Updates on the Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives

First, let me nudge you toward a very informative and lively series that spotlights individual occult detectives.  It’s Who Are . . . THE NIGHTMARE MEN?, written by Josh Reynolds.  Reynolds has an impressive résumé of fiction and non-fiction publications in the dark fantasy realm.  (To top it off, he says, “I love the Vera Van Slyke stories!”)

Arthur Machen

Now, as noted in an earlier post, I’m compiling a list of early occult detectives in fiction.  How did I ever miss Arthur Machen’s Dyson?  Well, he’s there now.

I also added Mary Fortune‘s Constable Lumsden, who appears in “The Phantom Hearse” (1889), my list’s first Australian entry.  Lumsden is a bit like Alexander M. Reynolds’ the Chief in that he’s a novice at investigating crime intertwined with the supernatural.  Lumsden’s attempt to thwart an illegal still operation leads to an encounter with a ghostly apparition.  The encounter seems fairly tangential to the crime, but it’s made relevant in an interesting way.

“The Phantom Hearse” includes two key elements that I’ve been using to define an occult detective story:  1) an investigation of a violation of societal and/or physical laws (i.e., a probe into something criminal and/or something paranormal) and 2) the supernatural phenomenon is confirmed, not debunked.   The first criterion seems obvious, since there has to be a detective, professional or amateur.  The second criterion distinguishes occult detectives from, well, virtually all other detectives.  This includes the many “debunking detectives” whose solutions prove there’s really nothing occult going on at all.  Think:  “And if it hadn’t’ve been for you meddling kids!”  Perhaps L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace’s John Bell is an allowable exception here, since his specialty is debunking occurrences that appear at first to be supernatural.

Given its title, I had high hopes for a short story titled “The Ghost Detective” (1865), by Mark Lemon.  This tale almost qualifies in that its setting–its fictional world–allows for supernatural intrusions.  There’s a ghost!  And there’s a crime.  But there’s really no detecting of either one.  Instead, the title ghost materializes and pretty much cocks his head at “the smoking gun.”  Case solved.  It’s not a bad story, but there’s much more ghost than detective here.  The fact that the story was reprinted in Peter Haining’s collection Supernatural Sleuths: Stories of Occult Investigators (1986) shows that “occult detective” is a debatable term.

Fergus Hume

My criteria have helped me rule out additional works that two online sources describe as fitting the occult detective cross-genre.  These works are the reverse of “The Ghost Detective”–detectives, yes, but no trace of the supernatural.  Not even the green-stone god in Fergus Hume’s short story “The Green-Stone God and the Stockbroker” (1896) has any special power.  It just becomes a clue when the criminal drops it.  The title detective in Hume’s Hagar of the Pawn-Shop (1899) is also alleged to run into otherworldly phenomenon in “The Florentine Dante,” “Amber Beads,” and “The Casket.”  But there’s not even a whiff of ectoplasm.  It’s almost as if you can’t trust what you find on the Internet.

I would very much like to hear what others have to say about these works and about my two criteria regarding what constitutes an occult detective story.  Recommendations for my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives are, of course, also very welcome.  For now, though, I’m limiting things to 1910 and earlier.

5 thoughts on “Updates on the Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives

  1. I’ve started reading all your articles on occult detectives and looked over your chronology. I know you have a cut off of 1910, and that you have lamented the lack of woman occult detective. Still, you ought to know that one of the best (and earliest) female occult detectives — created by a woman writer no less — appears in the novel THE UNDYING MONSTER (1922) by Jessie Douglas Kerruish. Luna Bartendale is a true occult detective, perhaps modeled after John Silence, perhaps not. She knows her lore and legends and she does legitimate detective work. There is a fantastic scene involving a Hand of Glory in the climax of the book which has genuine supernatural content. Well worth searching out. I reviewed the book on my blog here.

    I have found that nearly all of Fergus Hume’s so-called supernatural stories are not or turn out to be rationalized. The Green Mummy is to be avoided at all costs. A dreadful book and nothing remotely supernatural in it.

    • Thanks very much for your comment!

      I’ve read The Undying Monster. If I extend my bibliography by a couple of decades as I’m contemplating, Luna will definitely be there. (And I agree completely with your disapproval of the movie version of this novel!)

      Shiela Crerar is the only other female occult detective from these early years that I know about, and her stories are pretty good. She’s a bit less ladylike than Luna–more rough-and-tumble–and clearly an ancestor of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

      Thanks for the warning about Fergus Hume! I wondered about The Green Mummy, given the title. There’s one more short story of his in a collection that I’ve requested through inter-library loan. I’m well-prepared to be disappointed, though.

      • Sure enough, Hume’s short story “The Ghost’s Touch” disappointed me. It’s a fairly lackluster “debunking detective” story, but it does involve a detective investigating something that, at first, appears to be supernatural. In some of the other stories I mention in my post, there’s not even that, so I wonder what would cause some to suggest they qualify as supernatural detective stories.

  2. Fascinating subject. I’m really only familiar with Carnaki, but now you’ve given me a laundry list of authors to hunt down. Luckily for me, here at the Toronto Public Library system we have the Merrill Collection, which is dedicated to horror/fantasy/sci-fi. I just did a piece on THE HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND on my blog, which you might like. Here’s the link:

    http://www.jettisoncocoon.com/2012/11/book-review-house-on-borderland-1908-by.html

    • You know? The House on the Borderland has been collecting dust on my bookshelf for too long. I really need to read it!

      Thanks for the comment! I’m also planning on getting my hands on your own novel, Dead Bunny! What a great title, and the premise is intriguing!

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