The hyperlinks, which appear in blue on the Chronological Bibliography, take you to online copies of the works. If pages are hyperlinked, you’ll be taken directly to those pages. If a publisher is hyperlinked, you’ll be taken to that edition of the work. If a title is hyperlinked, you’ll be taken to an e-book version of the story, such as one offered by Project Gutenberg.
The Four Occult Detective Types
I label each occult detective character according to four types that developed as I considered — not just does a particular character qualify as an occult detective — but how does that character qualify. This led me to settle on four types of occult detectives: the doctor-, the diviner-, the specialist-, and the novice-detective. They’re not mutually exclusive, meaning that a character might belong to two, possibly three, of these categories.
- The Specialist-Detective — Some doctor-detectives and clairvoyant-detectives specialize in occult cases. Other occult detectives share that specialty but have neither a medical degree nor extra-sensory ability. Fitz-James O’Brien’s Harry Escott, for instance, says he “had devoted much time to the investigation of what are popularly called supernatural matters,” and Robert Bulwer-Lytton’s narrator in “The Haunted and the Haunters” claims to have “witnessed many very extraordinary phenomena . . . that would be either totally disbelieved if I stated them, or ascribed to supernatural agencies.” They draw from their specialized knowledge and experience to probe the haunting at hand. This category, then, is reserved for characters who have training or background in handling occult mysteries with methods of investigation like those in detective fiction.
- The Novice-Detective — In the made-for-TV movie The Night Stalker (1972), newsman Carl Kolchak discovers that a string of murders is being committed by a vampire. Along with having to deal with that monster, Kolchak has to adjust to living in a world that includes such things as vampires. This, then, is a tale of how a character becomes an occult detective. Now, Kolchak went on to become a specialist-detective in his subsequent encounters with the supernatural. However, even if a character has no further cases (that we know about), such stories give worthwhile insight into the occult detective as a human being. For instance, in a few stories, an ordinary detective investigating an ordinary crime experiences a supernatural event for the first time. That event might reveal very little about the case, but it reveals a lot about the detective’s expanding worldview.
- The Doctor-Detective — Dr. Martin Hesselius, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, and Dr. John Silence are medical doctors who hold prominent positions in the history of the fictional occult detective. They show that, once upon a time, being haunted by a ghost or some other supernatural “ailment” struck readers as a kind of spiritual disease, one that must be remedied by someone who understands the physical and the metaphysical. In fact, concurrent with the early development of the fictional occult detective, many actual doctors wrote about their investigations into strange phenomena. The German doctors Johann Jung-Stilling and Justinus Kerner stand out as the original inspiration for this type of occult detective.
- The Diviner-Detective — At least as early as Seeley Regester’s novel The Dead Letter (1866), some fictional detectives have relied on their ability to intuit someone’s criminal nature or to sense clues that are beyond empirical perception. It’s certainly a handy ability to have when investigating a crime, so handy that some advocates of traditional mystery fiction deem such detectives to be cheats! Still, even when they investigate entirely “natural” crimes, these stories are worth considering because of how they mix the detective genre with the supernatural possibilities found in Gothic horror. That mix, after all, is at the heart of occult detective literature.
Settling on a Definition of Occult Detective Fiction
Part 1 (of 3)
“The simple definition of an occult detective story is merely one in which the tropes of the traditional detective story are combined with those found in supernatural horror fiction.”
The Multo (Ghost) blog explores ghosts in folklore, myth, literature, and more. Nina, who runs the show there, knows about my interest in occult detective fiction and directed me to a very important, very early story that interweaves a murder investigation with supernatural phenomenon. The story is Henry William Herbert’s “The Haunted Homestead.” After reading it, I pondered whether or not it qualifies as a work of occult detective fiction — or if it’s just a very interesting prototype of the cross-genre. This, in turn, has forced me to finally pin down what I mean by the term “occult detective fiction.”
After all, “The Haunted Homestead” was published in 1840! This is fifteen years before the work that had been first on my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives. It’s also a year before the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the work considered by some to be the first detective story. If Herbert’s early tale fits some reasonable definition of occult detective fiction, it’s a remarkable work in terms of the history of this particular cross-genre and the history of mystery fiction in general.
While compiling my Bibliography, I’ve tried to lean toward inclusiveness. Doing so helps to resurrect long-neglected works while revealing how writers vary and spin and experiment with genre conventions instead of how they conform to and repeat those conventions. My working definition of occult detective fiction was very similar to the “simple definition” offered by Bob Freeman (quoted above): a hybrid of traditional detective fiction and supernatural horror fiction.
However, I narrowed this somewhat by specifying that occult detective fiction combines a character whose investigative methods parallel those of fictional detectives and a setting that allows some supernatural element(s) — from ghosts to clairvoyance — to be part of the story’s reality. While this did exclude many stories in which events that seem supernatural are debunked and proven to be completely natural (e.g., Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles), it also let me bring in an interesting variety of mysteries that have traditionally been snubbed by those who think the supernatural has no place in mystery fiction. I hope I’ve also revealed some new aspects of old supernatural stories.
But I’m willing to bet that several of the works I’ve included are not what many occult detective fiction fans typically have in mind when they say “occult detective fiction.” Herbert’s “The Haunted Homestead” is an excellent example. Yeah, okay, the protagonist, Dirk Ericson, does some pretty good detecting in regard to the murder case. For instance, when a riderless horse trots up, Ericson draws some very Holmesian conclusions. A mark on the horse’s flank leads him to deduce that the animal had been
struck from behind, by a man on foot — see it slants downward, forward and downward, tapering off to the front end! There’s been foul play here, otherwise! . . . Pistols both in the holsters — that looks cur’ous, and — this here cover’s been pulled open, and in a hurry, too, for the loop’s broke — both loaded! Ha! here’s a drop of blood — just one drop on the pummel. The traveler’s had foul play, boys — he has, no question of it!
For the remainder of the story, it’s clear Ericson’s skill at analyzing evidence makes him the right man to lead the investigation. And he uses that same smart, focused approach when investigating a ghostly manifestation related to the crime.
But is Ericson really what we call “a detective” — and is a single encounter with the occult enough to make someone an occult detective?
Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say about the word “detective”:
One whose occupation it is to discover matters artfully concealed; particularly (and in the original application as short for detective policeman, or the like) a member of the police force employed to investigate specific cases, or to watch particular suspected individuals or classes of offenders.
The OED then defines a private detective as “one not belonging to the police force, who in his private capacity, or as attached to a Detective Agency or Bureau, undertakes similar services for persons employing him.” There are two important considerations here: 1) detectives are people whose occupation or employment is based in detecting and 2) that occupation is largely (though not exclusively) about policing, either as a public servant or as a private businessperson.
Still, by the standards of detective fiction — and of realism — Dirk Ericson might easily be granted the title “detective.” No, he doesn’t earn a living from detecting, but neither does C. Auguste Dupin, Miss Marple, Ellery Queen, Nancy Drew, and a legion of other amateur detectives. These detectives do “make it their business” to solve mysteries, though, and Ericson certainly does the same with the crime and the haunting he encounters. In the end, the criminal is caught and justice is served, so Ericson essentially does police work, as do all those other amateur detectives.
Remember, too, that it’s kind of tough to get paid when one’s “client” is a ghost or when the official police refuse to recognize that reports of a suspect sleeping in a coffin should be reason enough to arm officers with stakes, mallets, and Holy water. Without putting an X-Files unit in the basement of the F.B.I., it’s pretty unrealistic to suggest someone could earn a living by solving paranormal cases, even in the private sector. Supernatural fiction, of course, relies on a certain amount of realism to be scary. Werewolves, for instance, have to be unexpected, unnatural, even a bit unbelievable and unrealistic to be truly hair-raising. It’s this contrast to realistic expectations that makes them scary.
My point, then, is that we have different ideas for what constitutes a real-life detective and a fictional one. Many of the characters I’ve put on my Bibliography don’t match up to authentic detectives — and, being fictional, they shouldn’t. They do seem very much like other fictional characters who we regularly call detectives or, at least, refer to as belonging to detective fiction.
At the same time, it would be helpful to swap the word “detective” with “investigator” when dealing with these characters. Unfortunately, detective fiction is so ingrained in our heads that the phrase occult investigator fiction probably has no chance to stick. So we’re stuck with calling characters who aren’t professional detectives — investigative reporter Carl Kolchak, for instance — “occult detectives.”
I’ll return to Kolchak, a paragon of latter-day fictional occult detectives, in Part 2 of this search for a definition of occult detective fiction.
Settling on a Definition of Occult Detective Fiction
Part 2 (of 3)
“Essentially, psychic detective fiction involves the investigation of reportedly supernatural events by a character, or characters, who endeavour to understand the nature of the disturbances and facilitate possible solutions.”
Sage Leslie-McCarthy’s dissertation on what she calls psychic detective fiction has been very helpful to my search for what I call occult detective characters. It’s there that I found Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Hardacre and Rudyard Kipling’s “Mr. Perseus.” However, as the passage above implies, she’s more focused on the investigation itself and not quite as much on specific characteristics of the investigators. While she counts Margaret Oliphant’s story “The Open Door” (1881) as part of the cross-genre, I don’t see its protagonist, Colonel Mortimer, as being enough like traditional detectives in fiction to qualify for my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives. The Colonel’s motivation for investigating is to save his son’s life, so he lacks the objectivity of a traditional detective. In the end, his neighbor’s prior knowledge resolves the haunting, not the Colonel’s own gathering of evidence, interviewing of witnesses, or logical reasoning.
Kicking out the Colonel got me wondering about those characters I had let pass. In Part 1 of these posts on defining occult detective fiction, I say that the working definition I’ve been using to compile my Bibliography was something like this: a work that puts a character whose investigative methods parallel those of tradition fictional detectives into a setting where some supernatural phenomenon is part of the reality. Fine, fine — but what did I mean by “methods paralleling traditional fictional detectives”? I’ve now settled on six characteristics:
1) analyzes physical evidence,
2) gathers information from witnesses and/or historical records,
3) surveils suspects,
4) approaches the case with some objectivity,
5) applies logical reasoning, and
6) plays a central role in solving the mystery.
An occult detective doesn’t need to exhibit all of these, but 1, 2, or 3 show up a lot, and 4, 5, and 6 are especially important.
Now, some occult detective fiction fans might want to add: 7) investigates for a living. This would fit the professional/occupational denotations in the dictionary definition of “detective.” As I say in Part 1, though, we have to be a bit lenient with fictional detectives because of the many characters who “make it their business” to solve mysteries but don’t get paid for it.
Leslie-McCarthy seems to agree. Discussing detective characters in general, she says:
In the early decades of the twentieth-century we see a movement away from the gifted amateurs like Dupin and Holmes, towards the more ‘professional’ detectives, that is, those for whom solving crimes is more than a hobby. Although at first glance a priest such as Father Brown may not seem the embodiment of a professional ‘detective’ in the same sense that policemen or a private detectives [sic] for hire can be understood as professionals, his professionalism lies not in his original calling but in the way he goes about his detective work.
There’s a similar shift toward professionalism with occult detectives, and Leslie-McCarthy ends her study by looking at characters who might strike some as being the very model of occult detectives: Flaxman Low, Thomas Carnacki, Norton Vyse, John Silence, and Dr. Taverner.
But, of course, it’s a mistake to dismiss earlier detective characters for fitting their own generation instead of a generation or two later. Drs. Hesselius and Van Helsing, even Dirk Ericson aren’t prototypes of occult detectives because they aren’t professional occult detectives. Just as the amateur Miss Marple and the professional Sam Spade are both detectives, Harry Escott and Harry Dresden are both occult detectives.
Interestingly, at least one occult detective from long after the shift toward professionals bares a distinctive family likeness to those first- and second-generation characters. Carl Kolchak, who appeared in the early 1970s, is in fundamental ways more like the earliest occult detectives than “pros” like Carnacki and John Silence. Kolchak is neither a professional detective nor does he have special training or experience in dealing with the supernatural. Despite his being “old-school,” Kolchak stands firm as a paragon of latter-day occult detectives.
I’m more familiar with the two made-for-TV movies, The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973) than with the Kolchak: The Night Stalker TV series (1974-75), and so I’ll refer to those movies. Professionally speaking, Kolchak is a newspaper reporter, not a detective. In fact, he’s very much at odds with the official police in both movies. Nonetheless, his investigation of a series of murders — he relies a lot on gathering information from witnesses and historical records — leads him to a vampire in the first movie and an alchemist in the second. In that conventional policing won’t work with these monsters, Kolchak becomes a vigilante, a one-man judge and executioner. Even though this allows the official police to run him out of town in the end, viewers know he’s done the right thing by superseding the short-sighted official police. In other words, he’s a better cop than the cops.
In the first movie, Kochak has no prior experience with confronting the supernatural. He’s what I term a novice-detective on my Bibliography, and there’s a goodly number of those among the specialist-detectives there. Silence, Carnacki, and the others from the early 20th century are almost exclusively specialists in occult detection. Leslie-McCarthy explains this by pointing out that, in the early 1900s, this body of literature began to spotlight serial characters:
If an investigator were to re-appear in numerous stories, there had to be some reason for the supernatural to keep crossing his path. Consequently, in these stories, dealing with the paranormal became a profession rather than an unfortunate accident. What began to set the professionals apart from their amateur predecessors was primarily an issue of training and vocation. These psychic detectives were prepared by way of vigorous training, detailed study and extensive experience to deal with the forces with which they came in contact. Moreover, helping others solve their paranormal problems was their vocation.
Not so with Kolchak. In The Night Strangler, Kolchak refers to his experiences in the previous film, but he doesn’t really seem any better prepared to combat another supernatural foe. (However, he does seem far more open-minded about the supernatural intruding upon the natural world, a characteristic I’ll discuss more in Part 3.)
Carl Kochak, then, was neither a professional occult detective nor even an amateur specialist in the supernatural, and this makes it a bit easier to see how those many characters from the 1800s who similarly investigate supernatural phenomenon without very impressive credentials still qualify as occult detectives.
Furthermore, in a very essential way, the earliest occult detectives established something that reappears in Carnacki, John Silence, Carl Kolchak, and occult detectives whose stories are being introduced in the early 21st century. Each one of these characters comes to see — or, in the past, has come to see — that some mysteries extend beyond the natural world. In Part 3, I’ll discuss how this will let us define occult detective fiction and do so in a way that will differentiate these characters from other fictional detectives.
Settling on a Definition of Occult Detective Fiction
Part 3 (of 3)
“I had devoted much of my leisure time to the investigation of what are popularly called supernatural matters by those who have not reflected or examined sufficiently to discover that none of these apparent miracles are supernatural, but all, however singular, directly dependent on certain natural laws.”
— Fitz-James O’Brien’s Harry Escott (1855)
“I had witnessed many very extraordinary phenomena in various parts of the world — phenomena that would be either totally disbelieved if I stated them, or ascribed to supernatural agencies. Now, my theory is that the Supernatural is the Impossible, and that what is called supernatural is only a something in the laws of nature of which we have been hitherto ignorant.”
— Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s anonymous narrator
of “The Haunted and the Haunters” (1859)
“I think I may say that I am the first student in this field of inquiry who has had the boldness to break free from the old and conventional methods, and to approach the elucidation of so-called supernatural problems on the lines of natural law.”
— E. and H. Heron’s Flaxman Low (1898)
Flaxman Low was wrong. He was not the first to investigate phenomena commonly called “supernatural” as if it were really barely understood parts of the natural world. Nope, Harry Escott and the narrator of “The Haunted and the Haunters” had done the same decades before him.
And yet histories of occult detective fiction routinely honor Flaxman Low as the first. Barbara Roden’s essay “No Ghosts Need Apply?” which appears in the book Ghosts in Baker Street (Carroll & Graf, 2006), is fairly typical. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Dr. Hesselius is mentioned but is deemed “not truly representative of the psychic detective” because of his failure to save Jennings in “Green Tea” (1869) and his being restricted to the framing of the other tales in In a Glass Darkly (1872). Fair enough. Roden isn’t as convincing, though, when discussing Bram Stoker’s Abraham Van Helsing. She admits that the doctor shows off a lot of knowledge about vampires in Dracula (1897) but maintains that referring to him as “a psychic detective would be a misnomer.” This is because “vampires are physical creatures, very much of this earth, and little in what we are told about Van Helsing leads us to believe that he is concerned with, or knowledgeable about, more spiritual, unearthly matters.” It’s easy to challenge the claim that Dracula is “very much of this earth” — after all, he’s an undead, shape-shifting, mind-controlling vampire, not a duck-billed platypus. But this leads Roden to conclude that, when Flaxman Low appeared in 1898, his use of “deductive skills to solve problems of a supernatural nature” qualified him as the first “true psychic detective.”
In “Fighters of Fear: A Survey of the Psychic Investigator in Fiction” (Voices from Shadow, 1994) Mike Ashley presents a well-researched and very helpful chronology of fictional occult detectives (a.k.a. psychic detectives). He presents a slightly different history of occult detective fiction, starting with the narrator of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “The Haunted and the Haunters.” Ashley says that this work, “whilst not involving a psychic detective is, nevertheless, a good example of psychic investigation.” Le Fanu’s Dr. Hesselius “is not a psychic detective,” yet his keen knowledge of psychic matters lets him “pronounce wisely upon them, a facet we shall encounter in later psychic investigators.” Similarly, Stoker’s Dr. Van Helsing “is not a detective” but his credentials make him an “expert guide, which would later become so much a feature of the psychic detective.” As does Rodin, these characters are treated as prototypes, steps toward the character who Ashely deems the first “genuine” occult detective.
Unlike Rodin, Ashley’s first is L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace’s debunking detective John Bell — closely followed by Flaxman Low. Despite the investigative talents of the first three characters, Ashley says they fail to qualify as “detectives.” Unfortunately, he never really defines what separates an investigator from a detective. My hunch is it’s either the professional status given to “detective” in dictionary definitions, as I discuss in Part 1, or the fact that Bell and Low are both serial characters, which I explore in Part 2.
So if a failure to define terms is the problem, then it’s high-time I end this long and winding, 3-part ramble with an attempt to define what I mean by “occult detective fiction.” Here it is:
Occult detective fiction presents a character who probes a mystery, exhibiting similarities to other fictional detectives of the same era in investigative methods and in professional or amateur status. However, unlike detectives whose cases are confined to the physical world, the occult detective accepts or comes to accept that phenomena typically termed “supernatural” can play a very real role in the mystery’s solution. That mystery can involve a violation of criminal law (e.g., a murder) or of natural law (e.g, a ghost), but the supernatural element might also be part of the investigation itself (e.g., clairvoyance).
I tossed in that violation of criminal/natural law business because it’s often very difficult to separate the criminal from the supernatural. Do we hunt down vampires, for instance, because they’re undead or because they kill us? (Dracula is a monster as much because of his crimes as his creepiness.) Ghosts sometimes solicit an occult detective to effect legal action, such as punishment for a murder. My definition above admits those many, many works that focus on crime but include the supernatural as well as the curious tradition of the clairvoyant detective who exclusively investigates crime. It also draws attention to how crime often plays an important role in works classified as supernatural fiction.
This definition, as cumbersome as it is, leads to a very enlightening revision of the history of the occult detective character. Instead of starting in the very late 1890s with John Bell or Flaxman Low, citing Drs. Hessilius and Van Helsing as prototypes, we can go back at least as far as 1840 and Henry William Herbert’s Dirk Ericson. It erases the idea that “true” or “genuine” occult detectives must be professionals or specialists in what they investigate, something that is not in keeping with other fictional detectives or even with important latter-day occult detectives, such as Carl Kolchak.