Some writers of speculative fiction become best remembered for one, maybe two, of the many works they wrote. With Mary Shelley, it’s Frankenstein. With Bram Stoker, it’s Dracula. M.R. James: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. Shirley Jackson: “The Lottery” and The Haunting of Hill House.
To be honest, I wouldn’t have been able to name even a single title of something written by Clark Ashton Smith before discovering his 1910 tale “The Ghost of Mohammed Din.” I knew his name as one of those pulp writers from the heyday of Weird Tales and Amazing Stories. Though I’m curious about this wave of speculative fiction, my tastes keep dragging me back to the fin de siècle and Victorian stuff.
Although Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence or William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki appeared in print about the same time (1908 and 1910 respectively), Smith’s protagonist/narrator in “The Ghost of Mohammed Din” doesn’t have the same feel. No, this supernatural sleuth feels closer to, say, the unnamed ghost-buster in H.G. Wells’ short story “The Red Room” (1896) or “the Chief” in Alexander M. Reynolds’ short story “The Mystery of Djara Singh: A Spiritual Detective Story” (1897). This latter story was published in Overland Monthly, the same magazine where Clark’s story appears.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that “The Ghost of Mohammed Din” has the feel of a supernatural story from the previous century. Clark was only about seventeen years old when his tale was published, and it’s been my experience that young writers often imitate more than invent. Very likely, imitation is just an early stage in learning to write fiction for many, many authors.
Nonetheless, Smith’s detective bears all of the traits of what I call the novice-detective. In fact, he’s a prime example of a character who comes to the investigation without years of training, without a firm conviction that the supernatural really does intrude upon the physical realm. This character begins as “rather skeptical” on the subject of ghosts. Hoping to test the reality of phantoms, he gladly agrees to spend the night in a house alleged to be haunted. It’s a familiar set-up for a ghostly mystery, and like several of those, the character’s skepticism crumbles while the supernatural manifestation leads him to the evidence of an unpunished crime. In other words, rather than facing a supernatural criminal as Silence and Carnacki so often do, the ghost that appears to Smith’s amateur detective acts as a supernatural client seeking resolution of a crime.*
My preference for and familiarity with those pre-pulp stories might have dampened my enjoyment of this one a bit. Still, as an example of Clark’s early work, as an example of that tendency of young writers to imitate, and as an example of the long “dare to spend the night in a haunted house/room” tradition, “The Ghost of Mohammed Din” is certainly worth reading.
*This post was written back when I was developing the idea that occult detective fiction historically follows two paths: the ghostly client tradition and the demonic culprit one. This discovery led to my anthology, Ghost Clients & Demonic Culprits: The Roots of Occult Detective Fiction.