Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Opinions on Books: The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder

For today’s entry I’m taking a break from the video-games of the 2000s to talk about something a little more classical, so sit back in your leather wing-back armchair, pour yourself a brandy, turn on the atmospheric soundtrack and read all about my opinions on the Edwardian ghost buster Thomas Carnacki.

I haven’t always enjoyed the supernatural detective genre.  As a child I thought Scooby Doo was ridiculous, not for the talking dog, that was brilliant.  What I had a problem with was the terribly predictable stories.  I demanded more than a suspect list of one and half an episode of running down corridors from my pre-turkey dinosaur and potato smiles entertainment.  Years past and I learnt a vital lesson, there’s more to life than Scooby Doo. 

As I got older I became enthralled by supernatural mysteries; Buffy, Hellboy, John Constantine, the Winchester brothers.  All relatable, flawed (mostly) humans investigating sinister and often grisly puzzles, but rather than end their adventures with a drawing room confession or an arrest like boring old Hercule Poirot they would fight giant Lovecraftian monsters, much more exciting.  Thomas Carnacki is one of the original Occult detectives, created by William Hope Hodgeson in 1910.  The Ghost Finder appeared in a six short stories for the wonderfully named Idler magazine.  These stories, along with three adventures published after Hodgeson’s death are collected in The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder published by Wordsworth Mystery & Supernatural.  The book’s RRP is £3 for 200 pages so it’s very cheap, but is it any good?

I was expecting Carnacki to be a predictable character.  As he was one of the first occult detectives and a widely acknowledged influence on those that followed him I had assumed that he would seem tired.  I worried that time would have changed Carnacki from a character to a cliché, but thanks to Hodgeson this is never a problem.  Probably my favourite thing about Carnacki is his rational approach to the supernatural.  Carnacki is always prepared for a mundane solution to the supposed hauntings he encounters and often sceptical of supernatural phenomena.  However, when he finds indisputable evidence of supernatural threats he has no problem accepting them as real.  

This is a refreshing change to Mulder and Scully type characters, always assuming a mystery must be either totally rational or totally paranormal.  Carnacki lives in a world where ghosts and demons exist alongside human menaces so he is always prepared for either problem.  Following this unusually agnostic approach Carnacki tackles supernatural problems scientifically; reading research papers on the occult, using then modern technology such as his trusty camera and devises new methods of fighting spirits such as his “electric pentacle”.  Carnacki is not some indestructible action hero who fights evil with quips and sarcasm, he’s always scared of the demonic forces that trouble him, but he’s a hero because he fights them anyway, because no one else knows how.

With most occult detectives stories the reader can usually expect the villain to be some sort of supernatural foe or maybe revealed as humans all along in a surprise twist, Hodgeson takes a different approach.  Hodgeston treats Ghosts and humans as equally likely culprits; sometimes the monster is a terrifying supernatural apparition from beyond time and space, sometimes its Scooby doo style crooks trying to steal an inheritance.  This stops the mysteries from becoming predictable and boring, ensuring the reader never knows what to expect.

Hodgeson portrays most of the threats as mysteries even to Carnacki, as if for all his expertise and experience the Ghost Finder only knows a tiny fraction of the truth about his supernatural enemies, creating a terrific sense of unease that is often genuinely spooky.  The author creates great unknowable menaces then locks Carnacki (and the reader) in a dark room with them, protected only by lines of chalk and electricity that might not work at all.  This is undermined slightly as each story is narrated by Carnacki so his survival is never in doubt.

In conclusion The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder by William Hope Hodgeson provides a collection of varied, intriguing and unsettling short stories.  Definitely worth reading/buying for a superior early example of the occult detective genre.  

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