William Hope Hodgson
sketched by Edgar Spence, 1935
William Hope Hodgson's Occult Detective "Carnacki"
commentary by Bill Barnett
I've just finished reading the Tandem paperback edition of The Complete Stories of Carnacki The Ghost-Finder by William Hope Hodgson, & feel like spewing some random observations.
In any occupation it's always a great comfort to have at one's disposal a "killer app"; in werewolf-hunting it's a silver bullet, for computer file viewing it's FmView, for Jean Ray's graverobber in "Gold Teeth" it's a coffin-removal device of his own invention, Bill Gibson's hacker in Neuromancer gets his hands on a foolproof Chinese military cracking program. Carnacki (Thomas Carnacki, according to the Gaslight website, though I don't recall seeing his first name in the text) has the medieval grimoire the Sigsand MS, & the Saamaa Ritual (Did he make up "Saamaa"? A web search turned up documents in Urdu & in Finnish containing the word, but I was unable to find a definition in any online dictionaries. The closest I found was the Urdu "saamaan," meaning "apparatus/custom/understanding/power"), & his own contribution to the field, the Electric Pentacle (who I think are opening for Iron Butterfly -- whose full-length version of "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida" is now getting regular airplay on Baltimore's new classic rock station -- on this year's tour of rock'n'roll dives). More distressing than a haunting is the experience of having one's impenetrable defence [sic] penetrated, & therein lies the key to the most frightening of Hodgson's passages.
Carnacki is in the habit of summoning his four friends, Jessop, Arkright, Taylor, & our narrator, Dodgson, to his house on short notice for dinner & afterward relate his latest ghost-hunting adventure. These are characterized by a bit of background information, Carnacki's arrival on the scene, & then his painstaking efforts to rule out any & all natural causes, which involve sounding every square foot of every room's walls & floors (he seems to omit ceilings, & this oversight kicks him in the tail in "The House Among the Laurels"), sealing all the doors, taking numerous photographs, etc. Then comes the night he spends in the haunted room: the preparation of the defences, his ironclad instructions to his companions, & then a detailed description of the happenings from there on out, which could be unnatural noises (or unnatrual silence), a "thickening" of the atmosphere, feelings of impending *something*, mysterious winds, & finally the manifestation by degrees of the phenomenon. This in fact seems to be Hodgson's favorite mode, the imagining of an entire fantastic sequence unfolding (as in The House on the Borderland; & now I wonder if that space-and-time-travel sequence was an inspiration for Dave's psychedelic journey in 2001? Though I've never read the book, only seen the movie... & seen... & seen...).
Most satisfying to this reader are the ones which actually involve the supernatural; perhaps I've never gotten over my childhood disappointment with Scooby-Doo, in which every damned haunting was debunked! (Scooby-Doo is apparently the official filler program of Cartoon Network, & for some reason my kids love it. The program is so popular that we will be treated to a new feature film this fall. Yikes!) On the other hand, we do get to tremble along with Carnacki as his defences against the supernatural are inexplicably overcome, enough so for some of the feeling to remain even after explication of the human shenanigans behind the "haunting."
Better is the hybrid of chicanery & genuine haunting in "The Horse of the Invisible," especially since we get to see a character dissemble friendship & caring while surreptitiously carrying out his own jealous plot, only to redeem himself in the end. Another hybrid is "The Searcher of the End House," which includes a weird theory about birth, souls, & those supernatural beings who are against such things.
That leaves four stories of pure hauntings. In these we learn something of Carnacki's categorization of hauntings, the relatively harmless "Aeiirii," & the decidedly harmful "Saiitii" (those terms appear to be completely made-up). All from the Sigsand MS, of course. "The Whistling Room" is the closes to a "classic ghost story," as there turns out to be a history & a reason behind the haunting. Not to mention grave physical danger to Carnacki, & what can only be termed Divine Intervention. "The Gateway of the Monster" has about half a reason, but what a great monster! (Could it have inspired the Glove in Yellow Submarine?) "The Haunted 'Jarvee'" represents only a mild success for Carnacki.
That leaves "The Hog," the longest piece in the book, & the most terrifying. Bains is haunted by dreams on the edge of sleep (I know there's a word for that but can't think of it right now) in which he descends into a pit amid the squealing of countless pigs. Bains relates, "There are grunts, & squeals & pig-howls like you hear when their food is being brought to them at a pig farm." That's enough for me, I have an uncle who has a pig farm, & I've heard that sound. It's the most blood-curdling sound I've ever experienced, with the possible exception of the metallic smack-and-crunch of cars colliding. But for those of you who haven't had the pleasure, Bains continues: "All the grunts, squeals & howls blend into one brutal chaos of sound--only it isn't a chaos. It all blends in a queer horrible way... A sort of swinish clamouring melody that grunts & roars & shrieks in chunks of grunting sounds, all tied together with squealings & shot through with pig howls." And it gets worse from there... This is a brutal story, with Carnacki barely holding on in the face (literally) of a monstrous supernatural menace. Some more Divine Intervention would sure help... Carnacki closes with another weird cosmological theory about where malign supernatural beings come from, which seems quaint in this more enlightened era but is probably a good record of the sort of wild speculation that people used to engage in. What am I saying, used to? Check out crank.net for a comprehensive guide to wacky theories on the web...
The full text of five of the Carnacki stories are available online at the Gaslight website, Here! Rick Kennet has posted online his Carnacki satire The Sniffling Room.
copyright © 2000 by Bill Barnett, all rights reserved
The Queen's Quorum adventures of nerve-wracked Thomas Carnacki,
originally published in The Idler, were first gathered
in Carnacki the Ghost-Finder (Eveleigh Nash, 1913) with an expanded
edition done by August Derleth in 1947 under the "Mycroft & Moran" imprint.
Grafton (1991), Panther (1973), Sphere (1974, 1981), & Tandem (1974) did pb editions.
Sundry works by William Hope Hodgson are often offered in the
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