Tuesday, January 22, 2013

William Hope Hodgson - Carnacki the Ghost Finder

Following only a few years after Algernon Blackwood's John Silence, William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki is one of the earliest occult investigators. The first collection of Carnacki stories hit in 1913; by the 1948 Arkham House edition, which added three tales unpublished in Hodgson's lifetime, the set as we know it today was complete. Hodgson's command of atmosphere is immense, here, but that atmosphere rarely survives to the story's end.

The collection's first triumph comes from how each of the stories build on one another. Carnacki's character, admittedly, is rather stock; we see little of his personality or life outside of his investigations. His circle of friends and manner of telling, however, does bring a human element to the stories. Each begins with his four closest friends coming to his home, eating a meal with him, and then sitting down expectantly to hear of his most recent case. Before long, the reader feels like they, too, are sitting in an armchair before Carnacki as the fellow smokes and begins his yarn. This feel is enhanced by Carnacki's frequent mentions of and questions to his listeners, such as his asking them: Can you picture it all? (p. 185)

The successive cases aid the supernatural as well. Carnacki never develops a complete mythos, but multiple elements carry over from tale to tale and begin to sketch his world. References to the Sigsand Manuscript, the Saaamaaa ritual, and hints as to the means and nature of the impossibilities Carnacki imagines come together to form a cohesive mystery that is more pernicious than disconnected hints could be. Backing up the idea of a growing understanding of the void, Carnacki frequently recalls prior cases as he speaks and draws comparisons, and he sometimes references his listeners to imagined lectures and books for more information on a particular occult topic.

When it comes to the occult, Carnacki is not some overconfident fool. He knows that: We are but speculating on the coasts of a strange country of mystery (p. 270). Always, his inquiries into the unknown are rational and methodical. He has much of the private investigator in him, but he is also a man of science. He neither unthinkingly accepts all he hears nor dogmatically dismisses it. As he says, he never allows himself to be blinded by a little cheap laughter. (p. 168). He is an unprejudiced sceptic (p. 138), and he continues to ask questions, and keep [his] eyes open (p. 168). In some, Carnacki finds the genuinely supernatural; in others, he does not. For all the problems this raises (which I'll get to shortly), it does give credit to Carnacki's position.

Hodgson's evocation of the occult is superb and is effective precisely because of its obliqueness. Little direct, physical action is taken by supernatural forces, let alone violent action. When such things are done, they come as rich climaxes, abrupt releases of the atmosphere's tension. Hodgson creates his moods through the subtle manipulation of the senses and through Carnacki's meticulous work at assembling every unearthly clue.

Often, Hodgson's tool is sound. After pitching his scenes into utter darkness, Hodgson leaves his investigator with nothing to go on but his ears, and then he fills the room with noises, each of which is not only a creepy bang in the night but is rife with significance to the man willing to think it through. In "The House Among the Laurels," Carnacki realizes that the sounds he hears are the breakings of the seals he placed on the mansion's doors; without a single visual, Hodgson impresses upon us the slow ghosting open of each of the doors and the implications thereof. "The Horse of the Invisible," meanwhile, has the horse's oncoming gallop be the knell of onrushing disaster. In "The Whistling Room," Hodgson goes farther still, and the room's infernal noises actually reach a climactic pitch, a succession of sounds with a certain, horrible personal note in it; as if there in the darkness you could picture the room rocking and creaking in a mad, vile glee to its own filthy piping and whistling and honing; and yet all the time aware of you in particular (p. 196).

When working with sight, Hodgson still does not rely simply on lurid imagery but rather bends and toys with light and vision itself. In "The Haunted Jarvee" it is unnatural shadows that first spell doom, but it is "The Searcher of the End House" that truly excels in this regard. It is here that light shifts before us, changing the very fundamentals of our perception into something unearthly. I give you (part of) the first paragraph in which Carnacki and those he's with glimpse the apparition:

In the very instant that I made this movement [towards my lantern], the night which filled the passage seemed to become suddenly of a dull violet colour; not, mind you, as if a light had been shown; but as if the natural blackness of the night had changed colour, as I might say from the inside. Do you understand what I am trying to tell you? And then, coming through this violet night, through this violet-coloured gloom, came a little naked child, running. In an extraordinary way, the child seemed not to be distinct from the surrounding gloom; but almost as if it were a concentration of that extraordinary atmosphere; almost – can you understand? – as if that gloomy colour which had changed the night,, came from the child (pp. 215-6).

Against even the excellence of all the stories listed, "The Hog" still likely stands out. Of all the stories here, it is by far the most cosmic in its Horror and its implications. The infernal, dream-haunting Swine-things within it hearken clearly back to those in Hodgson's The House on the Borderland, and this tale seems to give some of the grand backdrop against which that epic plays out – and, in the process, actually might have increased my appreciation for each work. In the short, Carnacki's investigation into a man plagued by awful dreams brings him into contact with that which in ye earlier life upon the world […] [had] power, and shall again in ye end (p. 300). "The Hog" is the longest of the Carnacki stories by a good bit, but I tore through it like a man possessed and rushing to reach the closing doors of sanity. The approach of the frightful Hog is excellently done, with one particularly powerful bit of imagery coming as the Hog rises up through Carnacki's defenses:

I saw through the slow whirl of the cloud curtains that the violet circle had begun to leave the floor. It was being taken up on the spread of the vast snout. […] Straining my eyes to see through the swaying funnel of clouds I saw that the violet circle had melted and was running down the pale sides of the snout in streams of violet-coloured fire (pp. 304-5).

Still, as in The House on the Borderland, Hodgson does not accompany his broadening in metaphysical scale with a broadening in morality. Those stories in Carnacki the Ghost-Finder that veer into cosmic forces do so in a fashion that is still black and white, or at least gray and white. For, you see, in addition to the Monstrous Ones (p. 300) that reside in the Outer Circle (p. 313), Hodgson also has an even more powerful Protective Force (p. 301) in his universe. The grand beasties exist in a rather amoral but horrific predatory fashion. As Hodgson describes it: They have desires regarding us which are incredibly more dreadful to our minds when comprehended than an intelligent sheep would consider our desires towards its own carcass (p. 315). The Protective Force, however, has no stated naturalistic reason for its aid. So, for all that it expands our conception of the universe, Hodgson's fiction once again keeps the idea of a benevolent and (so far as can be discerned) all powerful watcher over us.

Therefore, while his effects are very similar to Lovecraft in many ways, his thematic intentions are anything but, which is my chief problem with views like those espoused in this article by Lee Weinstein. As Weinstein, observes, Hodgson succeeds admirably in attaching the emotion of fear to the vastness of the cosmos. But Lovecraft's fear did not simply come from the size of the cosmos but also from their composition; his yawning vistas were not frightening solely (or even primarily) for the creatures that occupied them but rather for their size, for the way they cast humanity into insignificance, and for their emptiness of purpose and benevolence. Of course, Hodgson cannot be called inferior to Lovecraft simply for having different thematic interests. This paragraph and the one preceding it are more pointed at those, in my view, misconstruing Hodgson's work than they are at Hodgson himself.

What does directly damage the stories here, however, are their endings. Just about all of them close with Carnacki dishing out the hitherto utterly unguessable facts. That, in and of itself, is fine. Many of them, however, then rationalize away their supernatural elements as mere hoaxes, a move so infuriatingly, atmosphere-destroyingly similar to a century-older Scooby Do that one can hear the culprit of the hour screaming "I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for you meddling paranormal investigators!"

 In this article, Ellery Queen (yes, THAT Ellery Queen) defends the endings, stating that:  These natural elucidations, frowned on by devotees of the weird, must be applauded by devotees of the detective story; they transform Carnacki from a mere dabbler into the unknown to a legitimate and authentic detective. I can't help but noting that Queen never gives a single literary reason for why these explanations are good besides that they make Carnacki more of a detective. As to that, fair enough, but I don't think many would say a story is always bettered by including a detective, no matter what. In these cases, that inclusion (going by Queen's definitions) harms the stories quite a bit.

My problem is not simply that the endings are not supernatural – I am more than capable, needless to say, of enjoying realistic mysteries and other kinds of literature – but that they fatally undermine the story before them. Revealing that blood descending from a ceiling is actually colored water is simply silly (the genius detective did not verify that the blood mist was made of, you know, blood?), and that is, to be honest, one of the better reveals. Many of the absurd revelations contained herein are frankly less plausible than the idea that a ghost did it.

Their absurdity cheapens the atmosphere. When the reader knows that the otherworldly terror they felt came from a man controlling an absurd number of doorways with a hook, or one somehow running down a crowded hallway and escaping gunfire while wearing a mask and pretending to be a ghost, the reader's main reaction is not only that the preceding story was not worth their dread but that the next one will almost certainly not be either, and that they had better not invest themselves too closely emotionally, lest they simply be cheated again. This, needless to say, damages every piece in the collection, not only the supposedly realistic ones.

The worst examples come when Hodgson includes both a hoax and a real haunting, having one more unexplainable, clearly supernatural incident follow the apprehending of the – now terrified – prankster. But, by that point, it's too late, and I'm not about to fall under the sway of another illusion, even if this one happens to be genuine. The result of trying to come back from a Rube Goldberg-style haunting with the genuine article is simply to reinforce the reader's disbelief with yet another impossibility.

Very few, though that is not to say none, of these stories ended without leaving me in a state of some annoyance, feeling like a truly great reading experience had been snatched away from me at the last moment. But to entirely dismiss thirteen pages of superb atmosphere and writing for the final three, as in the case of the unfortunately ended "The House Among the Laurels," feels simply churlish. Having finished my second work of Hodgson's, I find myself in a similar position as when I finished The House on the Borderlands: frustrated and more than a bit awed. Hodgson is a writer too powerful for those interested in the Weird to pass by, even if I have yet to find the work of his that I can read or recommend without severe reservations.

  1. All page numbers from The House on the Borderland and Other Mysterious Places, the second volume of the Night Shade Books Collected Fiction of William Hope Hodgson
  2. I would like to thank Sam Gafford for his work at http://williamhopehodgson.wordpress.com/, which is where I discovered both articles on Hodgson discussed in this review and also many fascinating others.]

No comments:

Post a Comment