascination, to be a setting not unlike Transylvania in its suitability for mysterious goings on. This is from The House on the Borderland:
Right away in the west of Ireland lies a tiny hamlet called Kraighten. It is situated, alone, at the base of a low hill. Far around there spreads a waste of bleak and totally inhospitable country; where, here and there at great intervals, one may come upon the ruins of some long desolate cottage—unthatched and stark. The whole land is bare and unpeopled, the very earth scarcely covering the rock that lies beneath it, and with which the country abounds, in places rising out of the soil in wave-shaped ridges.
Yet, in spite of its desolation, my friend Tonnison and I had elected to spend our vacation there. He had stumbled on the place by mere chance the year previously, during the course of a long walking tour, and discovered the possibilities for the angler in a small and unnamed river that runs past the outskirts of the little village.
I have said that the river is without name; I may add that no map that I have hitherto consulted has shown either village or stream. They seem to have entirely escaped observation: indeed, they might never exist for all that the average guide tells one. Possibly this can be partly accounted for by the fact that the nearest railway station (Ardrahan) is some forty miles distant.
“Kraighten” is an unconvincing placename, although Ardrahan is undoubtedly real. We soon encounter the natives:
Tonnison had got the stove lit now and was busy cutting slices of bacon into the frying pan; so I took the kettle and walked down to the river for water. On the way, I had to pass close to a little group of the village people, who eyed me curiously, but not in any unfriendly manner, though none of them ventured a word.
As I returned with my kettle filled, I went up to them and, after a friendly nod, to which they replied in like manner, I asked them casually about the fishing; but, instead of answering, they just shook their heads silently, and stared at me. I repeated the question, addressing more particularly a great, gaunt fellow at my elbow; yet again I received no answer. Then the man turned to a comrade and said something rapidly in a language that I did not understand; and, at once, the whole crowd of them fell to jabbering in what, after a few moments, I guessed to be pure Irish. At the same time they cast many glances in my direction. For a minute, perhaps, they spoke among themselves thus; then the man I had addressed faced ’round at me and said something. By the expression of his face I guessed that he, in turn, was questioning me; but now I had to shake my head, and indicate that I did not comprehend what it was they wanted to know; and so we stood looking at one another, until I heard Tonnison calling to me to hurry up with the kettle. Then, with a smile and a nod, I left them, and all in the little crowd smiled and nodded in return, though their faces still betrayed their puzzlement.
It was evident, I reflected as I went toward the tent, that the inhabitants of these few huts in the wilderness did not know a word of English; and when I told Tonnison, he remarked that he was aware of the fact, and, more, that it was not at all uncommon in that part of the country, where the people often lived and died in their isolated hamlets without ever coming in contact with the outside world.
The Carnacki stories have much (presumably) unintentional humour, with the Saaamaaa ritual and the departure through the darkness to our various homes and so forth. And in “The House Among the Elders” we find, as well as another unconvincing Irish placename, a spot of stage-Irishry also:
“This is a curious yarn that I am going to tell you,” said Carnacki, as after a quiet little dinner we made ourselves comfortable in his cozy dining room.
“I have just got back from the West of Ireland,” he continued. “Wentworth, a friend of mine, has lately had rather an unexpected legacy, in the shape of a large estate and manor, about a mile and a half outside of the village of Korunton. This place is named Gannington Manor, and has been empty a great number of years; as you will find is almost always the case with Houses reputed to be haunted, as it is usually termed.
“It seems that when Wentworth went over to take possession, he found the place in very poor repair, and the estate totally uncared for, and, as I know, looking very desolate and lonesome generally. He went through the big house by himself, and he admitted to me that it had an uncomfortable feeling about it; but, of course, that might be nothing more than the natural dismalness of a big, empty house, which has been long uninhabited, and through which you are wandering alone.
“When he had finished his look ’round, he went down to the village, meaning to see the one-time Agent of the Estate, and arrange for someone to go in as caretaker. The Agent, who proved by the way to be a Scotchman, was very willing to take up the management of the Estate once more; but he assured Wentworth that they would get no one to go in as caretaker; and that his—the Agent’s—advice was to have the house pulled down, and a new one built.
“This, naturally, astonished my friend, and, as they went down to the village, he managed to get a sort of explanation from the man. It seems that there had been always curious stories told about the place, which in the early days was called Landru Castle, and that within the last seven years there had been two extraordinary deaths there. In each case they had been tramps, who were ignorant of the reputation of the house, and had probably thought the big empty place suitable for a night’s free lodging. There had been absolutely no signs of violence to indicate the method by which death was caused, and on each occasion the body had been found in the great entrance hall.
“By this time they had reached the inn where Wentworth had put up, and he told the Agent that he would prove that it was all rubbish about the haunting, by staying a night or two in the Manor himself. The death of the tramps was certainly curious; but did not prove that any supernatural agency had been at work. They were but isolated accidents, spread over a large number of years by the memory of the villagers, which was natural enough in a little place like Korunton. Tramps had to die some time, and in some place, and it proved nothing that two, out of possibly hundreds who had slept in the empty house, had happened to take the opportunity to die under shelter.
“But the Agent took his remark very seriously, and both he and Dennis the landlord of the inn, tried their best to persuade him not to go. For his ‘sowl’s sake,’ Irish Dennis begged him to do no such thing; and because of his ‘life’s sake,’ the Scotchman was equally in earnest.
I am sure that this use of Ireland as a suitable locale for supernatural derring-do has been extensively discussed academically – it is interesting nevertheless to encounter it unexpectedly while reading for pleasure.