#974: (Spooky) Little Fictions – The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder [ss] (1947) by William Hope Hodgson

Another author exploring the spOooOOoOky side, with rational solutions just as likely as ghosts and spectres. WooOOoOooOoo, etc.

A character I’ve encountered piecemeal through various anthologies, but never actually read exhaustively, is the supernatural investigator Thomas Carnacki — creation of William Hope Hodgson, who in nine stories faces down “Hell’s mysteries” and encounters an unpredictable mix of the supernatural and the tediously mechanical as explanations for supposedly insoluble problems. The best known of these is perhaps ‘The Thing Invisible’ (1912), in which the butler at a mouldering country pile is, while under observation in the attached chapel, “driven headlong into the body of the Chapel [as if by] the kick of a great horse”. No-one is near him at the moment of the attack, and the dagger found stabbed in his shoulder from the front with such force that it pierced his scapula has long been the subject of superstition…and so Carnacki is called in to investigate.

This was not the first Carnacki story, but it’s included first in my Wordsworth edition in part, I suspect, because of how neatly it introduces the key conceits of these tales. The “waeful dagger” is a textbook Suspicious Object…

[It has] the appearance of a cross. That this is not unintentional is shown by an engraving of the Christ crucified upon one side, whilst upon the other, in Latin, is the inscription: ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will Repay.’ A quaint and rather terrible conjunction of ideas. Upon the blade of the dagger is graven in old English capitals: I WATCH. I STRIKE. On the butt of the hilt there is carved deeply a Pentacle.

…and Carnacki’s unpicking of the problem is achieved by a mixture of stark terror (the night spent in the chapel shows him to be no stoic, emotionless machine, given the agonies he goes through…even if he is able to laugh at this in the light of day and “feel that I had been a little bit of an ass”), modern technology (here, photography), and occluded reasoning (“I carried out some intensely interesting and rather weird experiments.”).

Throughout the Carnacki corpus, we lean into many ideas that would establish themselves as tropes once detective fiction’s Golden Age got going: stories of tramps found dead with “absolutely no signs of violence” give rise to superstitious dread in ‘The House Among the Laurels’ (1910), the local jealousy which might be the motive behind ‘The Whistling Room’ (1910), and a litany of never-told tales that hint at darker deeds faced and overcome (“…the ‘Grey Dog’ case…the ‘Yellow Finger’ experiments…”). We’re in a post-Sherlock Holmes universe, of course, and it’s clear that Hodgson has taken his brief from the success of those tales.

For the little that we’re explicitly told about Carnacki, he comes across as pleasingly human and pleasingly sceptical: placing wax seals on doors in ‘The Gateway of the Monster’ (1910) in order to be sure that it is indeed the door of the fabled Grey Room that is banging in the night despite being locked with a key, as well as sprinkling that room with seals and ribbons to ensure no mortal cause is simply playing silly buggers. His minute inspection of the rooms in which the manifestations are witnessed would rival the most rigorous scouring of a crime scene in the most rational of detective stories (“I examined the walls, floor and ceiling then, with probe, hammer and magnifying glass…”), and there’s very little of the armchair sleuth about him as he throws himself body and soul into a series of very active investigations. Yes, these take on a somewhat repetitious aspect when read as a body, but there’s also a real quality to the prose, showing that Carnacki is more than simply a pulpish character in the Sexton Blake vein about whom you can write a story so long as you hit enough of the grace notes.

Pleasingly, away from the clunky rational mechanisms that explain the earthly causes, Hodgson has Carnacki treat details of magical protection with the seriousness of a science, as Randall Garrett would several decades later in his Lord Darcy stories:

I returned then to the center of the room, and measured out a space twenty-one feet in diameter, which I swept with a ‘broom of hyssop.’ About this, I drew a circle of chalk, taking care never to step over the circle. Beyond this I smudged, with a bunch of garlic, a broad belt right around the chalked circle, and when this was complete, I took from among my stores in the center a small jar of a certain water. I broke away the parchment, and withdrew the stopper. Then, dipping my left forefinger in the little jar, I went ’round the circle again, making upon the floor, just within the line of chalk, the Second Sign of the Saaamaaa Ritual, and joining each Sign most carefully with the left-handed crescent. I can tell you, I felt easier when this was done, and the ‘water circle’ complete. Then, I unpacked some more of the stuff that I had brought, and placed a lighted candle in the ‘valley’ of each Crescent. After that, I drew a Pentacle, so that each of the five points of the defensive star touched the chalk circle. In the five points of the star I placed five portions of the bread, each wrapped in linen, and in the five ‘vales,’ five opened jars of the water I had used to make the ‘water circle.’ And now I had my first protective barrier complete.

Such care, giving as much time to these protections as to the terror of being trapped in a darkened room with candles slowly going out around him, makes the reader take theses fanciful notions (“…as you all know, [garlic] is a wonderful ‘protection’ against the more usual Aeiirii forms of semi-materialization…”) more seriously, and escalates the air of tension when ghostly presences appear and begin to cause their havoc. It’s clear that lazy preparation would open Carnacki to physical harm (“…as though in a sudden fit of malignant rage, the dead body of the cat was picked up, and beaten with dull, sickening blows against the solid floor.” — animals rarely fare well in these tales). And yet, he’s not above terror, never closing his mind to the potential for something otherworldly that could do him serious harm coming through and stalking him in this realm, and Hodgson has a light touch with shiver-inducing details (“I felt that there was something the other side of that door. For some unknown reason I knew it was pressed up against the door, and that it was soft.”) while also keen to admit the not-always-irrational roots of these feelings (“…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.”).

He is also happy to admit that some of his fancies, especially where the occult sciences are concerned, might seem ludicrous, even while he commits fully to them (“But, then, as you all know, I never did, and never will, allow myself to be blinded by the little cheap laughter. I ask questions, and keep my eyes open.”), and in a way this lampshading of the ludicrous makes it easier to accept the number of bizarre objects and concepts (the Luck Ring of the Anderson family, Dian Tiansay and his Song of Foolishness) which enable the ghostly tales here. It also means that when things fail to go to plan (“In an instant, I realised that I was defenseless against the powers of the Unknown World…”) the reader is invested in the consequences. Interesting, too, is the idea that the supernatural world is not entirely aggressive and malignant, with Carnacki observing that “it is being proved, time after time, that there is some inscrutable Protective Force constantly intervening between the human soul (not the body, mind you) and the Outer Monstrosities.”

And yet…not everything works.

“Well, shit.”

There’s a tendency to grope at a rational explanation out of nowhere, which keeps you on your toes in a way that The X-Files never managed, but there’s rarely the satisfaction of the explanation being sensible or well-prepared. Some (frankly, most) of Hodgson’s rational explanations leave a lot to be desired — in one story with an earthly solution he says “How [effect X] was achieved, I do not know” on one page and “I think I have now explained everything” on the next…er, no, you haven’t, Tom — and those of you hoping that ‘The Horse of the Invisible’ (1910) is going to have its various, wildly entertaining conceits laid bare are in for perhaps the biggest let down in the entire book. Surely the joy of debunking, much like revelling in the threat of the supernatural, is in seeing what you should have suspected all along but were blinded to by clever misdirection or intelligent thinking around the presentation of the problem. Having your arch debunker go “Yeah, nah, no idea how they did that” makes you question why Hodgson introduced elements he is unable to explain in the first place.

And the less said about his rendering of an “Irish” accent, the better:

“I tell ye, sorr…’tis of no use at all, thryin’ ter reclaim ther castle. ‘Tis curst with innocent blood, an’ ye’ll be betther pullin’ it down, an’ buildin’ a fine new wan. But if ye be intendin’ to shtay this night, kape the big dhoor open whide, an’ watch for the bhlood-dhrip. If so much as a single dhrip falls, don’t shtay though all the gold in the worrld was offered ye.”

And so I finished this collection decidedly less enamoured of Carnacki than my previous experience had left me, with even the moody imbrications of ‘The Haunted Jarvee‘ (1912) — possibly the best story in here — failing to get me too excited because I’d seen it all before and, even if there was a rational explanation I knew it would be half-arsed. If exposure to too much of the same thing leaves one desensitised, it’s fair to say that the Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder might be one of the most desensitising experiences of my life to date.

Let’s hope we fare better next week.

One thought on “#974: (Spooky) Little Fictions – The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder [ss] (1947) by William Hope Hodgson

  1. I love Hodgson’s weird fiction (“The House on the Borderland” is wonderfully bonkers) and he wrote some great short fiction too. I think you really nailed the issue with the Carnacki stories when you said reading one after the other leaves you desensitised. I think these stories are far more enjoyable when encountered in an anthology, not a collection, sandwiched between other stories that are different in tone. The strengths of the Carnacki story really stands out then, and the weaknesses (which are compounded by repetition in a collection) fade into the background a bit.
    One thing I do love about the Carnacki stories is the possibility that the situation explored may be natural or supernatural, which creates a tension in each story. I know having a “real” supernatural agency in a story breaks the rules of classical mystery writing, but it’s certainly fun if it happens from time to time.
    (Hodgson trivia- When Harry Houdini visited England, Hodgson once took up Houdini’s challenge that he could get out of any chains. At a public show, Hodgson provided the irons, and it appeared Houdini could not escape from them. Houdini then got the audience on his side, did some delaying tactics, and eventually got free. Houdini then accused Hodgson of having tampered with the irons, making them “non-regulation”. Hodgson hotly denied this.)


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