American writers played a key role in establishing the occult detective cross-genre. There’s Henry William Herbert’s “The Haunted Homestead” (1840), set in the New Hampshire/Vermont region. Fitz-James O’Brien wrote two Harry Escott stories (1855 and 1859), both set in New York. And there’s Bayard Taylor’s “The Haunted Shanty”, set on the Western frontier. Of course, since this story is from 1861, that frontier is still in the prairies of Indiana and Illinois instead of the plains of, say, Oklahoma or the Dakotas.
Warning: there be spoilers ahead.
Eber Nicholson, a key character, hasn’t pushed West so much as was pushed West — by guilt. He left a woman named Rachel Emmons behind, the woman he loved. His strict father disapproved and demanded Eber marry a more financially secure woman. And so Eber did. But now Rachel Emmons haunts him. Psychologically and supernaturally. In spirit and in spirit!
If that isn’t trouble enough, it turns out that Rachel Emmons isn’t dead yet. Yes, her “ghost” visits Eber with growing frequency. But she isn’t dead.
This is the situation Taylor’s unnamed narrator stumbles upon after becoming lost during a business trip to Peoria, Bloomington, and Terre Haunt. The narrator experiences the ghostly manifestation himself and probes the mystery on the assumption that Eber must have murdered Rachel. When he learns he’s met the ghost of a living person, he’s too mystified not to investigate the matter more thoroughly!
Here’s where the traits of an occult detective appear. The narrator is a neutral party in the haunting. Nonetheless, after interrogating Eber Nicholson, he goes far out of his way to interview Rachel Emmons. During his investigation, he acts as a consultant, giving his best advice to resolve the haunting. Some of Taylor’s language paints the narrator as almost a doctor-detective. He diagnoses the problem as “a spiritual disease” but is frustrated by feeling “incapable of suggesting any remedy.” This inability makes the character a novice-detective rather than a doctor-detective.
This inability also leads to my one hesitation in including this character on my list of occult detectives: the character acting as detective doesn’t solve the mystery. There is resolution in the story. However, after being quite active in the investigation, Taylor’s narrator is terribly passive when it comes to actually doing something about it. This is an important element of the story, though — that feeling of being helpless before an unfathomable mystery. Harry Escott knows the feeling. Harry never really figures out what it was in “What Was It: A Mystery,” a tale by Fitz-James O’Brien that was published two years before “The Haunted Shanty.”
And both Taylor’s narrator and O’Brien’s Escott are in good company. In “The Problem of Thor Bridge” (1922), Dr. Watson mentions that even Sherlock Holmes didn’t solve all of his cases:
Some, and not the least interesting, were complete failures, and as such will hardly bear narrating, since no final explanation is forthcoming. A problem without a solution may interest the student, but can hardly fail to annoy the casual reader.
This might explain why a reviewer for an 1861 issue of The New York Times described “The Haunted Shanty” as “a modified ghost story, . . . which we do not like at all. The author assures us that it is true, and we do not doubt the assertion — it is certainly dull enough to be so.” Ouch! I disagree. I found the tale to be clever and creepy, a nice variation on the familiar lost-traveler-sleeps-in-a-haunted-room theme. Its setting of pioneer-era Illinois and Indiana also fascinated me, though this might be due to my being from that region.
Adding to the interest is the fact that Taylor went on to write Hannah Thurston (1863), a novel praised by no less than Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Joseph and His Friend: A Story of Pennsylvania (1870), a novel that Roger Austen claims is America’s first gay novel.