Monday, 31 October 2011

Carnacki the Ghost Finder

Yes, that's the one...
This is one of those titles I've heard bandied around a lot for many years, but never been able to track down a copy in print. It seems to have been an influence all over the place, and Hodgson tends to get mentioned alongside M R James and Algernon Blackwood as one of the early masters of the ghost tale. There is, apparently, an edition in the estimable Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult – if I was going to choose a hard copy edition to own, that would be the one!

However, the world has moved on and it is now available free as a .mobi file for Kindle from Project Gutenberg. It's fair to say that people of Hodgson's generation wouldn't have been able to imagine the mighty corporate effort that makes these possible. The heroes of the early pulp era, before the First World War, were individualists: they were embodiments of the belief that one rational man could effect change in the world by simple of virtue of wits, pluck and persistence.

Carnacki is a hero of his times. As well as a courageous and clever detective, he has an assortment of personal discoveries and inventions to hand, like a mix between Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison. It's a fascinating era when the supernatural and the scientific were still not yet fully separate. This is the era of the Society for Psychical Research, when even Edison believed he could build a telephone for communicating with the dead.

Carnacki reflects this amalgam of science and superstition. He is the inventor of the Electric Pentacle, and uses advanced photographic techniques in his spook hunting. At the same time, however, he's the owner of the ancient Sigsand manuscript with its helpful chants and rituals to banish the supernatural.

What's more, Carnacki's cases admit both supernatural and real-world solutions. It's about an even split between ghostly and mundane goings on, and a couple of the stories – The Horse of the Invisible and The Searcher of the End House – have a mix of mundane and supernatural causes. I think I enjoyed the full-on ghost stories the best– like The Gateway of the Monster and The Whistling Room. All the “solutions” are somewhat arbitrary, but in these two there's a real sense of a malign supernatural presence that tests Carnacki's will and wits.

The stories all feature the same theatrical framing device: Carnacki invites a group of friends and tells them the story of his latest adventure. The frame is a first person narrative, as is the boddy of the story itself. In fact, outside of a few prefatory remarks about fine meals and smoking pipes, the frame narrator (called Dodgson, rhymes with Hodgson) seems to be present only to transcribe what Carnacki tells him.

It's a device used by a lot of writers, of both mystery and horror: there's Holmes, of course, and Lovecraft's stories are thick with it, from true nested narratives like Hodgsons to extended passages of first-person narrative from secondary characters (Zadok Allen in The Shadow Over Innsmouth or the long letters from Akeley in The Whisperer in Darkness, eg), and it's often a part of M R James's work. In fact, I think that The Turn of the Screw and Wuthering Heights are both nested narratives of this sort, as well.

Thinking about this commonality of form between early mystery and ghost stories makes me think of a series of fat hard backs from the thirties and forties that my grandfather had, Tales of Mystery & Suspense that mixed Holmesian capers with Jamesian-style spooks. Maybe, back then, the genre split was a little different. There's a common thematic thread between them: both feature a kind of backward story-telling, where the reasons and perpetrator of a crime are sought, on the one hand to see justice done and on the other to settle the restless dead.

This link persists today, and the influence of these stories in particular – despite their relative obscurity – can be seen in the modern fad for supernatural detective like Harry Dresden and Felix Castor, for example (not, I admit, my own specialistic subject!)

For all that, these aren't really great stories. They're a bit straight forward and it's often Carnacki's equipment that provides the vital clue, rather than anything he works out through the clues presented. These aren't puzzle stories: the focus is on Carnacki's pluck and the creepy thrills along the way. However, this is a short book, and a piece of genre history, and entirely appropriate for Hallowe'en ... and it's free, FFS – so what are you waiting for!?!?!

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