‘Carnacki the Ghost Finder’

15 10 2010

[written by author, R. J. Barker]

As usual we had dined well with RJ and now it got to the real business of the evening – it was always done thus- with RJ holding court before the roaring fire and the three of us sat awaiting his pleasure.

‘I have been in touch with that Deniz fellow,’ he said amiably.

‘The Swede?’ asked Arkwright.

RJ shook his mane of curly hair.

‘No, Arkwright, Deniz is as English as you or I.  He is, I believe, from Lancashire: he merely lives in Sweden.’

‘Lancashire?’ humphed Arkwright, ‘well that’s nearly as bad if you ask me.’

‘What did Deniz want?’ I asked before Arkwright could make a scene.

‘Well,’ smiled the lugubrious RJ  tamping down a thumbful of Turkish tobacco into his pipe.  ‘It is more what I am to do for him, he is doing a series on ghost stories, you know.’

‘I did not,’ I told him though my heart sank as I realised what was sure to follow.

‘Well, he is,’ remarked RJ.  ‘And I thought I may do a little piece about William Hope Hodgeson.’

‘Really?’ said Arkwright, still spoiling for a fight.  ‘I have heard you be rather scathing about him, in fact, you have referred to ‘The Night Lands’ as unreadable tosh on more than one occasion.’

‘Well,’ RJ lit his pipe with the end of a burning stick from the fire.  ‘I have said that but I was young when I attempted to read it and may have been mistaken,’ he threw the stick back into the crackling fire.  ‘Besides, I think my dislike is partly down to the lack of Carnacki the Ghost Finder within the book and it is him I wish to talk about.

‘What a surprise,’ I remarked, settling in for the usual lecture. ‘At least, RJ, if nothing else, that explains this extraordinarily unfashionable framing device you have used.’

‘Indeed it does,’ said RJ, taking a  deep draw on his pipe, ‘indeed it does.’

It wasn’t really until I started my third go at writing this for Mark that I noticed what a massive influence the ‘Carnacki the Ghost Finder’ stories have had on me.  Reading these stories again in preparation to write this I realised how much they’ve affected my own (sporadic and often rather eccentric) fiction.

The odd framing devices, rambling starts and intrusive narration used by William Hope Hodgeson (WHH) are all things I love.  Probably rather too much and to my own detriment but there you go.  Also, that what I intended to be a quick essay about two particular stories in the series was going to turn into a rather rambling essay about, well, about all manner of things really.  But I hope you’ll forgive me and be at least nominally entertained by what I have to say.

And not be too appalled by the any ill thought-out rambling you may come across.

Amongst my friends whenever the subject comes up of ghost stories I mention the Carnacki the Ghost Finder shorts written by WHH and am invariably met with blank looks.  Which is a pity.  Had Hope-Hodgeson not been killed in World War One maybe he would be a household name and the Carnacki stories would have got the film, or at least television, serialisation they richly deserve.  As it is they seem almost forgotten. Forgotten by some they may be but they remain the only Ghost/Horror stories that have left me with the need to keep the lights on at night.  Particularly two stories; ‘The Hog,’ and ‘The Whistling Room.’

Every Carnacki story starts the same way:  A group of his friends are round for dinner and afterwards Carnacki regales them with his latest adventure. Now I suppose this would be met with  distaste by a modern editor.  (You have killed the tension, Mr Hope Hodgeson. Thank you but this isn’t for us.’)  But for me as a reader it’s not a problem. In fact I think it highlights one of the major differences between a horror story and a ghost story. Where a horror story is driven by peril (and in some cases buckets of guts being thrown around)  a ghost story, for me, derives its ability to cause fear from the peculiarity of the events within in and the atmosphere they create. And it’s in creating this atmosphere of the uncanny that Hope-Hodgeson excels.

For me, there is something about the fifty or so years leading up WWII that produced some of the best ghost stories ever written and the list of authors working then will probably be touched on by more informed minds than my own. I wondered whether it’s because these are the final years where the occult and the sciences were able to lie in the same bed. Alistair Crowley was taken (somewhat) seriously and spiritualism was on the rise. Also, the advent of Electricity had brought on a massive influx of new ideas and possibilities

It may also be that the Carnacki stories were read during the final times in my own youth where I was able to take such ideas seriously and it may be that is what resonates so strongly within me. Carnacki’s enthusiasm is a mirror for the years my Occam’s Razor was rather more blunt than it is now.

There are definite parallels to be made between the Carnacki shorts and H.P. Lovecraft’s work.  Both contain their own mythos and are wont to reference arcane matters which are never fully explained. But where Lovecraft’s world is one of overt pessimism Hope-Hodgeson’s is far more optimistic. Carnicki himself is an affable character and very much the stereotype British gentleman-adventurer. He is also motivated not only by a healthy scientific curiosity but by a genuine compulsion to help those afflicted. In fact, if you had accidentally read from the Necronomicon then Carnacki is probably just the chap you want in your corner.

Now, I have dithered and avoided talking about the stories themselves. For good reason. If you haven’t read these stories I don’t want to ruin them for you. I want you to read them. You should. Even if it’s for no other reason than to read about Carnacki putting his Electric Neon Pentacle[1] to use. The stories themselves are simple. In ‘The Whistling Room’ Carnacki spends the night in a haunted room. In ‘The Hog’ Carnacki attempts to help a man suffering from nightmares. In both cases the author takes a simple set up and creates a juggernaut of disquiet[2]. The central images conjured up in both stories are, for me, terrifying and I defy anyone to walk away from ‘The Hog’ without the image left when Carnacki conjures the beast indelibly tattooed onto their minds.

You can read both stories for free HERE [3] but reading from a screen is not the best way to enjoy them.  I suggest you get hold of a book. Settle down into a comfy chair before a roaring fire. Then make a cup of tea and read by the light of one lamp.

Now, I apologise for rambling on but I must go.  One of my Guests has fallen asleep and Arkwright is trying to break into the Tantalus and get at the good brandy. Good night and may the Malignant Monstrosities of the Outer Circle never disturb your sleep.

[1]How cool is that?  Really cool is the answer.  I’ve also managed to make it sound like a double entendre which wasn’t my intention at all.

[2]Not actually sure that’s possible.

[3]Spooky fact.  The Carnacki stories originally appeared in a magazine called ‘The Idler’.  I am from a village called ‘Idle’ and according to my wife I also am.  Yeah.  I know.  Scary co-incidence.

[Join us later today for Aaron Polson’s review of Ghostbusters]

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4 responses

15 10 2010
Orrin Grey

All the Carnacki stories are available very affordably in a volume of the Wordsworth Mystery & the Supernatural series. That’s how I was introduced to them, though I was already an adherant of Hodgson’s Sargasso Sea stories by then.

15 10 2010
Ruth

Now you’ve done it. I’m going to have to read these in book form.

15 10 2010
Ken

Good to see old Willie getting his due. I just re-read “The House on the Borderland” last week. It was offered free for the Kindle, so I snagged it. The Carnacki stories are also available for free, as well as others by Hodgson. Well worth it.

21 10 2010
Brigadier Mathias Broom

Thanks for the tip RJ old chap I too have nabbed ‘The house on the borderland’

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