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.
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.