And so we’re onto number five of the Dennis Wheatley Library of The Occult series, William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost-Finder.
If anyone had asked me, not that anyone ever has, if I liked the Carnacki tales I would most definitely have replied in the affirmative. I picked up one of the Sphere copies with a Terry Oakes illustration when I was in my early-teens and very much enjoyed it. Now, thirty five years or so later, I’ve re-read it for the purposes of this blog and, I have to say, I’m really not as enamoured with it as I expected.
I love the idea of the enigmatic occult detective as much as the next weirdo person; if you’re reading this blog then you probably have an interest in old horror fiction so you’ve probably, at some point in your impressionable youth, harboured a secret fantasy about being an occult detective ~ whether it’s Blackwood’s mystical cipher, John Silence; Quinn’s Jules de Grandin; Wellman’s Appallachian folklorist, Silver John; Crowley’s slightly creepy Simon Iff; Moore’s/Delano’s more modern take, John Constantine; or any of the myriad of others who inhabit the genre; we all have a favourite.
Hodgson wrote nine Carnacki tales, all of which are included in this collection. They have a somewhat formulaic approach to them; each having the rather basic framing device of the Edwardian gent, Carnacki, inviting his four friends to his London address at 472 Cheyne Walk so that he can regale them with the story of his latest adventure. The four friends are Dodgson (!), Arkright, Jessop and Taylor. We know nothing of these four guests as Carnacki refuses to engage in any conversation other than the telling of the story at hand. And this is where the main problem lies with these tales, the refusal of any conversation means that we get no sense of characterisation from the four visitors which renders them superfluous; they only exist as a clumsy ‘in’ to the story. Once in a while they do get to speak, but only as a Q&A session at the conclusion so that Carnacki can explain the things that Hodgson missed out of the story.
Lovecraft included Hodgson in his essay ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ and infers that, although Hodgson’s imagining of unknown horrors cannot be faulted, his prose style often lets him down. And I cannot help but agree with this.
But, for all its faults, the Carnacki collection does have a few points of interest.
Amongst a handful of other fictional works mentioned, we have an early example of a fictional grimoire in the Sigsand Manuscript. Carnacki constantly refers to this 14th century work in his investigations and we have various excerpts included. Here’s a complete run of those excerpts:
On the marking of the Pentagram:
“Thee mounts wych are thee Five Hills of safetie. To lack is to gyve pow’r to thee daemon; and surlie to fayvor the Evill Thynge.”
“Theyre must noe light come from within the barryier.”
“Thyr be noe sayfetie to be gained bye gayrds of holieness when the monyster hath pow’r to speak throe woode and stoene.”
This type of being can:
“forme wythine the pentycle,”
Although the unknown last line of the Saaamaaa Ritual will protect for no more than:
“maybe five beats of the harte.”
A still-born child is:
“snayched bacyk bye thee Haggs.”
On the use of colour in psychic defense:
“Avoid diversities of colour; nor stand ye within the barrier of the colour lights; for in colour hath Satan a delight. Nor can he abide in the Deep if ye adventure against him armed with red purple. So be warned. Neither forget that in blue, which is God’s colour in the Heavens. ye have safety.”
“In blood there is the Voice which calleth through all space. Ye Monsters in ye Deep hear, and hearing, they lust. Likewise hath it a greater power to reclaim backward ye soul that doth wander foolish adrift from ye body in which it doth have natural abiding. But woe unto him that doth spill ye blood in ye deadly hour; for there will be surely Monsters that shall hear ye blood cry.”
“Ye Hogg which ye almighty alone hath power upon. If in sleep or in ye hour of danger ye hear the voice of ye Hogg, cease ye to meddle. For ye Hogg doth be of ye outer Monstrous Ones, nor shall any human come nigh him nor continue meddling when ye hear his voice, for in ye earlier life upon the world did the Hogge have power, and shall again in ye end. And in that ye Hogge had once a power upon ye earth, so doth he crave sore to come again. And dreadful shall be ye harm to ye soul if ye continue to meddle, and let ye beast come nigh. And I say unto all, if ye have brought this dire danger upon ye, have memory of ye cross, for all sign hath ye Hogge a horror.”
We can recognise amongst this cod Middle English text several similarities to the Lovecraftian mythos with its references to ancient and malignant beings just a hair’s breadth away from our own world. We could be forgiven for thinking that Lovecraft was indeed influenced by Hodgson’s work, but it seems that he did not discover his work until quite late on in his own career. As Lovecraft put it himself:
“Few can equal him (Hodgson) in adumbrating the nearness of nameless forces and monstrous besieging entities . . .”
Continuing into Hodgson’s Carnacki mythos, the Sigsand Manuscript also describes beings known as Saiitii and, what appears to be a lesser form, Aeiirii; no other information is given about these beings other than the names and the fact that they can manifest in our world. These, along with the protective ritual Carnacki usually employs, the Saaamaaa Ritual, may seem familiar to readers of Dennis Wheatley.
We know that Wheatley was a huge fan of Hodgson’s work and he owned a complete set of the author’s first editions. As he states in his introduction to this volume, he intended to include all of Hodgson’s novels and short story collections in the Library of The Occult series. However, as the series only ran to forty five volumes, we only have two of Hodgson’s; this Carnacki collection and his 1909 novel, The Ghost Pirates.
Wheatley also payed homage to Hodgson in his novel The Devil Rides Out. We all know the famous scene where de Richleau and his companions have protected themselves from psychic attack within the chalked Pentagram and the demonic presences manifest around them. Here is a line from Wheatley:
“De Richleau knew that it was a Saiitii manifestation of the most powerful and dangerous kind.”
. . . and from Hodgson:
“Yes, unless it should prove to be one of the cases of the more terrible Saiitii Manifestations, we were almost certain of safety, so long as we kept to our order within the Pentacle.”
There are many articles on the internet which state that Wheatley has de Richleau use Hodgson’s Saamaaa ritual during this scene in The Devil Rides Out. However, this is not the case (and the perils of copy and paste essay writing!). Although obviously influenced by Hodgson, Wheatley changes the name slightly and has de Richleau use the Sussamma Ritual. Here’s Wheatley:
“The Duke used his final resources, and did a thing which shall never be done except in the direst emergency when the soul is in peril of destruction. In a clear sharp voice he pronounced the last two lines of the dread Sussamma Ritual.”
. . . and Hodgson:
“There is, of course, the possibility of the Unknown Last Line of the Saaamaaa Ritual being uttered but it is too uncertain to count upon and the danger is too hideous and even then it has no power to protect for more than “maybe five beats of the harte” as the Sigsand has it.”
So there we have it, William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki stories; a series of formulaic tales with a writing style which can be described, at best, as adequate; zero characterisation; plots that gnaw away at the ropes which suspend your disbelief; and a mild obsession for equating esotericism with an over-use of vowels.
Having said that, the Carnacki tales have proved to be massively influential . . . somehow.
If you haven’t read them yet then should you read them?
Of course you should! They are a hugely important part of 20th Century occult fiction.