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 more than the archetypal misty phantom said to terrify guests by gliding through the wall: it is throwing off the bedclothes, slamming the doors, and creating a terrible racket for hours on end each night.
First of all, Carnacki decides to observe it within his hoax-proof scientific parameters: he seals the room of with wax and hair, sets up a rigged camera, and – after the haunting storms on during the course of the night – by examining his seals and photographs, he is able to confirm that no human being seems to be behind it. Now he decides to face it himself in person: Carnacki goes in with his favorite weapon – the electric pentacle – which he sets up on the floor of the Grey Room and prepares to stake it out. Unfortunately, this haunting is no hoax, and is hardly anything that Carnacki is prepared for: aggressive and angry, it literally slaps and pounds at his pentacle and terrifies him all night long.
He is psychologically and physically tormented by the presence, and barely makes it through the night before dawn saves him from the haunting which takes the shape of a massive human hand. But he does not give up, and returns with a mystical “luck ring,” which he wears inside his defenses the next night. Like in “The Haunted Jarvee,” though, his plan goes lopsided when the force outside of the pentacle possesses the ring and uses it as a doorway to get inside the pentacle with Carnacki, trapping them together in a fight to the death…
2. THE WHISTLING ROOM
Perhaps Carnacki’s most famous case, this one begins with all of the hallmarks of a hoax, as he goes to Ireland to investigate a haunted room in an incredibly ancient manor house. The haunting manifests as a low but loud “hooning” whistle from some disembodied source. The suspicious part of it all comes from the fact that the house’s owner – a nouveau riche called Tassoc – has recently become engage to a popular, local beauty who is hounded by a band of jealous suitors. So far, it seems very reminiscent of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” where the rambunctious local trickster-hero chases off the beautiful heiresses’ outsider suitor by faking a ghostly haunting.
Tassoc certainly favors this interpretation, but Carnacki waits to execute a battery of experiments before making his mind up: he seals the room – including the massive, medieval fireplace – up with wax and strands of human hair, and waits for the whistle. When it comes and goes, he checks the seals, which are arranged in an esoterically significant manner (six parallel strands crossed by a seventh), the six are intact, but the seventh is broken. What this means, only Carnacki knows, but it troubles him deeply.
The next night he sets up another series of experiments and opts to watch the room from the safter of a ladder perched against one of its tall windows. Staring into the gloom he is horrified to see the stone floor recompose itself into the distinct shape of a pair of “enormous, blackened lips, blistered and brutal, there in the pale moonlight” which go on to emit the eerie whistle.
Clearly this is no hoax, but a powerful, elemental possession. Just as he has begun to wrap his mind around what he is seeing – and while the whistle overwhelms his senses – he suddenly hears Tassoc’s voice crying out for rescue from the center of the room. Devoted to his client, Carnacki leaps through the window in spite of the danger to his life, but realizes – only too late – that it was a horrible trap: the lips mimicked Tassoc’s voice, and Carnacki is now trapped in the room with a creature who poses such a terrible threat to Carnacki’s soul that he immediately pulls out his revolver to commit suicide.
Of course, he lives to tell the tale, and is able to uncover the terrible history of the stones that make up the Whistling Room: a bitter story of war, jealous, a vengeful king, and the brutal torture of a singing jester (one which involves his tongue being ripped out and his being boiled alive in a massive fireplace) worthy of Edgar Allan Poe or Game of Thrones…
1. THE HOG
In what is perhaps his most complex and terrifying story, Carnacki’s client, Bains, has become terrified by his increasingly potent lucid dreams, and Carnacki fears that the barrier which prevents humans from being physically harmed by their dreams is being worn thin. Bains finds himself suffering sleep paralysis while imagining himself in a “deep, vague place” surrounded by intruding shadows and haunted by the orgasmic squeal of a giant hog.
Carnacki prepares his strategy of attack and Bains agrees to be completely submissive to Carnacki, creating an unwavering power structure between them (which will quickly prove suspiciously erotic). Committed to their course of action, they begin to set up Carnacki’s Tesla-esque paranormal machinery in the room where they will conduct their first experiment. The main apparatus is his spectrum defense – seven concentric rings made of neon tubes which range in color from red, orange, and yellow, to green, blue, indigo, and violet – essentially a rainbow-colored ring of neon light. The extreme ends of the color spectrum – red and violet – attract the most powerful, most evil entities, whereas blue – the median – attracts positive supernatural powers. Carnacki will attempt to lure Bains’ demon out of hiding – to identify and target it for destruction – with the outer, flame-colored lights, while relying on the cooler colors on the inside to act as a defensive fence.
As they prepare the begin the experiment, Bains shamefully shares with Carnacki some new information: not only has he been hearing the swinish grunts, but he himself has been squealing like a pig in response to them. Carnacki is disturbed by the implication he reads into this, but they proceed by donning rubber suits and helmets and having Bains lie down on a low table with glass legs set in the center of the neon rings. Carnacki plugs electrodes into Bains’ helmet and asks him to do two things: focus his thoughts on the sound of the squealing hogs, and stay awake at all hazards – he is to replicate his sleeping conditions without actually falling unconscious.
Carnacki sets about using a camera and phonograph recorder to try to capture spectral sights and sounds, and he is soon able to record the vague sounds of a swarm of squealing pigs regularly peppered by the monstrous grunts of what sounds to be an inconceivably gigantic hog. The intensity of the sounds is more powerful than Carnacki expected, and furthermore, he is horrified to note a growing shadow spreading beneath Bains’ table in spite of the piercing neon light and lack of obstructions. Carnacki commands Bains to stop focusing on the sounds so intently, but it is too late: Bains has fallen asleep.
Bains’ eyes are peeled open – agape in unconscious terror – and he begins grunting and squealing with piggish glee. The shadow grows, darkens, and deepens, and the two men begin to sink into what appears to be the mouth of this otherworldly pit. Their ordeal only gets worse from there, with the typical swashbuckling swagger of Carnacki replaced with a suffocating dread as the two men struggle in vain to escape the assaulting power of whatever force it is that has decided to claim their souls…