How Far Does One Stretch to Find an Occult Detective?

Fergus Hume
Fergus Hume

I thought I had found something good.

Fergus Hume’s short story “A Spirit in My Feet” (1906) begins with a doctor preparing to open his practice in a rural English town.  He asks why a prime property is being offered for such low rent, and he’s told it’s because of the previous tenants.

They packed their bags and vamoosed, claiming there’s a ghost.

It’s an introduction found in many Victorian ghost stories, but I was hoping this doctor character might give me another name to add to my list of early occult detectives.  After all, doctor-detectives have a prominent place on that list.  In fact, after Hume’s skeptical physician agrees to occupy the allegedly haunted house — but begins to experience odd feelings of being watched once he’s moved in — he tells himself:  “I shall go to bed, and to-morrow take steps to investigate the cause of these silly fears.”

I hoped there would be an investigation, turning the doctor into a detective, if only a debunking detective.  But the ghost is revealed to be real!  And there’s a crime underlying the haunting!  Things were looking promising.

Unfortunately, it’s the ghost — not the doctor — who becomes the active agent in unraveling the crime and haunting.  That and dumb luck.  The doctor remains a central but passive participant.  In the end, it would be too great a stretch to call him an occult detective.

Thomas Nelson Page
Thomas Nelson Page

I had better luck with another short story, “The Spectre in the Cart” (1899), by Thomas Nelson Page.  Page, it should be noted up front, is among the “Lost Cause” school of writers.  Working in the wake of the American Civil War, these Southern, white writers defended their region and history by portraying rebel leaders as heroic and the North — especially, Reconstruction — as villainous.  African-Americans are portrayed as devoted to serving their white neighbors, perpetuating the myth that slavery was in keeping with racial predilection.

“The Spectre in the Cart” takes place “the year after we had emancipated ourselves from carpet-bag rule,” according to the central narrator.  This narrator, named Stokeman, is the State’s Attorney for his close-knit county.  When a murder occurs, he assumes the role of detective to find the criminal.  The trouble is traced to Absalom Turnell, an African-American character, who left the community and returned with fervent racial animosity.  The unsubtle implication is that the races would have gotten along just fine in the South if not corrupted by outside — read:  Yankee — ideas of racial justice.

Though Stokeman attempts to ensure that Absalom is subject to due process of law, mob rule and masked vigilantes ultimately decide the case.  Absalom is lynched.  Stokeman is left haunted psychologically by the events.  He is also literally haunted by apparitions.

All of this might seem far too serious a subject to qualify for occult detective fiction.  Admittedly, it’s not an easy fit.  The supernatural element seems to be a side effect or a metaphor to express the main character’s mental damage instead of the focus of the story.  A similar feeling is evoked in W.W.’s “The Phantom Hearse,” found on my list under 1889.  Yet both of these stories blur the line between violations of moral laws and physical laws, a line that is key to occult detective fiction.

Furthermore, “The Spectre in the Cart” opens with Stokeman debunking reports of an earlier, unrelated haunting.  He has a history of investigating occult phenomenon, in other words.  By the story’s end, though, he’s a man who is forced to accept the fact that physical laws can be broken just as moral ones can.  As such, he is an especially interesting novice-detective, joining those occult detectives who confront supernatural intrusions into the natural world for the first time.

9 thoughts on “How Far Does One Stretch to Find an Occult Detective?

    1. Very kind of you to say so. 19th- and early 20th-century ghost stories comprise a branch of literary history I never explored very deeply in the past. My list of early occult detectives is letting me get much further into it. It’s surprising how many of these stories feature skeptics who “convert” to believing in ghosts, as do both of these stories. I never realized the push to “keep the faith” in the face of Darwinian and other sciences.

      1. I’ve always wondered if the prevalence of the converted skeptic trope in those stories was due in part to the Spiritualism craze. For my part, I always preferred the ones who needed no convincing to the ones who did…half the fun of a Jules de Grandin story is reading his matter-of-fact explanation of the origins of the horror in question.

  1. You’d do well to track down B.L. Farjeon’s The Last Tenant and Devlin the Barber. I’d wonder if you’d consider these books for inclusion in your continual search for occult detectives. Farjeon has no series characters, but these book combine the supernatural and crime in two of the most unusual novels of the Victorian era and the protagonists in each do detective work in both books while encountering quite a bit of the other worldly.

  2. OH! Almost forgot…. There is an well done American detective novel that turns out to have a spiritualist debunking plot called THE GHOST GIRL (1913) by Henry Kitchell Webster. I apparently have the only copy outside of the world’s academic libraries. I keep looking for another for one of my friends and not a single copy has turned up for sale since I found mine about twelve years ago.

  3. Consider me snagged! I haven’t done much with novels, so I’ll be particularly interested in seeing what Farjeon was up to. With the exception of John Bell, I’ve been excluding “debunking detectives” — I worry there would be too many of them! — so Weber might not make the cut. Still, the subject of that novel seems to be much in keeping with my Vera Van Slyke series in that she also defrauds spiritualists. I just might see what inter-library loan can do for me there.

    I finally gave up on trying to find a copy of Uel Key’s novel The Yellow Death, though I did manage to find and scan a copy of his collection The Broken Fang. Both of these feature Arnold Rhymer, the “Spook Specialist”/occult detective. Perhaps if I manage to get a copy of The Ghost Girl, I’ll scan it and post it here.

    Many thanks for the leads!

    1. I owned a copy of THE BROKEN FANG a few years ago. I was severely disappointed with the stories. I sold the book as soon as I could but lost quite a bit on my original price. It’s still for sale online from the dealer who bought it form me. He wants $1250 for it — nearly five times what he paid me. Sometimes the bookselling world makes me sick.

      My internet skills tell me that THE GHOST GIRL is available from Google Books.

      1. I haven’t read any of the Uel Key/Arnold Rhymer stories. Yeah, I’ve heard they’re not very good — so I haven’t struggled to find the time for them. I think I saw that exorbitant price, too, and I wasn’t about to invest that much. There’s so much free/cheap stuff available, it seems silly to try to compete with outrageous prices.

        Hmmm. I see Edgar Saltus’s 1922 novel The Ghost Girl available for download at Google Books but not Henry Kitchell Webster’s 1913 novel of the same name. The latter is listed, but — as far as my own limited internet skills reveal — no download seems available… It’s quite possible I’m mistaken, though.

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