Following a lead from Sage Leslie-McCarthy’s dissertation on occult detectives, I read Rudyard Kipling’s 1909 short story “The House Surgeon” to see if it belongs in my still-growing Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives.
Now, Kipling’s main character in this story is not especially well-versed in supernatural investigation. So far as readers can tell, he’s not a crime investigator, either. While many occult detectives are medical doctors, this fellow is only mistaken for one. Perhaps Kipling was having a bit of fun with the tradition.
However, I’m convinced this is a legitimate occult detective story. When given the task of figuring out why a house casts a cloud of despair over people who stay in it, Kipling’s protagonist takes on the role quite seriously! (At least, he does after he’s felt swallowed by the sudden gloom of the place himself.) And he approaches the mystery very much in terms of detective work. Narrating his own adventure, he says:
I am less calculated to make a Sherlock Holmes than any man I know, for I lack both method and patience, yet the idea of following up the trouble [of the haunted house] to its source fascinated me.
Later, he almost apologizes for detailing an interrogation “because I am so proud of my first attempt at detective work.” This, then, is a novice occult detective, much like Mary Fortune’s Constable Lumsden or Alexander M. Reynolds’ the Chief. His role is reinforced by being twice referred to as “Mr. Perseus,” which seems to be a nickname given to him by the homeowner’s Greek wife, alluding to the monster-hunter of ancient myth.
In the end, our man succeeds at exorcising “the dumb Thing that filled the house with its desire to speak.” The method of exorcism, though, is revealing. Since the manifestation involves psychological depression, it’s fitting that the “cure” for the haunting be a kind of intervention. In fact, the problem is as much the house’s former inhabitants, who are still living, as the ghost.
In key ways, this story–more than any other I’ve discovered–comes closest to my Vera Van Slyke chronicles. This is because the specter in Kipling’s tale is shackled by undying sorrow and shame. In Vera’s world, intense guilt tears holes between the physical and spirit realms, allowing ghosts to find their way back. That which haunts us psychologically becomes embodied . . . or, if you will, em-disembodied in ghostly phenomenon. Much like “Mr. Perseus,” Vera and Lucille are not just ghost-hunters. They’re guilt-hunters.
And shouldn’t any good detective find the guilty party in some form or another?