Before reading any more of William Meikle’s Carnacki pastiches, I decided I should actually read the original Carnacki tales by William Hope Hodgson since, before this book, the only one I’d read was “The Hog”.
Review: The Casebook of Carnacki – the Ghost-Finder, ed. David Stuart Davies, 2006.
It’s easy to mock the Carnacki tales.
They are not the first occult detective series. Hodgson seems to have created the character to cash in on the potential of a series character. The large number of magazines in 1910, when the first story was published, meant, unlike today, short fiction was usually better paying than writing novels. Carnacki was inspired by the success of Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence stories, another occult detective series.
Carnacki’s tools seem somewhat ludicrous, even for the time. There’s a heavy patina of pseudoscience what with the occult significance of various colors and Carnacki’s famous Electric Pentacle, essentially a string of colored lights for magical defense.
The otherworldy is often signified by strings of repeated vowels: Carnacki’s go-to reference the Sigsand Manuscript and its Saaamaaa Ritual, the Incantation of Raaaeee, and the Aeiirii “forms of materialization”.
Yet the stories work.
A lot of that, as editor Davies notes in his concise and useful introduction, is that the nine stories are not formulaic. The solutions to the mysteries Carnacki is called into investigate are sometimes supernatural, sometimes involve human actions, and sometimes a combination of both. One story, “The Find”, doesn’t even have a hint of the occult or supernatural about it since Carnacki investigates the improdn bable appearance of a second copy of a very rare book.
There is a general formula to the stories. Each story has Carnacki relating his latest adventure in his house at 472 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea on London’s Embankment to his friends Jessop, Arkright, Taylor and the narrator Dodgson. At the end of each story, Carnacki kicks them out with some variation of “Out you go.”
Carnacki approaches all his investigations with the assumption human beings are behind the mysteries. Often that involves days, sometimes weeks, long investigation of buildings and, in “The Haunted Jarvee”, a ship. Carnacki makes heavy use of photography in his investigations, and Hodgson, before he turned to writing, was a keen photographer himself, sometimes lecturing on the subject. He frequently packs a revolver too, at one point contemplating shooting himself and another man to keep their souls away from malevolent forces from the “Outer Circle” in “The Hog”. That’s the longest Carnacki tale and another example of a weird, porcine menaces in Hodgson’s writings. It’s also the one where he develops his own cosmic mythology the most.
The occult mysteries are varied. A tale from Carnacki’s younger days, “The Searcher of the End House”, has the house where he lives with his mother seemingly haunted. A butler is stabbed by inhuman forces in “The Thing Invisible”. “The Gateway of the Monster”, “The House among the Laurels”, and “The Whistling Room” are all haunted house investigations. A spectral horse and a curse are the subjects of “The Horse of the Invisible”.
As Davies notes, to give too much away about these stories with plot summaries would take away the pleasure of Carnacki’s investigations and revelations.
Carnacki is an engaging narrator. He uses jaunty Edwardian slang. He’s not afraid to admit when he loses his nerve or bolts from the scene. After offering some explanation of events, he flatters his friends and the reader by often asking “Do you understand?” though I didn’t always. He’s perfectly willing to say when he doesn’t really have a complete explanation.
And, as John Linwood Grant has noted, all the technology and action of the Carnacki tales makes them much more readable than Blackwood’s John Silence series.
So spending time with the 174 pages of the Carnacki stories wasn’t boring or painful at all, so I’d recommend them if you’ve ever been curious about them.
Additional Notes on the Technology and Science of the Carnacki Stories
The photographic technology of the Carnacki stories seems plausible. The Wikipedia entry on photographic technology says between 1910 and 1913, when these tales were written, pocket cameras (though Carnacki usually puts his on a tripod), simplified box cameras, and celluloid film base already existed.
I’d hardly be the first one to point out that spiritualism and the occultism of the early 20th century often presented their ideas in the guise of science and forces undiscovered. The last Carnacki tale, “The Hog” even says, when talking about the malevolent entities that exist in the Outer Circle at least a hundred thousand miles above Earth, that we don’t really understand electricity. So that the occult could be presented as undiscovered science operating on definite laws is understandable and a major theme of the Carnacki stories with specific properties assigned to the colors of Carnacki’s Electric Pentacle.
Here’s a timeline of discoveries in electromagnetism and radiation that would have made the idea of undiscovered rays and emanations seem plausible.
- 1873 – James Clerk Maxwell links electricity and magnetism
- 1886 – Heinrich Rudolf Herz discovers radio waves
- 1895 – Wilhelm Röntgen discovers x-rays
- 1898 – Marie and Pierre Curie discover radioactivity
- 1903 – N Rays hypothesized (and never found)