British author William Hope Hodgson‘s Carnacki the Ghost-Finder first saw the light of day in 1913. Consisting of six short stories, drawn from the pages of The Idler and The New Magazine, the collection was ultimately expanded to include nine stories, the last three being discovered after Hodgson’s early death at age 40 in April 1918. In this fascinating group of tales, we meet Thomas Carnacki, a sort of occult investigator in Edwardian London. Just as Carnacki seems to be patterned on a similar fictional psychic investigator of the time, Algernon Blackwood‘s John Silence, a casual reading of the Carnacki stories will reveal the influence that Hodgson’s Sistrand Manuscript, Outer Monstrosities and “electric pentacle” defense had on later authors such as H.P. Lovecraft (an admitted fan of this book, although he much preferred Hodgson’s novels) and Dennis Wheatley. These nine tales all have a similar framing device: Carnacki calls four friends — Arkright, Taylor, Jessop (could this be the same able-bodied seaman Jessop who was the only survivor of the Mortzestus sinking in Hodgson’s 1909 novel The Ghost Pirates?) and our narrator, Dodgson — to dinner and afterwards regales them with the details of his latest case. The reader will soon realize that not all the cases are supernatural in nature, although they all seem to be on the surface. Half the fun in reading these tales comes from trying to figure out which stories involve actual hauntings or spirit manifestations, and which are hoaxes. To make the game even tougher, some of the tales involve both sham AND actual supernatural events. This reader always gets more of a kick from the 100% unearthly, but nonetheless, every tale here is just brimming with suspense and atmosphere. (Those readers who want to stick with the 100% paranormal should go with the John Silence stories mentioned above.)
In the first Carnacki tale, “The Gateway of the Monster” (which first appeared in The Idler in January 1910), our hero investigates a haunting near London and is compelled to seek defense within his electric pentacle (an excellent name for a rock band!) from a ghostly, murderous hand. Dennis Wheatley’s similar pentacle defense, in his 1934 masterpiece “The Devil Rides Out,” is clearly patterned after Carnacki’s night from hell here. “The House Among the Laurels” (from The Idler, February 1910) finds Carnacki investigating another haunted house, this one in western Ireland, the same eerie locale that figured so prominently in Hodgson’s 1908 classic The House on the Borderland. In “The Whistling Room” (The Idler, March 1910), Carnacki is back in western Ireland, investigating the strange sounds that have been proceeding from a certain room in Iastrae Castle. This, I must say, is one of the freakiest tales of the bunch. In “The Horse of the Invisible” (The Idler, April 1910), Carnacki encounters a very unusual spirit indeed: a ghostly horse that afflicts the first-born females of a certain well-to-do family in East Lancashire. Not exactly the kind of critter you’d want to feed sugar cubes to, to put it mildly! In “The Searcher of the End House” (The Idler, May 1910), Carnacki tells of an investigation that he was forced to make at his own mother’s home, very early in his career. Strange sounds had been heard, the ghostly image of a running child had been seen, a maggot had appeared from out of nowhere, and a horrible stench had pervaded the house. In “The Thing Invisible” (New Magazine, January 1912), Carnacki spends a night in a creepy old chapel that contains a mysterious dagger that has, on its own, attacked the family butler. Even the suit of armor that our hero wears for protection in this tale is barely enough to save him from this terrible weapon.
Thus run the original six Carnacki tales. The first of the posthumous stories, “The Haunted Jarvee” (Premier Magazine, March 1929), finds Carnacki on the high seas (a milieu that Hodgson knew well), investigating the eerie manifestations that had recently been witnessed on the sailing ship Jarvee. If only the crew of the doomed Mortzestus had had access to Carnacki’s scientific equipment! Actually, this story goes a good way toward explaining the unfathomable events that transpire in The Ghost Pirates. In “The Hog” (Weird Tales, January 1947), Carnacki faces one of his most fearsome opponents: a soul-sucking swine creature, one of the so-called Outer Monstrosities, and his minions. Yes, these are very similar to the loathsome beasts that so memorably tormented the old hermit in The House on the Borderland, and again, this tale throws some light on that earlier mysterious novel. A great story indeed, and featuring Carnacki’s improvement on the electric pentacle: his multicolored vacuum tubes. The ninth and final Carnacki tale, “The Find,” first appeared in the complete Carnacki the Ghost-Finder of 1947. The only nonsupernatural story of any description in the bunch, it tells of Carnacki’s investigation into a possible antiquarian book forgery. This short tale demonstrates that our hero was not just an occult sleuth, but a pretty fine regular detective and ratiocinator as well. Taken along with the others, we have a most impressive gathering of short stories. This collection, by the way, was chosen for inclusion in Stephen Jones and Kim Newman‘s excellent overview volume Horror: Another 100 Best Books, and I have no problem at all with that decision. My bet is that you’ll be wishing that Hodgson’s short life hadn’t precluded the penning of many more of these engrossing Carnacki tales.