“Equal to All of the Ghosts”: Clark Ashton Smith’s Anonymous Occult Detective

Some writers of speculative fiction become best remembered for one, maybe two, of the many works they wrote. With Mary Shelley, it’s Frankenstein. With Bram Stoker, it’s Dracula. M.R. James: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. Shirley Jackson: “The Lottery” and The Haunting of Hill House.

Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) at around 19 years old, shortly after "The Ghost of Mohammed Din" was published.

Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) at around 19 years old, a couple of years after “The Ghost of Mohammed Din” was published.

To be honest, a month ago, I wouldn’t have been able to name even a single title of something written by Clark Ashton Smith, even though I would have recognized the name. I knew he was one of those pulp writers from the heyday of Weird Tales and Amazing Stories. While curious about this wave of speculative fiction, my tastes keep dragging me back to the Victorian and fin de siècle stuff.

Therefore, I was intrigued to find “The Ghost of Mohammed Din,” a 1910 occult detective story by Smith. Its central character/narrator certainly doesn’t have the same feel as Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence or William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, even though Silence and Carnacki appeared in print about the same time (1908 and 1910 respectively). No, Smith’s sleuth seems closer to, say, the anonymous ghost-buster in H.G. Wells’ short story “The Red Room” (1896) or “the Chief” in Alexander M. Reynolds’ short story “The Mystery of Djara Singh: A Spiritual Detective Story” (1897). This latter story was published in Overland Monthly, the same magazine where Clark’s story would appear later.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that “The Ghost of Mohammed Din” has the feel of a supernatural story from the previous century. Clark was only about seventeen years old when his tale was published, and it’s been my experience that young writers often imitate more than invent. Very likely, imitation is just an early stage in learning to write fiction for many, many authors.

Nonetheless, Smith’s detective bears all of the traits of what I call the novice-detective. In fact, he’s a prime example of a character who comes to the investigation without years of training, without a firm conviction that the supernatural really does intrude upon the physical realm. This character begins as “rather skeptical” on the subject of ghosts. Hoping to test the reality of phantoms, he gladly agrees to spend the night in a house alleged to be haunted. It’s a familiar set-up, and like many a Victorian story, the character’s skepticism crumbles while the supernatural manifestation leads him to the evidence of an unpunished crime. In other words, rather than facing a supernatural criminal as Silence and Carnacki so often do, the ghost that appears to Smith’s amateur detective/ghost-hunter acts as a client seeking resolution of a crime.

My preference for and familiarity with those pre-pulp stories might have dampened my enjoyment of this one a bit. Still, as an example of Clark’s early work, as an example of that tendency of young writers to imitate, and as an example of the novice occult detective tradition, “The Ghost of Mohammed Din” is certainly worth reading.

Adventures in Book Promotion: The Challenge of the Dedicated Blog

Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries should become available in a matter of weeks. I hope. It’s taken longer than expected. I’ve used the extra time to triple-check the text, though, so maybe the wait was worth it.

Now, I have to focus on promoting the book. Help for the Haunted is being published by Emby Press, which should help. Their website and Facebook page will lend a hand.

Still, it’s certainly in my best interest to do anything I can to spread awareness of my creation. Since I’m new at this, I decided to write a series of posts about what I’ve done, what I’ve done wrong, and what I’ve done right. Perhaps, other authors can pick up a trick or two — or recommend alternatives, improvements, and additions. The series will be titled Adventures in Book Promotion.

Ghostly MysteriesMy first step was to create a dedicated blog, one that focuses on — and sells — the Vera Van Slyke character. I called it Vera Van Slyke ~ Ghostly Mysteries, and I learned pretty quickly that I simply don’t have time to update it with the frequency that I do my general writing Inventor of Persons blog, the one you’re reading now. With that limitation in mind, I chose to design the dedicated site as more of a traditional website. Looking at other promotional sites for inspiration, I gave Ghostly Mysteries a static front page with links to

  • a general introduction to Vera,
  • a free sample story (updated monthly), and
  • information on where to buy the book and anthologies containing single Vera tales.

Those are all features of the site that I try to really emphasize. That front page offers two menus to find those key pages that are intended to sell the book.

Three additional pages are intended to lure visitors to the site. First, I’ve included a link to

  • my Vera ‘Verse blog.

Having such a blog will allow me to occasionally write about my research into what was being written about ghosts during the era in which my tales are set, about the real history that’s often behind those tales, and about anything else that comes to mind to enhance the reading of the tales. In a way, this might be more interesting to those who have already read the book — but that’s okay. I have plans for more Vera Van Slyke stories, and ideally the blog will let fans of the first collection know about those developments.

Of course, visitors won’t arrive simply because I want them to. I only started to get a significant number of visitors at this Inventor of Persons blog once I put up the Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives and my In the Shadow of Rathbone reviews of Sherlock Holmes movies. I’ve learned that I need to give people a reason to bother coming. With this in mind, I added two additional features to the Ghostly Mysteries site:

  • Spectral Edition, which offers actual newspaper reports on ghosts published in U.S. newspapers between 1875 and 1925, and
  • From the Other Side, which is a bibliography of historical sources that debate the reality of ghosts or tell allegedly true ghost stories.

I post a new newspaper report each week, since I’ve already found over 150 of them. The bibliography, which already includes many, many books and magazine articles from the 1800s and early 1900s, will be updated whenever I come across something new. In other words, I’ve given visitors a reason to return, which is always good for business.

I’ve also designed cardboard bookmarks to promote Help for the Haunted. I’m in the early stages of producing “audio book” readings of the tales. I’m contemplating whether having Facebook and Twitter accounts specifically for the book — in addition to the ones I have as an author — are actually worth the effort. These are topics for future posts, however. In the meantime, as I say above, I hope other authors and interested readers will share their own experiences and thoughts regarding book promotion.

Reopening the Marvellous Boxes: “Thinking in Ternary”

Marvellous-boxesThree years have passed since my audio drama anthology, Marvellous Boxes, was posted to the Web. The shows were produced by The Decoder Ring Theatre, an award-winning troupe of actors working near Toronto. The director of this group is Gregg Taylor, a prolific and talented audio-dramatist and novelist.

Marvellous Boxes garnered a lot of attention from all over the world. In fact, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation selected two of the plays to air across that continent. Needless to say, I’m pretty proud of it. Over the next several months, I’ll be reminiscing about my scripts and encouraging visitors to listen to shows again or for the first time. I’ll take these hindsight strolls on a monthly basis, toward the middle of each month.

The anthology had only two unifying motifs: in each story, there was a box — and there was a marvel. Given this, I feel that Episode 0 of Marvellous Boxes was an earlier audio play I’d written that had also been produced by Decoder Ring. It’s titled “Thinking in Ternary,” and it’s a story about the first successful attempt to create permanent artificial intelligence. It was posted to the Web in the summer of 2009.

sci-fi-second-robotListening to the finished show after all these years, I get a strong urge to edit! Some of the scenes drag a bit, and the dialogue could be tightened. There are a lot of ideas in this drama, from the prerequisites of intelligence to the history of Abbot and Costello. I’m not sure they all need to be there. At the same time, there’s something about that meandering pace that creates a sense of realism. People do ramble a bit, after all.

Very recently, I received a very candid, warm fan letter regarding this show. The writer pointed out something about the story that had never consciously occurred to me. (I love it when that happens!) In its curious way, the play confronts suicide and offers a solution — however tentative it might be. You see, according to the play, one of the requirements of real intelligence is the ability to “re-program” oneself. With that goes the option of completely deleting one’s programming — the path taken by the first four experiments in artificial intelligence in my story. This self-deletion becomes a form of suicide, and the solution is found by surpassing binary thinking. Rather than thinking only of what little I am and what all I’m not, my successful A.I. unit is provided the option to imagine what I can become. What if it starts to feel as if it’s a monster, following in the long tradition of Frankenstein? (Even Stephen Hawking has cast a such a pall over A.I.!) Well, by surpassing binary code/this-or-that thinking, my “artificial” is able to envision a different, if not better, identity for itself tomorrow.

Of course, the day after tomorrow might take a turn for the worse. But isn’t that thin ray of hope better than self-deletion?

An Inconspicuous Incubus Slayer: Lettice Galbraith’s Mr. Calder-Maxwell

It happened twice in my lifetime. It will never happen again, they say, since Miss Erristoun (Mrs. Arthur, that is now) and Mr. Calder-Maxwell between them found out the secret of the haunted room, and laid the ghost. . . .

– Lettice Galbraith’s “The Blue Room”

Fans of nineteenth-century supernatural fiction and related writing should consider paying a visit to G.R. Collia’s blog, The Haunted Library. You might bump into me among its shelves now that I’ve found the most recent addition to my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives there. In a post about Lettice Galbraith’s ghost stories, a summary of a tale titled “The Blue Room” (1897) mentions “Miss Edith Erristoun, a learned young woman who doesn’t believe in ghosts.” This skeptical woman investigates a room with a history of haunting and, thereby, “helps to unravel the dark secret.” I thought that I just might have discovered another one of the rare female occult detectives, and she would have been the earliest on my list!

Blue BedReading the story, though, I pretty quickly saw that this isn’t quite the case. Miss Erristoun does indeed play a pivotal role in solving the supernatural mystery, but it’s really another character, Mr. Calder-Maxwell, who’s the detective. He’s the one who first studies the “beastly books on Demonology” and who orchestrates Miss Erristoun’s spending the night in the haunted room. To be sure, she’s the eyes in the case — but Mr. Calder-Maxwell is the brains. (They might have gone on to make a great Holmes and Watson duo, but I haven’t found either character in any other of Galbraith’s stories.)

In fact, Galbraith seems intent on ridding Miss Erristoun of the bravery she exhibits in the start of the story. At first, Mr. Arthur, inheritor of the sinister Blue Room, struggles to prevent Miss Erristoun from sleeping in the haunted room; however, his trusted housekeeper points out that “a willful woman will have her way.” By the end, the will is scared out of her, and she submits to Mr. Arthur. After she faints, he “lifted Miss Erristoun as if she were a baby, and carried her straight to the boudoir.” Well, that’s a bit out of context, but you get the idea. The resolute female is tamed, and as my opening quotation shows, she becomes Mr. Arthur’s wife.

Interestingly, Mr. Arthur’s concern for Miss Erristoun reveals a hint of a dark side to Mr. Calder-Maxwell. At one point, the lovelorn bachelor accuses the amateur detective of being “nothing less than a blackguard for egging that girl on to risk her life, for the sake of trying to prove your insane theories.” Though Mr. Arthur is in the throes of (unrequited) love at this point, he’s not entirely wrong. This is one of the wrinkles that make this story an especially good one, something more complex and original than the average Victorian ghost story.

Add to this a supernatural culprit that reflects Victorian anxiety about female sexuality, and “The Blue Room” becomes a story worth far deeper analysis than I’ve given it here. In the end, it is a tale of women succumbing.

But it’s also about an occult detective on his first case. As such, Mr. Calder-Maxwell qualifies as a novice-detective on my bibliography. At times, he seems quite surprised that his hunch about what’s haunting the Blue Room proves to be correct. Nonetheless, he accepts the “reality” of the supernatural and, in so doing, he brings the mystery to a close. Even though he’s willing to endanger a woman to confirm his solution, in the end, he’s noble enough to relinquish — as he says — “world-wide celebrity among the votaries of Psychic Research” to project the name of another woman who lost her life in the Blue Room.

Lettice Galbraith seems to be an interesting writer, and I’ve already ordered an affordable collection of her ghost stories to see if any more occult detectives walk among them.