Long before Ghostbusters, fiction’s detectives were exploring the otherworldly

Michael Dirda

THE WASHINGTON POST – Who you gonna call? Will it be John Silence, Carnacki, Flaxman Low, Dr Taverner, Moris Klaw or Simon Ark? Long before Ghostbusters or The X-Files, there were occult detectives and psychic sleuths who regularly ventured into the darker corners of the twilight zone. A 2020 anthology, Fighters of Fear, edited by Mike Ashley, surveys this paranormal subgenre, while Edward D Hoch’s Funeral in the Fog collects 16 of “the strange mysteries of Simon Ark.”

Perhaps the first self-proclaimed psychic detective is E and H Heron’s Flaxman Low, whose experiences with the uncanny originally appeared in Pearson’s magazine during the late 1890s and were initially regarded as fictionalized cases from the files of Britain’s Society for Psychical Research. Ashley reprints, for example, The Story of Y and Manor House, in which Low encounters a mass of invisible protoplasm that smothers its victims. Another early supernatural sleuth is Mr Dyson, who in Arthur Machen’s The Shining Pyramid deciphers the disturbing implications behind some peculiar flint arrowheads, a young woman’s disappearance and what seem like a child’s scribbles. Only at the story’s shocking climax do we finally grasp the hideous significance of its title.

By far the most memorable early psychic investigator, though, is Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence. For some reason, Ashley – Blackwood’s biographer – doesn’t include any of the adventures of the “physician extraordinary” in his anthology, but they are all conveniently assembled in a Dover paperback, The Complete John Silence Stories. Whatever their theme – spectral invasion, diabolism, shape-changing – Blackwood expertly builds up an atmosphere of the otherworldly coupled with the spiritually threatening. In The Nemesis of Fire, for instance, a groundskeeper describes a sinister wooded area on a country estate: “No birds nested in the trees, or flew into their shade. … Animals avoided it, and more than once he had picked up dead creatures round the edges that bore no obvious signs of how they had met their death.” Moreover, at night people sometimes glimpsed luminous shapes flitting among the trees or “queer, huge things they could not properly describe.” One fellow even reported “great stars lying on the ground round the edge of the wood at regular intervals.”

All these bizarre elements point to an astonishing explanation that only John Silence can deduce.

While the traditional detective story, when confronted by “wrongness,” makes sense of the mystery and thus restores the world to its old familiar order, the occult detective story demonstrates that “wrongness” is actually an aspect of a greater reality. The concept of an Other or Outer World runs throughout the harrowing adventures of William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder, most notably in The Gateway of the Monster, The Whistling Room (included in Fighters of Fear) and the horrific and phantasmagorical The Hog. The up-to-date Carnacki relies on an “electric pentacle” for protection, but he also refers frequently to the Sigsand Manuscript and confesses that he was once saved from spiritual destruction by a guardian entity pronouncing the Unknown Last Line of the Saaamaaa Ritual.

By the 1920s and ‘30s, occult and paranormal sleuths were flourishing. Dion Fortune, a theosophical thinker unduly overshadowed by her rival Aleister Crowley, created Dr Taverner whose patients include a daughter of Pan, an unwilling vampire and, in the story chosen by Ashley, a consumptive mystic with a plan to escape death and secure the love of another man’s abused wife. Two other powerful tales in Fighters of Fear also turn on unhappy marriages: The Soldier by the underappreciated AM Burrage and The Jest of Warburg Tantavul, in which Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin, “the occult Hercule Poirot,” defies conventional morality to secure a young couple’s happiness.

Among the many other authors reprinted by Ashley are Max Rittenberg, Rose Champion de Crespigny (wonderful name), Margery Lawrence, Mark Valentine and Jessica Amanda Salmonson. He even includes a story by Robert W Chambers – about mesmerism and ancient hieroglyphs – that isn’t taken from that author’s notorious 1895 volume, The King in Yellow. Fans of the “weird menace” genre will obviously relish Manly Wade Wellman’s deliciously pulpy The Shonokins, in which John Thunstone thwarts a race of malign humanoids.

Though best known for his thrillers about the insidious Dr Fu Manchu, Sax Rohmer also created Moris Klaw, “the dream detective.” An antiques dealer by trade, with an enigmatic and captivating daughter named Isis, the bespectacled Klaw sleeps at the scene of a mystery and while dreaming on his “odic pillow” perceives the truth about seemingly impossible events. Klaw’s cases typically carry a whiff of brimstone; even his parrot regularly squawks, “Moris Klaw, Moris Klaw, the Devil’s come for you!” In The Ivory Statue he must retrieve the lifelike sculpture of a legendary Egyptian beauty, adorned with priceless jewels, which inexplicably vanishes from its pedestal after a voice whispers the name, “Nicris! Nicris!”

While Rohmer’s stories occasionally hint that Moris Klaw could be the Wandering Jew, Simon Ark actually appears to be centuries-old, a former Coptic priest who travels the world combating satanic evil. Ark initially appeared in Edward D Hoch’s very first published story, 1955’s Village of the Dead. In it, all 73 men, women and children in the village of Gidaz commit mass suicide by walking off the edge of a cliff. Why? Today, Hoch’s depiction of an authoritarian cult leader and his lemming-like followers carries a frightening contemporary charge.

Ark’s later adventures from Funeral in the Fog are just as atmospheric, fast-moving and beautifully constructed. In Day of the Wizard, Ark and a motley company search the North African desert for a World War II plane that crashed 17 years earlier while transporting something very hush-hush. In the collection’s title exploit, the inscrutable Ark attempts to aid a Satanist who claims that the Devil is trying to kill him. Even though these highly enjoyable mysteries finally turn out to have rationalised human solutions, they keep open the possibility that, deeper down, a supernatural explanation may actually be the truer one.