by W.H. Hodgson
192 pages, Wordsworth Editions, Ltd.
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
The supernatural detective is a relatively familiar character in modern fiction. The journalist/investigator/scientist with access to forbidden knowledge and secrets outside the realms of normal men has been gracing page and screen ever since Doctor Van Helsing lent a hand in Bram Stoker's “Dracula”. More recent examples can be seen in the comic book series “John Constantine: Hellblazer” and Agents Mulder and Scully from the cult TV series “The X-Files”. In the first few years of the twentieth century the best known supernatural detective was William Hope Hodgson's Thomas Carnacki, the protagonist of a handful of short stories published in “The Idler” magazine.
“The Casebook of Carnacki The Ghost Finder” is a nice little collection which brings together the six Carnacki stories that were published in Hodgson's lifetime and three additional posthumously published works. A mere nine short stories means that this is a fairly slight book but it is published in the Wordsworth Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural range and so is available for a budget price.
Carnacki is a fairly one-dimensional character and all his tales follow a similar structure. He invites a group of friends around to supper and after dining he regales them with tales of his latest adventure. That minor quibble aside, all the stories in the collection remain very accessible and readable despite being close to a hundred years old. Though we never learn much about Carnacki, it is clear that he has detailed knowledge of the supernatural world and numerous different enchantments with which to protect himself from dark forces. Equipped with his trusty camera, books on magic and other neat little gadgets, Carnacki fearlessly investigates the cases of hauntings and seeks to uncover the truth behind them. What makes these tales so memorable is that Hodgson keeps the reader guessing throughout. Sometimes the “haunting” will be exposed as a hoax and Carnacki will use his deductive powers to expose the human agents behind it. At other times, Carnacki will uncover genuine supernatural activity and will need to draw upon his knowledge of occult lore in order to battle the dark forces at work. Hodgson subtly manages to lace the tales with such tension and weighted expectation that the reader is kept on the edge of their seat, even with tales that have a rational explanation behind them. What the tales lack in characterisation, they more than make up for in atmosphere.
For me, it is the setting of these stories that really helps to make them solid-gold classics. The Edwardian period was a fascinating time. The conventions of the Victorian world were still thoroughly ingrained in most people but the advent of electricity and other strange new technologies meant that science was making progress at a hitherto unheard of pace. Carnacki is no Luddite. Embracing the technologies of his time, he makes use of cameras and phonographs to capture evidence of ghostly spirits at work and (best of all) an electric pentacle as a means of protection. Though well-versed in arcane lore, Carnacki's use of technology makes him more like an early member of “Ghostbusters” than your typical spiritualist.
“The Casebook of Carnacki The Ghost Finder” is yet another great addition to the Wordsworth Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural catalogue. Though modern audiences may be more accustomed to horror tales that feature generous quantities of blood and gore, these stories still have the power to give the reader goosebumps and that is testament to W.H. Hodgson's skill as a writer. Part Sherlock Holmes and part Egon Spengler, Thomas Carnacki might not be the most memorable of creations but his investigations of things that go bump in the night are delightful little spine-tinglers.
Who ya gonna call?!
Hereward L.M. Proops