In which Carnacki the Ghost Finder goes head-to-ectoplasm with a pesky animal spirit.
First published in 1910
Available at Wikisource
Of all the authors that H. P. Lovecraft appropriated from, he arguably stole from William Hope Hodgson the most.
OK, now, unclench those fists, fellow HPL fans. You know that he stole — he acknowledged that fact in a book-length confession entitled Supernatural Horror in Literature. “It’s a fair cop, guv’nor,” he might have said. “Take me away.”*
Lovecraft’s great genius lay in his ability to fuse concepts spread throughout supernatural fiction. In a similar fashion, Tolkien took elements from Anglo-Saxon and Norse literature and combined them into a pastiche that he called The Lord of the Rings. As with dub music, Joseph Cornell‘s collages, and Burroughs‘s literary cut-ups, being original can mean taking established elements and forging them into something never seen before.
None of this applies to Hodgson; he was not a great synthesist of literary elements, but he did all right for himself.
He was only 13 years the senior of HPL, but he seems much older than that, more of an elder-statesman figure. He was a successful author at a time when the members of the classic Weird Tales circle — HPL, Smith, Howard, Bloch, and the rest — were still children, even infants.
As with Algernon Blackwood, Hodgson worked cosmic themes into his fiction. His incorporeal threats were usually inhuman entities from the outer darkness rather than just plain ghosts. In this, he was decades ahead of the curve, mining the same themes that the Weird Tales authors and their successors would later make mainstream.
Hodgson also contributed to the budding occult detective genre. These stories came to prominence in the late 19th century, alongside traditional detective yarns. Whereas standard mystery stories eschew the supernatural** and explain it away, occult detective fiction revels in it. The genre still exists today, primarily in the form of urban fantasies, parodies, and quasi-documentaries (e.g., Jim Butcher‘s Dresden Files novels, the Ghostbusters franchise, and the Ghost Hunters TV series, respectively).
Hodgson’s contribution to the subgenre was a series of nine stories about a character named Carnacki, who battles malign spirits plaguing houses in the remote British countryside. Carnacki’s approach to his job was anything but old-school; he used a slew of then new-fangled devices, such as a “camera-flashlight” and the “Electric Pentacle,”*** a pentagram consisting of a star-shaped network of wires and vacuum tubes that glowed with a “pale blue glare.” I’m unsure of what advantages the Pentacle conveyed — it seems like a treatment for seasonal affective disorder to me — but it was Carnacki’s trademark, just as the deer-stalker cap was Sherlock Holmes’s.
Carnacki also possessed an arcane knowledge of protective incantations and spells, most of which had names that sounded like a cross between scat singing and unconstrained glossolalia, such as the “Saaamaaa Ritual” and the “Incantation of Raaaee.” It was a scary world that Hodgson described, in which even vowels were running riot.
“The Horse of the Invisible” was the fourth of the Carnacki stories, and it’s a representative entry. As with the other Carnacki tales, it begins with Carnacki reciting the details of the case to a small group of his friends after a dinner. This makes the Carnacki tales similar to club stories, which we discussed earlier.
Carnacki relates that he’s just returned from an unusual trip:
“‘I’ve been North,’ he said, speaking slowly and painfully, between puffs at his pipe. ‘Up to Hisgins of East Lancashire. It has been a pretty strange business all round, as I fancy you chaps will think, when I have finished. I knew, before I went, something about the ‘horse story,’ as I have heard it called; but I never thought of it as coming my way, somehow. Also I know now that I never considered it seriously — in spite of my rule always to keep an open mind. Funny creatures, we humans!
“‘Well, I got a wire, asking for an appointment, which of course told me that there was some trouble. On the date I fixed, old Captain Hisgins himself came up to see me. He told me a great many new details about the horse story; though, naturally, I had always known the main points, and understood that if the first child were a girl, that girl would be haunted by the Horse, during her courtship.”
“The Horse” that Carnacki refers to is believed to driven five young women to their deaths, via suicide, apparent accident, and sudden fright. Now that the current first-born is female and recently engaged, her family has become concerned about a repeat performance of the Horse’s tricks. Carnacki, with his spirit-fu, is perhaps the only thing keeping tragedy from recurring. Unfortunately for him, there may be more than one threat involved.
Now, I should state that the primary reason that the Carnacki stories have lasted so long has nothing to do with Carnacki himself. Carnacki is as bland and uninteresting as a butter sandwich on white bread with a side of skim milk. Carl Kolchak he’s not.
Carnacki’s main defining characteristic is his assumption that everyone listening to him is stupid. For example, take these excerpts from “The Horse of the Invisible:”
“Now, you see, all of these deaths might be attributed in a way –even the suicides–to natural causes, I mean, as distinct from supernatural. You see?”
* * *
“We stopped there, and listened. The sounds went on steadily with a horrible sort of deliberateness; as if the brute were taking a sort of malicious gusto in walking about all over the room in which we had just been. Do you understand just what I mean?”
* * *
“I stood for a little time like this, my head turned, so that I should see up the passage. I was conscious only that there was a hideous danger abroad. Do you understand?”
Yes, Carnacki, we understand. Really, dude, your utterances aren’t that hard to parse, OK? It’s not like you’re spewing Finnegans Wake here.
The reason for the longevity of these stories are the threats. Hodgson lavished more love and attention to detail on his monsters than he did on his hero, but that’s fine. The end result is a body of stories that aspire to creepiness and often reach that goal.
Hodgson also was a better writer than most give him credit for, not so much in the construction of his plots but in his turns of phrase. For example, this is fine work:
“Suddenly, Beaumont motioned to me for absolute quiet. Directly afterwards, I heard the thing for which he listened–the sound of a horse galloping, out in the night. I think that I may say, I fairly shivered. The sound died away, and left a horrible, desolate, eerie feeling, in the air, you know. I put my hand out to the bell-cord, hoping that Parsket had got it clear. Then I waited, glancing before and behind. Perhaps two minutes passed, full of what seemed like an almost unearthly quiet. And then, suddenly, down the corridor, at the lighted end, there sounded the clumping of a great hoof; and instantly the lamp was thrown down with a tremendous crash, and we were in the dark. I tugged hard on the cord, and blew the whistle; then I raised my snap-shot, and fired the flashlight. The corridor blazed into brilliant light; but there was nothing; and then the darkness fell like thunder. I heard the Captain at the bedroom door, and shouted to him to bring out a lamp, quick; but instead, something started to kick the door, and I heard the Captain shouting within the bedroom, and then the screaming of the women. I had a sudden horrible fear that the monster had got into the bedroom; but in the same instant, from up the corridor, there came abruptly the vile, gobbling neighing that we had heard in the park and the cellar. I blew the whistle again, and groped blindly for the bell-cord, shouting to Beaumont to stay in the pentacle, whatever happened. I yelled again to the Captain to bring out a lamp, and there came a smashing sound against the bedroom door. Then I had my matches in my hand, to get some light before that incredible, unseen Monster was upon us.”
This is vivid and effective, almost cinematic. Hodgson’s writing is full of such moments.
If you enjoy “The Horse of the Invisible,” you would undoubtedly like the rest of Hodgson’s catalog. Bear in mind, however, that his novels can be overlong, with the exception of The House On The Borderland, which is a page-turner. The short form was his metier.
Do you understand just what I mean?
One final note: “The Horse of the Invisible” was adapted in 1971 as an episode of the British TV show The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes; it starred Donald Pleasance as Carnacki. The program can be seen on YouTube here.
*Don’t ask me where he’d be taken, or by whom. It’s a metaphor, people.
**As Sherlock Holmes once put it, “No ghosts need apply.”
***”The Electric Pentacle” sounds like the name of a band that Nigel Tufnel might have formed prior to Spinal Tap.