The Strangest Case I Ever Touched: Sax Rohmer’s Jack Addison

Arthur Henry Ward, a.k.a. Sax Rohmer (1883-1959)

Arthur Henry Ward, a.k.a. Sax Rohmer (1883-1959)

Sax Rohmer is probably best remembered as the creator of the Fu Manchu series. In 1920, his novel The Green Eyes of Bast and his novella “The Haunting of Low Fennel” were published, and both spotlight a character named Addison. If this is not exactly one and the same character, it’s pretty clear that Rohmer was at least toying with the idea of creating yet another series character, one something like his occult detective, Moris Klaw. (Klaw is the title character of The Dream Detective, also published in 1920.)

While Klaw relies on an occult method of solving crimes — the dream detective gleans psychic residue left by criminals by sleeping at crime scenes — Addison is a self-proclaimed debunker of cases alleged to involve the occult. In Green Eyes, he explains that he’s a free-lance reporter, one with money enough to be picky about what he writes and with time enough to indulge his “inherent weakness for obscure studies.” A few pages later, he adds, “Criminology was one of my hobbies, and in several instances I had traced cases of alleged haunting and other supposedly supernatural happenings to a criminal source. . . .” “Low Fennel” makes no mention of his reporting — nor of his first name, Jack. However, “Mr. Addison” again serves as narrator and says that he has “investigated several cases of haunting” that were traced to physical, often geological sources. In one story, he investigates crimes disguised as supernatural; in the other, he investigates the science beneath supernatural-seeming occurrences. So is this the same Addison?

If we proceed on the idea that it is the same character, it should be noted that Addison sums up the “Low Fennel” case “in my study in London,” and in Green Eyes, he explains that he has left London for an “odd little backwater where my only link with Fleet Street, with the land of theaters and clubs and noise and glitter, was the telephone.” Though the suburban setting is important to the plot of the novel, we still might use this clue to put the novella first chronologically. To be honest, though, they can be read in either order.

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD:

One thing that certainly ties the two works together is they both ultimately debunk what appears to supernatural activity. Yes, I’ve just spoiled the endings, but it’s at least as entertaining to see how Rohmer misdirects his readers as it is to be misdirected. In “Low Fennel,” we’re given all the signs of ghostly activity: a sinister history attached to the property, a series of reports describing a devilish entity, a panicked dog, even a mysterious strangling! Still, a strange, psychotropic gas that rises from the ground during hot weather becomes the culprit. (A dangerous gas also figures into the the novel, reminding us how scary such things were to readers after the gas warfare of the Great War.)  Green Eyes first tantalizes readers with a mysterious woman who seems to possess feline eyes and agility! However, there, the author winds up pinning the mysterious events on weird science, not occult phenomenon. In fact, a prime suspect admits that he had become “a second Frankenstein,” and Addison concludes that this character, “a victim of one of his own devilish inventions, was no more than a brilliant madman.” Even so, by the last chapter, Addison agrees that the motives of this madman as well as his devilish invention are better traced to insanity than to science run amok.Cat_with_green_eyes2

In terms of telling a tale that leads readers to believe the supernatural is involved — and then providing a perfectly reasonable, perfectly natural explanation — both tales stretch credulity very, very thinly. It’s Sax Rohmer, after all. Green Eyes is downright disappointing when it comes to Addison solving the mystery. Because he doesn’t. In fact, he plays second fiddle to a Scotland Yard official named Inspector Gatton throughout the novel. I was reminded Watson in Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) in that Addison narrates his own unspectacular efforts to unravel the puzzle while Gatton is offstage doing most of the useful fact finding. Despite their best efforts, the crime is solved for them instead of by them, albeit in a tentative manner. In the end, the professional and the amateur detective aren’t entirely sure exactly what happened.

“Low Fennel” puts Addison much more in charge of solving the case, but given the gaseous resolution noted above . . . well, I would’ve preferred confirmation of the supernatural scenario that’s sketched earlier.

Jack Addison, in the end, does not qualify for my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives. Though his cases do blend conventions of mystery fiction with those of supernatural fiction, ultimately, this detective is not compelled to accept the reality of the occult. Instead, he discovers himself in a world invaded by cryptic science. Addison, then, follows the tradition of Mr. Utterson, the lawyer who serves as detective in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).

Both of Addison’s cases make for fairly mediocre reading, too. Perhaps he becomes more interesting when read in light of Rohmer intentionally skirting the occult detective tradition. By 1920, it seems, this tradition had been well enough established that authors were varying, challenging, and teasingly sidestepping it.

My Interview at Mysterious Heartland

I discuss Help for the Haunted and other ghostly matters at the wonderful Mysterious Heartland website. Find the interview here!

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Help for the Haunted is AVAILABLE!!

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Thirteen sequential short stories, all dealing with the supernatural investigations of Vera Van Slyke and her assistant and chronicler, Lida Parsell.  Available at Amazon in print and for Kindle.

Adventures in Book Promotion: The Temptation of Twitter Follow-Backs

There’s an unwritten rule among writers on Twitter: you follow me, and I’ll very likely follow you back.

It’s seductive. It’s an easily way to get a lot of followers. An author with a lot followers looks like a popular author, one whose work must be pretty good. Right?

But those followers aren’t readers. They’re not fans. They’re other authors, probably with very limited interest in buying my Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries. And isn’t promoting my writing one of the main reasons I’m on Twitter?

Still, I confess that I had given into temptation. I had “traded follows” enough to gather over 1,000 Twitter followers. Last week, though, I started to think about whether or not this was really helping me. I hunted through my followers and found one author with 234,000 followers! He was also following 235,000 people, which starts to explain how he’d gotten so many followers. That was one of the highest, but I don’t think it was the highest.

Shooting_wild_pigeons_in_north_Louisiana

Shooting Wild Pigeons in North Louisiana (1875) From the Louisiana Digital Library

Following that many tweeters must create a cacophony of birdsong! It’s doubtful that anyone could single out any of my tweets. A Twitter user who can’t hear my call almost certainly won’t buy Help for the Haunted.

So I devised a simple method to thin the flock. It looks as though, after 9,999, Twitter starts designating thousands with a K. 10,000, for example, becomes 10K. With a few exceptions, I started unfollowing anyone with Ks in both their following and followers numbers. These are the users who depend on my following them the very least and would barely notice my absence. Of course, it does make sense for authors to keep an eye on what some other authors are doing to promote their books. It’s also very nice to be supportive of those who, like myself, have fewer than 10,000 followers. After I’d cleared the double-K tweeters, I’m still following hundreds of authors.

Once I had finished that purge, my own number of followers very quickly started falling. I’d broken the writers’ unwritten rule of reciprocal stalking, after all. So be it. Yeah, beggars shouldn’t be choosy, and okay, holding out one’s hand at Manhattan’s busiest corner will probably result in a pocketful of coins.

Still, target marketing has a shrewd logic to it, too.

I then began to think of ways to target readers of ghost stories. I started following the Society of Psychical Research, for instance. The SPR hasn’t followed me back yet, but they just might if I start to share information about my Spectral Edition project and my From the Other Side bibliography with them. Once I do, their followers begin to learn about me. And my following a more modest number of Twitter users — I’ve winnowed that number to five or six hundred — makes such interaction more manageable for someone with my time restraints and cranial limitations.

Your Tweeter Karma offers a good way to isolate which of your followers 1) work on the K/K-level and 2) haven’t been using Twitter at all in the last several months or even years. To use the free service, one must agree to engage a program that will:

  • Read Tweets from your timeline.
  • See who you follow, and follow new people.
  • Update your profile.
  • Post Tweets for you.

The last two are especially unnerving, but I’ve found no evidence that either has been done.

Meanwhile, I’m also launching an investigation into companies that promise to find me potential book buyers through Twitter. I generally squint hard at such offers, but I’ll let you know what I find out. In the meantime, I’d very much like to hear from writers or readers and their experiences as tweeters or tweetees.

Sleepwalk a Mile in Someone Else’s Slippers

The person on the bar stool next to me didn’t become interesting until she said, “Sometimes, my dreams are so odd that I wake up and wonder whose they were.” — Finbar Kelly

Celtic Knot 3

Reopening the Marvellous Boxes: “A Demon Once Removed”

On Tuesday, I went to see Neil Gaiman speak before an enormous crowd of fans in Tulsa. He talked about how he had envisioned Tulsa as a magical place ever since, as a budding writer, he tracked down Oklahoma author R. A. Lafferty. Apparently, Lafferty became of a supporter of Gaiman, and all these years later, the younger man read one of the older man’s short stories in front of that enormous crowd. The story is titled “Seven-Day Terror.” I was so inspired by it that, on Sunday, I went to visit Lafferty’s grave and then to the library to borrow a couple of his books.

Raphael Aloysius Lafferty (1914 – 2002)

Raphael Aloysius Lafferty (1914 – 2002)

“Seven-Day Terror” involves an invention called a disappearer. A child makes it out of, if I recall correctly, a beer can and two pieces of cardboard. And it works! It makes things disappear, which quickly becomes the catalyst of all the action in the story. In that respect, I was reminded of “A Demon Once Removed,” the first official episode of my audio drama anthology, Marvellous Boxes. My own tale involves a box-with-a-button that can bring back the recently deceased for a final conversation lasting about half an hour. It works, too, and as with Lafferty’s disappearer, there’s no explanation at all of how it works. As such, while these stories carry a slight trace of science fiction, they’re probably better categorized under magic realism.

Listening again to “A Demon Once Removed” three years after it was first posted by the Decoder Ring Theatre, I’m reminded of the difficulty of trying to write a play — audio or stage — without a chance to workshop the script with real actors. Yeah, I’m happy with the show, but I would make changes if anyone wanted to produce it again. Each of my characters has a story, and there are seven characters! That’s pretty many characters and pretty many stories for a thirty-minute play. I’d do a lot of cutting with the funeral assistant, Nicole. The focus, after all, is the family and the tensions between husbands and wives, between parents and children. Nicole does need to be present, I think, but her evolution doesn’t.

Other than that, I like the humor in the early part. I like how things go very wrong with that not-yet-approved box-with-a-button. I like the sounds of the characters’ names: Cloyanne and Clinton being one generation, followed by Don and Diane — and there’s an odd connection across time between Jacob and Jason. (My inside joke is that I took all of these names, including Nicole and Dr. Price, from members of an improv comedy troupe I belonged to once upon a time.) Oh, I might try to tone to down the “I’ve learned a valuable lesson” speech that Don gives at the end, but overall I’m pleased with “A Demon Once Removed.” I hope you give it a listen.

The Deep Roots of the Two Occult Detective Master Plots

Over on my Vera Van Slyke ~ Ghostly Mysteries site, I posted a “book report” on R.C. Finucane’s Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead and Cultural Transformation (Prometheus, 1996). In his introduction, the author relates a story told in the letters of Pliny the Younger. It’s a template for occult detective fiction:

There was a house in Athens haunted by a spectre who came out at night rattling his chains. . . . A philosopher decided to spend a night there to find out what was going on. As he read his book he heard the noises, then saw the figure. It beckoned him; he followed into the garden where the ghost suddenly vanished. . . . Next day he had the local magistrates dig there, and a skeleton in chains was found; after proper burial rites the haunting ceased.

Pliny the Younger         (61 AD - 112 AD)

Pliny the Younger (61 AD – 112 AD)

In this tale, the ghost becomes the philosopher-detective’s client, soliciting resolution of a problem. My Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives is full of such ghostly client cases, from Henry William Herbert’s “The Haunted Homestead” (1840) and Fitz-James O’Brien’s “The Pot of Tulips” (1855) to Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Brown Hand” (1899) and C. Ashton Smith’s “The Ghost of Mohammed Din,” (1910).

Finucane goes on to summarize a variation on the above story written by Lucian, “who wrote later than Pliny but in the same century.” The haunted house is moved to Corinth, and the ghost becomes a shape-shifter. Again, a philosopher investigates. This is a specialist-detective, though, “fortified with esoteric books.” Finucane says:

At last the exorcist-philosopher corners the phantom by means of an ‘Egyptian’ imprecation which drives him down into the earth. Our victorious exorcist marks the spot; next day a mouldering body is found six feet down and after exhumation and reburial the hauntings stop. In the Athenian example, the ghost beckons the philosopher to follow it but in the Corinthian it is coerced into the ground. Charity towards the dead has become combat with evil.

Lucian (125 AD - 180 AD)

Lucian (125 AD – 180 AD)

In other words, the ghost is not the client but the culprit in Lucian’s variant. Again, this pattern is well-represented in my Bibliography. There are E.T.A. Hoffman’s “Das öde Haus” (1817), Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “The Haunted and the Haunters; or, The House and the Brain” (1859), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and the majority of cases handled by the likes of Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence (1908) and William Hope Hodgson’s Thomas Carnacki (1910). This is probably what most people consider “proper” occult detective fiction: a very smart, very capable human is tasked with investigating and then vanquishing some supernatural monster to restore order.

Clearly, though, both master plots are ancient ones. While the supernatural-culprit pattern might have come to overshadow its older sibling, it’s useful to keep the supernatural-client pattern in mind when deciding what is and what isn’t occult detective fiction.

The Free Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries Continue!

Over at my Vera Van Slyke ~ Ghostly Mysteries site, I posted the third story from Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries (1899-1909). It’s titled “Skittering Holes,” and in my mind, it completes the trio of tales that establish the Vera ‘verse, the physics underlying the the rest of the supernatural investigations in the collection.

The first story, “The Minister Unveiled,” ends with Vera closing a case involving a haunted confessional. Considering this locus of penance, the great ghost-hunter realizes that all of the hauntings that she’s investigated — the ones that proved to involve real ghosts — also involved guilt.  Could it be that high concentrations of guilt somehow weakens and ruptures the skin between our material realm and the Great Beyond? “Skittering Holes” provides evidence of exactly that.

This story also provides a glimpse into Lida’s past and, specifically, her childhood in Chicago’s Czech neighborhood, Pilsen. From there, with the help of Lida’s elderly friend, we learn about a bit about Prague. In a way, this is a story about echos from the past — and it’s fitting that sound, music, and harmony are all key motifs, too. Please visit my A Complimentary Haunting page for your free copy of “Skittering Holes” in .pdf, .epub, or .mobi (Kindle) format.

Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague

Certain Monkeys See Smiling as a Sign of Aggression

“It’s a small step from fortune smiling on you to fortune laughing at you.” — Finbar Kelly

Celtic Knot 2

“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.

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