William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) is one the great supernatural horror writers of the Edwardian era, famous for his superb novel, The House on the Borderland. He also wrote short stories, and I can’t think of a better introduction than this collection, Carnacki the Ghost-Finder, first published in 1910. This 1973 Panther paperback is on loan.Carnacki is to ghosts what Sherlock Holmes is to criminals, an amateur gentleman detective whose hobby is to seek out and confront supernatural phenomena. Like Holmes, he is fiercely skeptical, insisting on incontrovertible evidence before he declares it a genuine haunting.
The stories are rigidly formulaic in one sense. Dodgson, his unofficial amanuensis/alter ego, and three other friends, Jessop, Arkright and Taylor, are summoned to Carnacki’s London house. They are given dinner, then he tells the story they’ve all been waiting for. Splendid yarns, by Jove!
Hodgson writes in the collegiate tradition of Victorian ghost stories – chap has an adventure, tells it to other chaps. He extends the tradition by incorporating Magick, as popularized by Aleister Crowley, Satanic entities, and adds his own touch of technogeekery – electric pentacles and the like. You can see where Dennis Wheatley got some of the ideas for his Black Magic novels in the 1930s. Wheatley put Crowley in The Devil Rides Out as Mocata, the villain (of course). He must have been chuffed pink.
It’s an immensely appealing blend. Some of the hauntings in these nine stories, in keeping with Carnacki’s skepticism, have natural explanations, although they are still creepy in the telling. The real hauntings are genuinely unsettling and sometimes disgustingly horrible. I avoided reading these stories just before bed.
This collection includes Hodgson’s most famous story, The Whistling Room, which should be made into a film. I’m surprised nobody has picked up on this yet. But my favourite is The Hog, which suggests that Hodgson had a thing about pigs. He has similar creatures in The House on the Borderland. Another one, The Haunted ‘Jarvee’ , is the short story version of his 1909 novel, The Ghost Pirates.
Carnacki the Ghost-Finder is a treat. If you’ve never read any William Hope Hodgson, this collection is the best way to get to know him. If you’ve only read the novels, then you owe it to yourself to read the stories – tasty squares of very dark chocolate. Here’s a reading of The Whistling Room.