Is E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Dr. K. Too Early to Be an Occult Detective?

What Counts as Early Occult Detective Fiction?

The literary roots of occult detective fiction can be traced back at least as far as the Classical Period and the writings of Pliny the Younger and Lucian of Samosata. Those writings, in fact, establish the two main branches explored in my anthology Ghostly Clients & Demonic Culprits: The Roots of Occult Detective Fiction. And yet the term early in my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives means something centuries later than that. To be sure, it starts in 1817, the year that E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Mystery of the Deserted House” (a.k.a. “The Deserted House”) was first published in German.

I guess what I mean by early, then, is in relation to occult detective characters as they appear in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The characters on my list are recognizable ancestors of Carl Kolchak, Agents Mulder and Scully, or Sam and Dean Winchester. Even Buffy Summers or Harry Dresden can trace their roots pretty directly to the characters on my list.

This raises the question: does Dr. K., Hoffmann’s character who resolves the supernatural dilemma in “Deserted,” really qualify as an occult detective at all? Is he simply too early? Well, it’s open to debate.

On the One Hand…

It might be helpful to think of Hoffmann’s tale as working its way toward occult detection. After stumbling upon a strange house and increasingly becoming obsessed with it, the protagonist takes his troubles to Dr. K. This physician, we learn, “was noted for his treatment of those diseases of the mind out of which physical diseases so often grow.” Despite this very earth-bound description, the doctor quickly reveals that he accepts the supernatural as part of his diagnosis process. He trusts both psychometry (receiving psychic impressions from a physical object) and mind-to-mind clairvoyance, the latter by placing his hand on the patient’s neck to share his vision of a face in a mirror.

In other words, to gather evidence, Dr. K. accepts the supernatural as real. This acceptance of what’s possible also allows him to later identify the source of the villain’s power and, thereby, to solve the mystery. At its core, then, “Deserted” seems to fit the genre-blending of supernatural and detective fiction pretty well,

But on the Other…

That said, detective stories typically tend to focus on the investigator, who meets with a client and then pieces clues together into a history of a crime, one revealing the culprit. A lot of occult detective tales follow the same pattern: the main character meets with a client and then goes to work. However, “Deserted” follows the pattern of many, many supernatural tales by focusing on a protagonist who gradually comes to suffer from an otherworldly experience. Simply put, Hoffmann introduces his occult detective late instead of early, and that might raise an eyebrow.

Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776-1822)

The other eyebrow might go up, too, because — once Dr. K. finally gets involved — his investigation happens “offstage” while the narrative focus remains on the client. We don’t see this with subsequent clairvoyant doctors, such as Drs. Xavier Wycherley, John Durston, and John Richard Taverner. Stories with these characters usually follow the standard detective-story tradition of narrating the step-by-step investigation of the mystery. Can a work of occult detective fiction downplay the role of the mystery-solver to the extent that Hoffmann does here?

Examples of the Offstage Detective

There are examples of detective fiction downplaying the role of the investigator. One might remember that Sherlock Holmes remains surprisingly out-of-sight in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902). Of course, there, the detective debunks the supernatural.

Regarding truly occult detective fiction, Algernon Blackwood’s “Ancient Sorceries” (1908) is a John Silence tale that bears enough fundamental similarity with Hoffmann’s “Deserted” that a case could be made for Hoffmann having been a direct influence on later author. Both works feature a patient who goes through a traumatic haunting involving a woman with mystical powers, and relating the details of this takes up the bulk of the story. Both doctors are clairvoyant, and both disappear to conduct an investigation. In classic detective story fashion, though, both tales end with the doctors reappearing to provide the big reveal, meaning they recount the history that explains the haunting. Curiously, neither doctor can do very much to defeat the witchy woman who has cast a spell over the patient. Neither story ends with a splashy exorcism or a grandiose staking of the vampire. They both just sort of — end.

When Algernon Blackwood wrote “Ancient Sorceries,” was he under the spell of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Mystery of the Deserted House”?

Final Ruling: Dr. K. Qualifies

That being so, while “Deserted” is in some ways not typical of a detective or occult detective story, Dr. K. clearly stands as a founding member of the doctor-detective branch of occult detective fiction. (In fact, I see him as a far more impressive doctor-who-treats-occult-ailments than Sheridan Le Fanu’s Dr. Hesselius.) Perhaps this isn’t quite so surprising when considering that Hoffmann frequently used Gothic elements in his fiction. He’s often named as an influence on Poe, and fittingly, Hoffmann’s Mademoiselle de Scudéri (1819) has been seen by some critics as a pre-Poe work of detective fiction. With this in mind, the claim that Hoffmann combined supernatural fiction and early detective fiction to create one of the very first occult detectives in “The Mystery of the Deserted House” seems rather mild.

This is why, despite his being so very early an early occult detective, Dr. K. remains at the top of my roster.

Bibliography Banner

Go to the Chronological Bibliography
of Early Occult Detectives — 1800s page.

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