Wordsworth the Horror Finder

by Arthur B

Arthur reviews a new edition of the long-out-of-print Carnacki the Ghost-Finder stories, published by an unexpected source.
Longtime Ferretbrain readers may remember that a while back I moaned about how the horror genre is in the doldrums, and that a good first step towards reviving it would be for someone to produce a "Horror Masterworks" series, along the lines of similar series in the crime, fantasy, and SF genres: a series of reprints of important horror novels and short story collections, in an easily-recognised format, to act as a roadmap to help people who haven't been keeping up with the genre avoid the dross and find the gold. Finally, someone's started something along these lines, and to my surprise it's Wordsworth Editions, known mainly for their super-cut-price reprints of books whose copyright has expired. Their Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural, curated by David Stuart Davies, consists mainly of reprints of both the 19th Century fiction in which the genre has its roots and the early 20th Century stories which gave the genre its current shape - although there are a few original books, such as Davies' own Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair.

The first book I've picked up from this selection is The Casebook of Carnacki - Ghost Finder, a reprint of a classic selection of nine stories by William Hope Hodgson first published by Arkham House in 1947. It includes the six stories in the Carnacki the Ghost Finder series that Hodgson published in his lifetime, as well as three stories that were only released posthumously. The stories follow the investigations of Thomas Carnacki, an Edwardian psychic detective, who uses both scientific techniques and occult experiments to ascertain the truth behind apparent hauntings. Carnacki is an odd mix of sceptic and believer, entirely willing to accept both natural and supernatural explanations for events: since the mysteries in his cases sometimes turn out to be entirely natural (one of the stories in the collection is in fact a straight detective story, with not even the slightest suggestion that a ghost is involved at any point), sometimes entirely supernatural, and sometimes a mix of the two, this attitude is entirely justified. Incidentally, this is a great way to keep the reader guessing: too often which "psychic detective" stories the cases all turn out to be either always genuine incidents of the supernatural (such as in the John Silence stories of Algernon Blackwood), or always man-made hoaxes (as in Scooby-Doo), which leads to a kind of predictability that Hodgson avoids.

Hodgson's worst qualities - which undermined the otherwise-brilliant The House On the Borderland and absolutely ruined the epic The Night Land - are his tendency to waffle, his poor grasp of characterisation, and his tendency to embark on ill-advised experiments with his prose style. Happily, these problems simply aren't an issue with the Carnacki stories. In the short story format, Hodgson forces himself to keep his prose trim and economical (well, by his standards at least), and Hodgson does a good job of writing the bulk of the stories, in which Carnacki narrates events after the fact to his drinking buddies, in a suitably conversational tone. Furthermore, in short stories you can skate by with interesting ideas and fun narratives without ever worrying about characterisation at all to a far greater extent than you can in full-length novels: Carnacki isn't an especially deep character, but he's interesting enough that we like listening to him.

It clearly helps that Hodgson wrote the Carnacki stories according to a formula - a reasonably strict one, in the early stories, although he does experiment with the format more towards the end. Carnacki, having polished off a case, invites his friends (including Dodgson, Hodgson's viewpoint character) to dinner, and over cigars and brandy afterwards narrates the details of his latest investigation. In the early stories, Hodgson usually finds himself called out to some haunted locale in order to put the fears of the residents to rest. He first attempts to eliminate any possibility of human meddling, through the use of photography, microphones, sealing wax on the doors, and so forth; however, he also takes care to protect himself psychically from spiritual attack, through the use of his Electric Pentagram and the secrets of the Saaamaaa Ritual. By the end of the story, the truth has been uncovered, for better or worse - but not until a terrifying nighttime vigil - and after a few questions from the audience to tie up some loose ends Carnacki waves goodbye to his guests and sends them home to bed. In the later stories, the structure of Carnacki's actual case will differ - sometimes he'll forego the scientific investigation if the case is blatantly supernatural, sometimes it will be a haunted ship or a person he's investigating - suggesting to me that Hodgson was getting more and more comfortable with this mode of writing before his untimely death in World War One.

The stories in Carnacki the Ghost-Finder seem to have the same sort of metaphysical basis as Hodgson's great supernatural novels, The House On the Borderland and The Night Land - in fact, in The Hog Carnacki comes up against the hideous pig-deity and its minions, which were prominent in House On the Borderland. The ghosts - when they are ghosts -tend to be manifestations of the Outer Monstrosities against which Carnacki constantly fights; in these stories we see, even more explicitly than in Borderland, that Hodgson essentially toyed with the basic premises of the Cthulhu Mythos before H.P. Lovecraft ever did - although Hodgson's take on things is more optimistic, with Carnacki constantly living to fight another day and suggestions that there is some protective force out there looking out for men's souls. It's sad to think that this slim volume (less than 200 pages) is all that exists of Hodgson's original stories, and it's tempting to wonder where the series would have gone if he had survived Ypres.

The copyright on Carnacki the Ghost-Finder has expired, of course, as with most of Wordsworth Editions' publications, and you can get the stories for free online here, although I personally much prefer having a physical book to read and the Wordsworth edition is very affordable and widely available. I'm very glad they've brought these back into print, because it's rare that someone can fill you with a sense of dread by describing a dark room where nothing very much is happening, but Hodgson can - and when things do happen, the bizarre psychic landscape that is revealed is as striking as anything in horror or fantasy fiction. Unfortunately, I can't help but think that Wordsworth's Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural line can't quite be the Horror Masterworks series I've been hoping for - they simply won't be able to get the rights for more recent horror offerings - but at least somebody's trying.
Themes: Books, Horror

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Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 16:11 on 2007-10-03
Oh hurrah - for your sake! For a moment there, the formula was sounding just a little bit like Scooby Doo!
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 19:41 on 2012-02-15
Ah, yes, Hodgson! I finally stumbled across him in a study of early British SF, and he certainly is one of those remarkable forgotten talents. He was definitely a huge influence on Lovecraft; a lot of his earliest work is of the "fantastic sea adventure" type, with groups of castaways making their way across islands filled with malignant vaguely-human creatures with plenty of anxiety over agents of corruption. Don't remember much of his personality though, other than he ran away from home in his teenage years to sail the seas, and that he was a big proponent of physical culture (which might tie into the whole corruption complex somehow).

Also, despite your warnings, Arthur, I am still tempted to read The Night Land. Everything I've read about it says it's simultaneously the greatest story of the fantastic written in the 20th century AND the Edwardian equivalent of a four million-word novel an insane man posted on his livejournal. How could you not want to read it?
Arthur B at 20:33 on 2012-02-15
Everything I've read about it says it's simultaneously the greatest story of the fantastic written in the 20th century

Really? Who the hell says this? Anyone who ranks The Night Land above The House on the Borderland isn't a source to be trusted.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 04:22 on 2012-02-16
Really? Who the hell says this? Anyone who ranks The Night Land above The House on the Borderland isn't a source to be trusted.

That was hyperbole on my part. (I DID type the "insane man's livejournal novel" part, didn't I?) Brian Stableford in Scientific Romance in Britain, 1890-1950 and even ol' HP in his essay on supernatural fiction offered praise for it, though they both did admit The Night Land is interesting more for its flights of fancy than anything else about it, and that The House on the Borderland is the superior work.

I am still curious, though. The premise intrigues me, and I can forgive a lot in the name of a flight into the imagination.
Arthur B at 08:27 on 2012-02-16
I knew about the Lovecraft nod, but even so when Creepy Howie is complaining about a book's "painful verboseness" you know it's got issues. I suspect both him and Stapleford were being generous on account of the opening chapters, which is where all the imaginative stuff is located and the only part which is really memorable aside from the spanking.
James D at 16:56 on 2012-02-16
I read, or better yet tried to read The Night Land, and while the ideas and especially the setting are fascinating, everything else was just dull. The prose is stilted, the plotting was terribly slow, and the characterization was practically non-existent. It was like the problems I had with A Voyage to Arcturus but times ten.

Hodgson's stilted style comes across poorly in the Carnacki stories too, but there the plotting is much tighter and the characters are better. Still, that awful style really cramps my enjoyment of the stories. If you compare Hodgson to contemporaries like Blackwood or Machen it's really hard not to wish he hadn't taken some pointers from them, as his concepts are really quite good. He probably got closer to the whole 'cosmic horror' business than either of them did.
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