Carnacki the Ghost-Finder by William Hope Hodgson (1913)
William Hope Hodgson (November 15, 1877 – April 1918) was an English author with a penchant for baroque and arcane horror, fantasy and science fiction. His style and insight drew heavily on his own colourful experiences. The son of a Priest he ran away to sea at an early age and travelled widely. He was a keen amateur photographer and achieved some renown as a body-builder and escapologist. He died in World War I at the age of 40. Although moderately successful during his lifetime it was not until after his death that his work, especially his short stories, received the acclaim they deserved. This was mainly due to posthumous publication of all the material regarding one Thomas Carnacki; investigator of the supernatural.
Hodgson’s work is in a similar vein to that of H.P. Lovecraft, M.R. James and Ambrose Bierce. He frequently hints at the horrific and implies that there are ancient and powerful forces at work. These are of a magnitude beyond human comprehension. Hodgson writes with such conviction you get the impression that he may have personally experienced the occult, something I have often suspected of Dennis Wheatley. Writing at the turn of the 19th century, Hodgson mixes modern science along with contemporary technology with the occult and the esoteric; a style later utilised to great success by Nigel Kneale.
The Carnacki stories are a variation on the tradition fictional detective such as Sherlock Holmes. Carnacki lives in a bachelor flat in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. The stories are told from a first-person perspective by Dodgson, one of Carnacki’s four friends, very much in the style of John Watson. However where Conan Doyle never made use of the supernatural except as a red herring, its a pivotal theme of the Carnacki stories. The character of Carnacki was loosely inspired in part by Dr. Hesselius, scientist with a supernatural perspective, who appeared in short stories by the Irish fantasy writer Sheridan Le Fanu.
Hodgson’s short stories follow an established framework; Carnacki intermittently sends invitations to four friends, asking them to come to dinner and hear his latest exploits. One of these, Dodgson, then recounts the evening entertainment to us the reader. Carnacki avoids discussion of the case until after dinner, then lights his pipe, settles into his favourite chair and recounts the tale to his audience. Each of Carnacki’s adventures takes the form of an investigation into an unusual haunting, which Carnacki has been engaged to not only investigate but end. He employs a variety of scientific methods in his investigations, as well as resorting to more traditional folk-lore. He often uses such technology as photography as well as his own bespoke scientific device, the electric pentacle. He is not dogmatic and always uses evidence to establish conclusions, so in some stories he determines the haunting is real, while in others it is staged or faked by a third party. This variety and the exposure of an occasional hoax make the stories suspenseful. After the tale is complete, Carnacki usually answers a few questions from his guests, then unceremoniously turns them out onto the embankment to return to their respective homes.
What makes the Carnacki stories work so well is the credible and disquieting world of the supernatural he touches upon. He frequently refers to a fictional ancient text known as the Sigsand Manuscript, which is a source of information about protecting oneself from external forces and influences. Carnacki refers to Aeiirii and Saiitii manifestations, the latter being more dangerous and capable of overcoming Carnacki’s protective devices. There are several rites and ceremonies, including the Saaamaaa Ritual, with its mysterious eight signs and “unknown last line”. These are only invoked in times of abject crisis, when not only the physical life but the very soul is in danger. Then the forces that govern the fabric of space and time intervene to restore balance. These references to esoteric fictional occult writings are very much like H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon.
If you like stories about the supernatural and traditional detective material, then Carnacki can provide a rather unique and interesting crossover. They offer an insight into the social and scientific attitudes of the Edwardian period; a time when scientific reason still struggled with entrenched religious dogma. They also serve as a great introduction to the works of William Hope Hodgson. His later novels are now considered to be milestones within the genre.