Years ago, I proposed that occult detective fiction has much deeper roots than one would gather from the histories then being told by the few literary critics addressing the topic. In fact, following a tip from Nina Zumel, I realized Henry William Herbert’s 1840 novella “The Haunted Homestead” was pretty easy to classify as a work of occult detective fiction. It’s a quirky contribution to the cross-genre, to be sure, but it’s clearly a murder mystery spotlighting a semi-Sherlockian investigator and weaving in supernatural events to spark and propel the investigation. Did I mention 1840? That’s a year before the debut of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which is sometimes named as the very first work of detective fiction! Granted, it’s three years after William Evans Burton’s “The Secret Cell,” which joins other works to seriously challenge that stuff about Poe inventing mystery fiction. But Herbert’s detective being decidedly American (while Burton’s is English and Poe’s is French) makes this author important not just for his place in occult detective fiction, but also for his place in detective fiction in general.
Herbert, who often used the pseudonym Frank Forester, led an interesting life. But it’s his death in 1858 — and his reputed ghostly afterlife fifteen years later — I want to look at here. He spent his final days in a “cottage” called The Cedars in Newark, New Jersey. An 1867 source describes the house as “so thickly shut in by trees that it is invisible from the road” and as the place where Herbert had led “his almost hermit life.” The structure burned down in 1872, but it had been right next to Mount Pleasant Cemetery, and that’s still there. Apparently, the mercurial Herbert spent those final days in anguish, abandoned by the woman he loved. He took his own life.
Think of that. A secluded house. A cemetery beside it. An author who, on at least one occasion, wrote a ghost story. His suicide. It was almost inevitable that a story regarding the author’s own ghost would materialize.
And in May of 1873, that story materialized in the New York Herald. It’s a tale of a tipsy trio who said they had encountered a ghost and the reporter who conducted a ghost hunt to verify their claim. The less-than-reliable three went to nose around The Cedars, then in ruins due to the fire. There, they witnessed “a tall, shadowy man, who advanced toward them from the cemetery. . . .” The reporter then launched a follow-up investigation, maybe being a bit too eager to interview a ghost. Finding the “high-walled, cavernous room” where the three had had their odd experience, our correspondent settled down, “determined to await the appearance of the ghost.” After some time, there was “a shadow — quick, uncertain, but unmistakably an interruption in the [star]light. Another moment of breathless suspense and it had passed again, this time slower and more palpably.” After the third time this happened, the reporter went in search of answers. In the direction of the cemetery, a presence “like the white shadow of a tall figure” flitted by and drifted towards a shed. The reporter pursued, finding nothing in or near the shed to explain the vision. “It was not accountable on physical principles, for there was nothing tangible that could produce such an appearance,” says the journalist, who ends the article with the mystery unsolved.
Not surprisingly, such a hair-raising report also seems to have raised doubting eyebrows. The Herald ran another article the very next day. Along with the alleged spectral phenomena, it adds “lights [that] flit about the ragged walls” and “noises as of groaning and cries of distress.” Nonetheless, the initial reporter’s white figure is here attributed to another ghost hunter roaming around there that same night, and the unsettling interruptions of starlight are said to probably have been nothing more than passing clouds. This more cautious article ends with a wait-and-see attitude: “The place is invested with a mystery, and at some future night there may be truer apparitions of departed spirits in that vicinity than have been shown to wandering mortals.” Was a senior editor backpeddling after an eager cub reporter went too far? Hard to say.
All I can say is that I’m weirdly delighted by the notion of a founding author of occult detective fiction returning in ghostly form to the physical plane. Or, I guess, his having never left at all. New Jersey ghost hunters assemble! We need you to poke around Newark’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery in search of a tall phantom who just might be the troubled Henry William Herbert! Report your findings back here.
But to prepare, you can read this post about the author’s key place in occult detective fiction. If you have little interest in Herbert and more in those challenges to the claim that detective fiction starts with Poe, here’s another post about that.