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H.P. Lovecraft said of William Hope Hodgson, "Few can equal him in adumbrating the nearness of nameless forces and monstrous besieging entities through casual hints and insignificant details..." Hodgson is best remembered by fans of the macabre today as the author of four novels: The Ghost Pirates (1907), The House on the Borderland (1908), The Night Land (1912), and Boats of the Glen Carrig (1907). Tragically, Hodgson wrote no more after 1918; he was a casualty of the first World War.
Hodgson also wrote short fiction. His Carnacki the Ghost Finder supernatural mystery stories were published in magazines starting in 1910, and collected in book form in 1913. While Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and others considered these tales to be of lesser quality than Hodgson's novels, they are a lively and chilling interpretation of the "ratiocinative" detective story invented by Poe, and have a similar feeling to Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, with the exception that Carnacki tells his ghostly tales to a group of four friends and the tales' narrator, Dodgson, who, unlike Dr. Watson, never participates as either foil or fool.
Much of the pleasure of the tales derives from Carnacki's character, and the anticipation that his curious ways give to his guests. When Carnacki is ready, on his own, unpredictable schedule, he sends cards to his friends inviting them to his house for dinner. And so, in anticipation and suspense, they wait for the outrageous tale of terror that is sure to come. Carnacki is a professional Ghost Finder. Some of the hauntings he investigatesturn out to have all-too-human causes, while others are of true supernatural origin.
Carnacki himself is a curious mixture of fear, "funk" and fortitude. Hodgson uses the word "funk" in its original sense--to indicate an emotion of dread or a state of paralyzing fear. The use of the word has changed today, and modern readers may wonder whether or not Carnacki is "funkier" than he is intended to be.
The six tales in Carnacki: The Ghost Finder contain humor, horror and glimpses into human nature as well as the nature of the supernatural. Carnacki is a "scientific" ghost finder, using carefully worked-out detective methods that are much of the pleasure of the tales. He ties "baby ribbon" and human hairs across windows and doors to discover any unseen entry, by either human or supernatural means. He depends upon a medieval tome, the Sigsand MS, and describes his "protective measures" elaborately, in addition to a feeling of "creep" that he credits with saving his life on several occasions, and a system of defining hauntings and manifestations ranging from the relatively harmless "Aeirii," to the deadly and horrific "Saitii."
In the first tale, "Gateway of the Monster," Carnacki describes his horrific encounters with a deadly presence from "beyond" that menaces the "Grey Room" of an old castle. Carnacki investigates despite the warnings of a loyal old servant who is terrified at the prospect of Carnacki's entering the dangerous room at night. This creature is real, and it turns out to have been controlled by an ancient ring possessed by the family. The haunting is solved and the creature dispatched to the nether regions after Carnacki melts the ring into slag. The sights, sounds and terror of the haunting are all described by Carnacki in suspenseful detail, along with his narrow escape, for the creature was powerful enough to evade Carnacki's circle of "protection." This story also introduces Carnacki's Electric Pentacle, a device that both draws and repels evil spirits.
The next tale, "The House Among the Laurels," builds up a remarkable sense of creepiness and foreboding with Carnacki's investigation of his friend Wentworth's Irish Castle. A horrible entity is feared to live in this castle, a haunting caused by a Macbeth-like betrayal and midnight murder centuries earlier. Two "tramps" have been found dead in the castle as evidence of the supernatural malevolence. Any who stay in the castle at night are confronted by a feeling of creeping dread, and the manifestation of a "blhood dhrip," in the Irish dialect--hideous drops of blood that fall upon them prior to their near-certain demise. In this tale, however, a gang of thieves are found to be the culprits, though they are real murderers and just as dangerous as any malevolent spirit from beyond.
Perhaps the most terrifying tale of all is "The Whistling Room," where Carnacki investigates yet another haunted castle, the new home of a young American expatriate. The climax, where Carnacki witnesses the floor of the room become a pair of huge, pursed lips, whistling, is bizarre, horrifying, and original. An ancient jester is the source of this haunting, and his hideous death presages centuries of "manifestation" in which his hate-filled spirit imbued the very walls and floors of the "Whistling Room."
"The Horse of the Invisible" combines a human villain with a hint of "something from beyond" in a unique tale. The tale twists at the end in a complex way; just as it seems as though the human culprit who is menacing a beautiful young bride has been unmasked, it becomes clear that not all aspects of the "haunting" can be ascribed to the villain. The villain's character, too, is affecting in Carnacki's description, and the jealous young man redeems himself in the end by defending Miss Hisgens against an unseen and horrific horse that is the doom placed upon her family in legend.
A real-life and supernatural cause are also the culprits in "The Searcher of the End House," where Carnacki's own mother is menaced. The horror of this tale lies in Carnacki's description of a ghostly child whom only he can see. Others all see a "woman," which in turn, Carnacki cannot glimpse. Much of the horror is revealed to have come from the house's previous tenant, including a foul smell which is humorously revealed to come from the former tenant's "disgusting leg of mutton," which he has for some unknown reason been carrying with him, dropping maggots to the horror of the house's residents and the local constabulary.
The sixth Carnacki tale involves an ingenious mechanical investigation and explanation for a deadly ancient dagger. In "The Thing Invisible," Carnacki builds up tremendous terror and suspense as he dons a suit of armor and waits to discover the secret of the dagger.
Most of all, the Carnacki tales can be described as fun and enjoyable. Yet underneath the enjoyment lies a sense of, as Carnacki would say, "real funk." As his "bones turn to water," so do the readers. The ghosts are far from stereotypical; their manifestations as creepy and arresting as H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith have attested. Those who enjoy Sherlock Holmes as well as ghost stories will equally enjoy these undeservedly neglected tales by a master of horror whose life and writing were cut short, tragically. Read them and smile ... and shiver.
--Amy Sterling Casil