I never saw a purple cow.
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one.
The words above might be Gelett Burgess’ most enduring contribution to literature. Well, silly literature, that is. He also contributed to silly occult detective/ghost hunter fiction when he invented a comical supernatural sleuth named Enoch F. Gerrish, who specializes in specters.
Gerrish’s first adventure is related in “The Spectre House” (1899), and his second is titled “The Levitant” (1901). Neither of these tales might qualify as “official” occult detective fiction. This is because what happens in them can be easily interpreted as nightmares caused by Gerrish over-indulging in food and drink at meetings of the Psychical Research Society. They’re very light, comical stories, after all.
However, Gerrish’s third adventure is something else, even though Burgess is still aiming for chuckles. In “The Ghost-Extinguisher” (1905), the character has evolved some. He still says that the “investigation of those phenomena that lie upon the threshold of the great unknown has always been my favorite field of research.” However, now, he narrates the adventure himself (which, come to think of it, introduces the possibility that he’s an unreliable narrator). Also, we don’t get any suggestion that the supernatural phenomenon is a result of indigestion and/or drunkenness (so if he is unreliable, he’s also really, really nuts).
Perhaps the most interesting thing about “The Ghost-Extinguisher,” though, is how it foreshadows a much later band of silly occult detectives. You see, Gerrish invents a machine that can capture ghosts, which are then kept trapped in cylinders. He starts a professional extermination service, specializing in supernatural pests. Seem familiar? Think about a couple of movies from the 1980s. And a reboot in 2016.. [Start music: ♪When’s there’s something strange in your neighborhood — who ya gonna call?♫ Fade Ghostbusters theme under.]
Here’s Gerrish describing how he refined his machine:
While I had no trouble in securing ghosts of recent creation, . . . I found in old manor houses or ruined castles many specters so ancient that they had become highly rarefied and tenuous, being at times scarcely visible to the naked eye. . . . It became necessary for me to obtain some instrument by which their capture could be conveniently effected.
The ordinary fire-extinguisher of commerce gave me the hint as to how the problem could be solved. One of these portable hand-instruments I filled with the proper chemicals. . . . The whole apparatus being strapped upon my back, I was enabled to direct a stream of powerful precipitating gas in any desired direction, the flow being under control through the agency of a small stopcock. By means of this ghost-extinguisher I was enabled to pursue my experiments as far as I desired.
[Resume music: ♪I ain’t afraid o’ no ghost.♫]
While “The Ghost-Extinguisher” is a sign of ghostbusters to come, Gerrish himself — especially as presented in Burgess’ first two tales — nods to a legacy of students of Occultism who become eager victims of ghostly deception. Washington Irving’s Icabod Crane is the poster-boy of this character type.
Well before Gerrish gassed ghosts, a similar character named A. Wynter Knight appeared in “Midnight at Marshland Grange” (1863). His name tips off readers that they’re to giggle rather than gasp at the spectral encounter. Much like Gerrish in his first two tales, Knight sees a ghost only after very much wanting to see a ghost. Serving as secretary of the Supernatural Investigation Society and lamenting having never seen an actual ghost, he sets out to track one down.
By the story’s end, the phantom-hungry investigator is convinced he has succeeded at witnessing something paranormal. As with Icabod in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” though, readers are nudged to strongly suspect that Knight has been duped. Therefore, I’m hesitant to put Knight on my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives. He does fit onto The Legacy of Ghost Hunter Fiction list, however. After all, he went in search of a ghost.