I never saw a purple cow.
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one.
The words above might be Gelett Burgess’ most enduring contribution to literature. Well, silly literature, that is.
He also contributed to silly occult detective fiction.
Burgess invented a supernatural sleuth named Enoch F. Gerrish. Gerrish’s first adventure is related in “The Spectre House” (1899), published in the UK — then in the US — then in Australia. Gerrish’s second case is titled “The Levitant,” which so far as I can tell, first appeared in The Burgess Nonsense Book (1901) with yet another reprinting of “The Spectre House.”
Now, neither of these tales might qualify as “official” occult detective fiction. This is because what happens in them can be interpreted as nightmares caused by Gerrish over-indulging in food and drink at meetings of the Psychical Research Society.
However, Gerrish’s third adventure is something else. In “The Ghost-Extinguisher” (1905), the character has evolved some. He still says that the “investigation of those phenomena that lie upon the threshold of the great unknown has always been my favorite field of research.” However, now, he narrates the adventure himself (which, come to think of it, introduces the possibility that he’s an unreliable narrator). Also, we don’t get any suggestion that the supernatural phenomenon is a result of indigestion and/or drunkenness (so if he is unreliable, man, he’s really nuts).
Perhaps the most interesting thing about “The Ghost-Extinguisher,” though, is how it foreshadows a much later band of occult detectives. You see, Gerrish invents a machine that can neutralize ghosts, which are then kept trapped in cylinders. He starts a professional extermination service, specializing in supernatural pests. Seem familiar? Think movies. From the 1980s. [Start music: ♪When's there's something strange in your neighborhood -- who ya gonna call?♫ Fade Ghostbusters theme under.]
Here’s Gerrish describing how he refined his machine:
While I had no trouble in securing ghosts of recent creation, . . . I found in old manor houses or ruined castles many specters so ancient that they had become highly rarefied and tenuous, being at times scarcely visible to the naked eye. . . . It became necessary for me to obtain some instrument by which their capture could be conveniently effected.
The ordinary fire-extinguisher of commerce gave me the hint as to how the problem could be solved. One of these portable hand-instruments I filled with the proper chemicals. . . . The whole apparatus being strapped upon my back, I was enabled to direct a stream of powerful precipitating gas in any desired direction, the flow being under control through the agency of a small stopcock. By means of this ghost-extinguisher I was enabled to pursue my experiments as far as I desired.
[Resume music: ♪I ain't afraid o' no ghost.♫]
While “The Ghost-Extinguisher” is a sign of ghostbusters to come, Gerrish himself — especially as presented in Burgess’ first two tales — nods to a legacy of students of Occultism who become eager victims of ghostly deception. Washington Irving’s Icabod Crane is the poster-boy of this character type.
But a character named A. Wynter Knight comes closer to an occult detective than does ol’ Icabod. Knight appears in “Midnight at Marshland Grange” (1863), where he sees a ghost after expecting to see a ghost. Serving as secretary of the Supernatural Investigation Society and lamenting having never seen an actual ghost, Knight sets out to track one down . He’s convinced he has succeeded by the story’s end. As in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the reality of the supernatural encounter remains ambiguous, but readers are certainly nudged to suspect that Knight has been duped. As such, I’m hesitant to put Knight on my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives.
Gerrish is there, however, mostly on the strength of “The Ghost-Extinguisher.”