I thought I had found something good.
Fergus Hume’s short story “A Spirit in My Feet” (1906) begins with a doctor preparing to open his practice in a rural English town. He asks why a prime property is being offered for such low rent, and he’s told it’s because of the previous tenants.
They packed their bags and vamoosed, claiming there’s a ghost.
It’s an introduction found in many Victorian ghost stories, but I was hoping this doctor character might give me another name to add to my list of early occult detectives. After all, doctor-detectives have a prominent place on that list. In fact, after Hume’s skeptical physician agrees to occupy the allegedly haunted house — but begins to experience odd feelings of being watched once he’s moved in — he tells himself: ”I shall go to bed, and to-morrow take steps to investigate the cause of these silly fears.”
I hoped there would be an investigation, turning the doctor into a detective, if only a debunking detective. But the ghost is revealed to be real! And there’s a crime underlying the haunting! Things were looking promising.
Unfortunately, it’s the ghost — not the doctor — who becomes the active agent in unraveling the crime and haunting. That and dumb luck. The doctor remains a central but passive participant. In the end, it would be too great a stretch to call him an occult detective.
I had better luck with another short story, “The Spectre in the Cart” (1899), by Thomas Nelson Page. Page, it should be noted up front, is among the “Lost Cause” school of writers. Working in the wake of the American Civil War, these Southern, white writers defended their region and history by portraying rebel leaders as heroic and the North — especially, Reconstruction — as villainous. African-Americans are portrayed as devoted to serving their white neighbors, perpetuating the myth that slavery was in keeping with racial predilection.
“The Spectre in the Cart” takes place “the year after we had emancipated ourselves from carpet-bag rule,” according to the central narrator. This narrator, named Stokeman, is the State’s Attorney for his close-knit county. When a murder occurs, he assumes the role of detective to find the criminal. The trouble is traced to Absalom Turnell, an African-American character, who left the community and returned with fervent racial animosity. The unsubtle implication is that the races would have gotten along just fine in the South if not corrupted by outside — read: Yankee — ideas of racial justice.
Though Stokeman attempts to ensure that Absalom is subject to due process of law, mob rule and masked vigilantes ultimately decide the case. Absalom is lynched. Stokeman is left haunted psychologically by the events. He is also literally haunted by apparitions.
All of this might seem far too serious a subject to qualify for occult detective fiction. Admittedly, it’s not an easy fit. The supernatural element seems to be a side effect or a metaphor to express the main character’s mental damage instead of the focus of the story. A similar feeling is evoked in W.W.’s “The Phantom Hearse,” found on my list under 1889. Yet both of these stories blur the line between violations of moral laws and physical laws, a line that is key to occult detective fiction.
Furthermore, “The Spectre in the Cart” opens with Stokeman debunking reports of an earlier, unrelated haunting. He has a history of investigating occult phenomenon, in other words. By the story’s end, though, he’s a man who is forced to accept the fact that physical laws can be broken just as moral ones can. As such, he is an especially interesting novice-detective, joining those occult detectives who confront supernatural intrusions into the natural world for the first time.