Carnacki the Ghost-finder's 7 Best Cases: A Spooky Spotlight on Hodgson's Steampunk Occult Detective
In a previous blog post, we specifically catalogued William Hope Hodgson’s best nautical horror stories – tales of haunted ships, sea monsters, ghost pirates, parasitic fungi, and were-sharks. In this post, we will focus on the very best of his famous occult detective: Carnacki the Ghost-finder. Throughout his career Hodgson had a taste for mystery. His very first story – “The Goddess of Death” – was not unlike “The Hound of the Baskervilles”: something of an Arthur Conan Doyle pastiche involving a sham haunting that is exposed Scooby-Doo-style.
Later he wrote “The Terror of the Water Tank” about a series of ghostly strangulations that are ultimately deduced to be caused by a mutated serpent crawling out of a neglected cistern, constricting its victims before slithering up a drain pipe. “The Stone Ship” and “The Thing in the Weeds” also feature apparently supernatural wonders later proven to be freaks of nature. Other stories not included here followed similar plots: “The Ghosts of the Glen Doon” and “The Haunting of the Lady Shannon” both feature ships which are “haunted” by hoaxes worthy of Nancy Drew.
Hodgson seemed destined to write supernatural mysteries, and when he invented the ghost-finder, Thomas Carnacki, in 1910, he finally created a literary personality to rival Holmes. A mixture of Sherlock Holmes, Nicola Tesla, Abraham Van Helsing, and Fox Mulder, Carnacki was a visionary maverick who cast off the tired garments of the classical ghost hunting detective: he was no asexual, whitehaired, nearsighted, bookish professor (although he did wield his own version of the Necronomicon – the Sigsand Manuscript) delegating action to more energetic lieutenants. Carnacki didn’t even have a proper Watson (the Hodgson stand-in “Dodgson” was his confidant and biographer, but when it came to facing down ghosts, Carnacki was always by himself).
He was young, hard-hitting, active, intelligent, brimming with energy, and bristling with the clubbable Edwardian chappiness that even Holmes lacked. Carnacki represented the ideal of Edwardian bachelorhood: he was physically, mentally, intellectually, and mechanically adept; he was an inventor, psychologist, scientist, folklorist, athlete, electrician, engineer, and physicist. In the miraculous age of Tesla, Jung, and Einstein, he was a renaissance man who appreciated the pioneering theories of all three men, employing them in the action-packed field of ghost busting.
While Carnacki doesn’t enjoy anywhere near the same celebrity as Holmes, he paved the way for a new form of detective: one which occasionally encounters a genuine haunting, and uses a mixture of mysticism and science to trip up his antagonists. Every occult detective from Buffy and Kolchak to Mulder and Velma owe their existence to Carnacki. Hardly the first psychic investigator, Carnacki has nonetheless remained a steampunk icon as a result of his blended use of technology and folklore, his flair for drama, and his emotional range (hardly a know-it-all macho, he frequently admits cowardice and fear).
Carnacki is still remembered for his intriguing eccentricities, allies, weapons, and personality quirks. His steampunk arsenal of electric pentacles, sealing wax, rigged cameras, trip wires, elaborate rituals, and a well-cleaned revolver not only endear him to our imaginations, but set him apart from his less technologically-inclined predecessors like Blackwood’s dreamy mystic, John Silence, Stoker’s excitable eccentric, Van Helsing, or Le Fanu’s snoozy theorist, Dr Hesselius. Carnacki is the first recognizable ghost hunter: a geeky adventurer with a dual taste for the latest technology and the most ancient folk remedies, armed to the teeth with eccentric contraptions and arcane research.
While most psychic detectives in fiction had only an affinity for spiritualism, folklore, and mysticism, Carnacki shares equal respect for the lore of the past and the possibilities of the future, making him the prototype of postmodern spook hunters portrayed in Kolchak the Night Stalker, The Ghost Busters, Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, The X-Files, Scooby Doo, Supernatural, Grimm, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Constantine – to name a few.
Each of these productions owes its existence to Carnacki’s idiosyncratic investigations. We learn that Carnacki has a little band of followers (including one man who acts as his Watson – a Hodgson stand-in creatively named “Dodgson” – and yet another named Jessop) who come to his version of 221b Baker Street for regular story-tellings. The dinners immerse the diners in the physical – good, heavy food, rich wine, followed with powerful tobacco, but without any talking – before they are ushered into the world of the supernatural. After their silent, lip-smacking supper, the assembly remove to the parlor where Carnacki reveals his latest exploit – later to be transcribed by his faithful Dodgson.
And now, without further ado, here are our picks for the seven best of his exploits…
7. THE THING INVISIBLE
This fun tale, like so many of Carnacki’s adventures, blends elements of Sherlock Holmes with Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence, all while prefiguring the investigations of Scooby Doo and Kolchack. A cursed, medieval dagger has apparently murdered a man of its own volition in a chapel attached to an English manor house. There is absolutely no apparent possibility that a living person wielded the dagger, or that it was a suicide.
Taking his cue from “The Speckled Band,” Hodgson has Carnacki stake-out the chapel. Of course, being Carnacki, he employs a mixture of ancient and modern technology to help him: a camera rigged to take photographs if something untoward occurs, and a suit of armor to protect himself if the dagger should get any ideas. When the shocking climax comes, Carnacki’s camera is able to supply him with the necessary clue to uncover the convoluted truth.
6. THE SEARCHER OF THE END HOUSE
Like “The Greek Interpreter,” which delighted Doyle’s readership by pulling the curtain back on Holmes’ biography and introducing us to Mycroft, this story give us a glimpse of Carnacki’s family life. He – like the far majority of Hodgson protagonists who aren’t inextricably marooned with a woman – is single, but he has a mother, and one day he is at her house when he notices some spectral knocking. At first he took it for her, but when the knocking continues and she denies responsibility, Carnacki is on the case.
He is troubled by the odor of mildew, the slamming of doors in the night, maggots, and soggy footprints from some otherworldly, flabby foot. The landlord acknowledges that the house has rumors of a ghostly woman searching in vain for a second apparition, a nude child, but the present happenings are new to the house’s history.
Eventually the landlord is terrified into firing his revolver into the ghost woman, without result, and this causes the police to investigate. When they start smelling decay and mold and seeing ghosts, it seems as though the haunting is utterly confirmed, but Carnacki sees it as an extremely curious mixture of farce and fact, and – by further researching the history of a previous tenant – he is able to solve his mother’s problems.
5. THE HAUNTED JARVEE
Like all great detectives (most famously Hercule Poirot in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and the Scooby gang everywhere they go), Carnacki decides to get away from it all and travel, with no plans on grappling with the supernatural. He and his friend Captain Thomas sail away on Thomas’ antique three-masted ship, the Jarvee, which has some incidental history of being haunted. Carnacki laughs it off until they are at see for four days when he notices a group of spectral shadows converging on the ship from each of the compass points. The sighting presages a terrible storm, which damages the ship.
After some investigations, Carnacki has decided that the haunting is somehow caused or connected to a series of evil vibrations that occur in tandem with the Jarvee’s bad fortunes. He rigs up a machine to fight back by emitting positive vibrations (“good vibes only on the boat, bro”), and plans to deploy it if the shadows reappear. Before he is ready, though, this is followed by another sighting, another storm, and even worse damage. Thomas refuses to send his men aloft to do repairs or bring in the sails during these squalls, because in the past they have been hurled to their deaths when the shadows appear.
After further calibrations, he is ready: he sends the crew bellow decks, sets up his trademark weapon, the fabulously steampunk electric pentacle (see the third image in the intro to this post), and writes symbols from the esoteric Saaamaaa Ritual in chalk around the ship, and lets the vibration machine fights against the ghostly forces. The results are surprising, and don’t at all go Carnacki’s way… Although his closing explanation is somewhat disappointing and the puzzle is not perfectly solved, it is definitely an eerie and unsettling example of weird fiction.
4. THE HORSE OF THE INVISIBLE
This story takes its cue from The Hound of the Baskervilles, complete with a family curse and a phantom animal. Carnacki is called in to assist the Hisgins family who are said to be cursed by a ghostly horse who is said to appear to any first-born Hisgins daughter (first-born males are safe) if she becomes engaged, and to frighten her to death before the wedding night. The specter hasn’t appeared for seven generations – the first-borns all having been males – but when the current family’s oldest child, Mary, becomes engaged to a naval officer named Beaumont, he has his arm broken one night by an invisible being that appears to be a horse (given the sound of hoofbeats at the time).
Carnacki researches the case and is alarmed to see that, historically speaking, each of the first-born female Hisgins had indeed died (from fright, accident, or suicide) following their announcement of an engagement. He decides to take the case deadly seriously. When Carnacki arrives, he stays up with the couple and is disturbed when they all hear the sound of galloping hooves. As a precaution, Carnacki sets up his electric pentacle around Mary’s bed, and while the sound of hooves is heard, no one comes to any harm. The grounds are searched, but no hoofprints or other clues can be found.
The following evening, however, they are visited in a big way: Mary is heard screaming from her room amidst the clatter of hooves and the gleeful neighing of a massive horse. Carnacki charges into the room and takes a quick picture as soon as he lays eyes on Mary. Beaumont, in the meantime, is assaulted again – this time with a blow to the head – and reports having had a vision of a gargantuan horse’s head. Rather than shirk from his commitment to Mary, however, Beaumont decides to speed up their wedding and have it as soon as possible, in hopes that a successful courtship might bring an end to the haunting.
With the nuptials nearing rapidly, Carnacki – whose last photograph yielded nothing – decides to explore the house from top to bottom with Mary, taking photographs as they go. There, in the cellar, they hear a revolting, orgasmic neighing, and once Carnacki develops the photograph, he finds the spectral image of an enormous hoof reaching down towards Mary from the ceiling. And yet, Carnacki is still torn: some of this case appears to be entirely genuine, but parts of it trip his hoax radar. He and the father of the bride decide to arm themselves and probe the matter one last time on the eve of the nuptials, just as the haunting has reached a terrifying fever pitch. And when they do, the results are surprising and disturbing…
3. THE GATEWAY OF THE MONSTER
Carnacki is called in to investigate a poltergeist at an English manor which boasts a haunted room – the Grey Room – which was once the site of the brutal murder of a woman and her baby centuries ago. The current manifestation, however, is much m