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.
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 . . .