More Tinkering with My Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives

Still mining Sage Leslie-McCarthy’s dissertation on occult detectives, I added Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novella “The Haunted and the Haunters; or, The House and the Brain” (1859) to my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives.  She refers to this work as an “early psychic detective text,” using her term for what I call occult detectives.

Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton, and His Beard

As such, Leslie-McCarthy agrees with Neil Wilson, whose Shadows in the Attic:  A Guide to British Supernatural Fiction, 1820-1950 surveys 200 British horror writers.  He says that “the roots of occult detective fiction” go back to this particular novella by Bulwer-Lytton.

Since two smart critics point to “The Haunted and the Haunters” as a pivotal text showing supernatural and detective fiction crossing, the widespread idea that Sheridan LeFanu got the ball rolling with In a Glass Darkly (1872) is less certain.  It’s now a bit easier for me to to argue that fictional occult detectives go back at least as far as Fitz-James O’Brien’s Harry Escott, who appeared in print even earlier than Bulwer-Lytton’s anonymous narrator.

Leslie-McCarthy also includes Margaret Oliphant’s novella “The Open Door” (1881) among the early works of the occult detective tradition.  Her definition of “detective,” though, seems to be looser than mine.  It’s an interesting story, one that’s close enough to an occult detective story to inspire a debate hot enough to keep two persnickety literary scholars warm through “a dark and stormy night,” to borrow Bulwer-Lytton’s famous phrase.  But I would be the persnickety literary scholar against its inclusion in that tradition.

My hesitation comes from the protagonist’s status as a detective.  Colonel Mortimer first learns that his sensitive son is “sympathizing to death” after an encounter with a woeful and rather whiny ghost.  Granted, the father does then question his servants about the ghost, which is a somewhat detectivish thing to do.  But then all he does is experience the apparition himself with three companions.  His once-stalwart butler is reduced to Victorian figgy pudding by the specter.  The local doctor refuses to believe it’s supernatural.  The local minister, however, recognizes the ghost and convinces it to “go toward the light.”  In other words, Mortimer doesn’t really complete the ghostly puzzle himself.  He just happens upon the right guy who can, and in his doing so, readers learn that, where bravery and skepticism fail, faith succeeds.

Occult but no detective.  Close but no cigar.  I’d very much like to hear if you agree or not.

Meanwhile, since I’ve occasionally found myself in disagreement with — and sometimes utterly baffled by — the characters that others have deemed to be occult detectives, I decided to double-check my list.  Unless I’ve read the story myself or otherwise felt very confident, I removed entries.  Only two, mind you.  At the same time, I’ve extended the list by a decade.  The span of years covered is now 1855 to 1919.  This way, the list continues to grow . . .

2 thoughts on “More Tinkering with My Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives

  1. I haven’t read Bulwer-Lytton’s story in over ten years, but I don’t see it as a detective story even remotely. I’ve always held that for a character to be a true occult detective there should be a crime of some sort that is being investigated and the perpetrator usually turns out to be a supernatural being. The occult detective then must root out the supernatural origin of the crime and — here’s my defining criterion — use other worldy tools and methods (rather than traditional police methods) to ferret out the non-human villain often doing battle with it. It is the detective story tropes in combination with the occult work of spell casting and whatnot that for me make a true occult detective. A ghost hunter who merely asks questions or looks up newspaper articles or reads a diary to discover the solution to a mystery is not an occult detective in my book. John Silence, Miles Pennoyer, Luna Bartendale, Carnacki, Jules de Grandin and even Kolchak are the kind of character I count as an occult detective. They all have the knowledge and lore at hand and make use of it to resolve the problem.

    1. That’s a very useful way to differentiate occult detectives from ghost-hunters, and it’s telling how many of the entries on my list do feature conventional crimes — violations of “moral” laws along with violations of “natural” laws. I wonder if I would have counted Bulwer-Lytton’s novella as part of the tradition without having read Leslie-McCarthy and Wilson first. I doubt I would have even considered it!

      I guess my definition of “detective” is one who investigates a mystery, not specifically a crime. Conventionally, we do associate detectives with crime, of course, but we also sometimes use it to refer to one who solves any kind of puzzle involving the unknown. The PBS show History Detectives comes to mind. As shown in my earlier blog posts, I focus on a character’s process of and/or qualifications for solving that puzzle. The investigator, in other words, instead of what’s investigated — though the supernatural must be a part of that relationship. Bulwer-Lytton’s character seems very qualified to investigate the haunted house. He’s not personally invested (as Oliphant’s Colonel Mortimer is), and he comes to the task with a clear theory on how occult experiences work. That theory is based on his earlier encounters with “the Marvellous,” which he has encountered throughout the world. In fact, that theory is key to tracing the manifestations to a living “culprit.” There are even a few whiffs of a super-villain floating around that culprit!

      Thanks very much for your comment, John. It’s now got me thinking about my Vera Van Slyke stories. “A Burden that Burns” involves arson, and “Skittering Holes” involves suicide — often considered a crime. “The Ghost of Banquo’s Ghost” might involve attempted murder, though even the victim doesn’t consider it that. If the act of barging in on confessions, the problem in “The Minister’s Unveiling,” isn’t a crime — or a sin — it certainly is a breach of etiquette! Regardless, I do consider Vera an occult detective. She certainly investigates mysteries, but her probing into and revealing the source of guilt is what qualifies her as such in my mind.

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