B.G. Hilton – Author

Three Occult Detectives Walk into a Bar

This might be a little bit stream-of-consciousness-y, but bear with me. Also, TW: suicide.

I’m not big on subscription services in general, but my daughter likes listening to audiobooks on car rides so I signed myself up to the Kobo monthly audiobook thing. And mostly I download chapter books of variable quality about girls going to vampire school because hey, that’s why I got it. But occasionally I find myself with a spare credit and I can get something for myself.

I got a book one time that was a good book, except I didn’t care for the narrator. So I started searching by actors who have good voices, and that’s how I searched ‘Phillip Madoc’ and came up with the BBC Radion Algernon Blackwood Collection. Madoc absolutely narrates the Hell out of Blackwood’s ‘Ancient Mysteries,’ with the only bad patch being when he has to speak in the character of a teenage French girl. Other than that, there’s a very lacklustre reading of ‘The Willows’ and some wonderful readings by Blackwood himself. These somehow give the feeling of an elderly, rather posh man telling strange anecdotes, which is really rather wonderful.

Other than that, there were some episodes of a somewhat over-adapted version of Blackwood’s Dr Silence stories. The adapted versions rather miss what makes Silence interesting, turning him into a sort of Sherlock Holmes pastiche, if Holmes preferred not to eliminate the impossible. ‘Ancient Mysteries’ is also a Silence story (though one in which Silence plays a small part) and so different in tone from the radio plays that I went to read the original versions.

The Silence stories are oddly earnest for ghost stories, which are are so often told with a wink or a shrug of ‘who knows what really happened?’ The central character, Dr John Silence, is indeed a medical doctor. He’s also a psychic detective. He’s brave, clever and sensitive to etheric vibrations. He’s rich in a nebulous way but extraordinarily generous. He’s active and brave, but refuses to take life for moral reasons. He investigates hauntings and listens to weird stories from his patients as you would expect an occult detective to do. He’s different to many later such detectives in that the danger is often presented as a spiritual danger rather than a physical threat.

(Silence is also pretty clearly a colossal Mary Sue for Blackwood, who was heavily into the occult and by his own account would have liked to have been a holy man. But I have never agreed with the school of thought that considers Mary Sue stories automatically off limits. They are fine, if they are done well.)

Anyway, reading Silence got me thinking about another occult detective of the same era – William Hope Hodgeson’s Carnacki. Hodgeson was a former sailor turned personal trainer. His business didn’t make him much money, so he turned to writing articles about exercise, and when that didn’t pay he tried fiction. In those days, writing fiction made you money. Not that I’m bitter.

William Hope Hodgeson. If the writing hadn’t worked out, he could have tried male modelling, no joke. Source: Wikipedia.

One of his best remembered characters is Carnacki the Ghost Finder, a very different person from the sensitive, intuitive Silence. Carnacki is a blokey sort of bloke and, unlike Silence, he is fine with the idea of violence, and will often take a gun or some hired goons to a haunting. He’s also less in tune with psychic vibrations, since he is often quite easily fooled, unlike Silence who generally homes in directly on the problem.

The Carnacki stories are odd in many ways. Occult detectives usually find that everything is a supernatural threat, or nothing is a supernatural threat. Carnacki is anout 50/50, with some stories resolving rationally and others not. Still others split the difference, in that the haunting was mostly caused by a hoaxer, but also some aspects are inexplicable.

Nearly forgot the most interesting aspect of Carnacki: he is the inventor of the electric pentacle. He read about an experiment where a current in a vacuum cut off a medium from the spirit world, and extrapolated to make a multi-coloured neon pentacle which he uses to protect himself from spectral forces.

Another difference is that Carnacki is always front and centre in his stories, telling his stories to the narrator character and a few other guests to his house. Silence is sometimes central to his stories, sometimes he turns up only at the last moment to save the day and sometimes (as in ‘Ancient Mysteries,’) he is simply someone taking an interest in a supernatural tale that has already concluded.

In this, he’s very like the third of the ‘Three Occult Detectives’ of my title. Dr Hesselius is the creation of Irish author Sheridan le Fanu a generation earlier. Hesselius is, like Silence, a doctor with an interest in the occult. He is the narrator of the story ‘Green Tea,’ in which he takes the case of a clergyman haunted by a demon monkey, but fails to save the man, who commits suicide. This is also something that comes up in the Silence stories – depression is treated as a spiritual phenomenon, and suicide is presented as a physical peril from spiritual attack.

As I understand it, this was the only Dr Hesselius story, originally. But the other stories in le Fanu’s collection ‘A Glass Darkly‘ use Hesselius as a sort of framing device, identifying the five stories in the collection as tales from the doctor’s collection of some two hundred and thirty such cases. (As an aside, probably the most famous of these five stories is ‘Carmilla,’ the prototype of the lesbian vampire sub-genre.)

These three – Hesselius, Silence and Carnacki – aren’t the only early occult detectives, but I would argue that they are extremely influential early examples. You can see some of Carnacki in the Ghostbusters or Scooby Doo. John Constantine is in some ways a John Silence who didn’t go to private school. There’s certainly some of Hesselius’ well-meaning but ineffectual nerdery in Rupert Giles.

So what am I going to do with this information? I’m an author, and I write spec fic, so this sort of stuff is grist to the mill. I’m writing a John Silence pastiche that I want to submit to an upcoming collection. The flowery Edwardian language is a little hard, trying to maintain a spiritual perspective when I’m a dyed-in-the-wool naturalist is harder. There’s also a subplot about ghosts in the Charlie and Gladys sequel I am writing, so maybe useful there. Otherwise, I guess the takeaway is just how much variation you can put into one idea. ‘A ghost story where someone goes looking for ghosts,’ is such a simple little idea, and yet it’s yielded so many wonderful characters and stories.

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B.G. Hilton - Author