Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Occult Detectives

Sometimes referred to as Psychic Detectives or more loosely as Ghost Hunters, ODs are individuals with specialist, often arcane knowledge who seek to solve psychic phenomena; ODs are not necessarily psychic in their own right, though a few, like George Chesbro's Mongo, have a range of Talents. They are more properly psychic researchers, though stories turn them into detectives to create tension and adventure. It is no coincidence that the rise in popularity of the OD paralleled the rise of the private-detective story in the wake of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Although Doyle had considerable interest in Occultism, Holmes never investigated an outright supernatural case. Stories involving ODs also came into popularity because of Victorian society's growing interest in the occult. The growth of Spiritualism in the USA and the headline case (1848) of the Fox sisters – among the first spirit mediums – the remarkable demonstrations of Daniel Dunglas Home (1833-1886), the formation of the Theosophical Society (see Theosophy) in 1875 and the Order of the Golden Dawn in 1888, and above all the creation of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in 1882 all provided the fertile soil in which interest in stories about ODs grew.

Most of the early ODs were not spiritualists or psychic specialists or even priests, but doctors. The early cases focused on psychic manifestations as effects of the living, not necessarily the dead. This was the case of the stories written by Samuel Warren (1807-1877): The Diary of a Late Physician (1830-1837 Blackwood's; selection as Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician 1831 US; rev 1832; rev 3 vols 1838), which are first-person narrations by a doctor interested in the occult and macabre. More significant were the stories narrated by Dr Martin Hesselius in In a Glass Darkly (coll 1872) by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, although these really only provided a frame, the stories having originally been written without such a device. Another doctor appears in Stories from the Diary of a Doctor (2 series 1894; 1896) by L T Meade (1854-1914) and Clifford Halifax, most of whose mysteries are bizarre if rationalized; with her other collaborator, Robert Eustace (real name Eustace Robert Barton; 1868-1943), Meade wrote A Master of Mysteries (1897 Cassell's; 1898) featuring John Bell, a psychic investigator who unravels hoaxes. The Bell stories underscore a central feature of many OD stories. The mystery being investigated may be either genuinely supernatural or appear to be (see Rationalized Fantasy). Both types are OD stories – indeed, the latter is more a reflection of the real thing – but for the purposes of this encyclopedia the emphasis is on stories involving the supernatural.

The first genuine OD in fiction, in that he is a specialist called in to investigate supernatural mysteries, is Flaxman Low, who appeared in two series of stories by E & H Heron presented as Real Ghost Stories and collected as Ghosts (1898-1899 Pearson's; coll 1899; cut vt [first series only] Ghost Stories 1916; full text vt Flaxman Low, Psychic Detective 1993). Low's investigations are modelled on those reported by the SPR, and are supported by photographs of the haunted locations, thus increasing the apparent veracity of the stories. Their success ushered in two decades of OD stories – a sort of Golden Age. Allen Upward (1863-1926) copied the Low format for his series The Ghost Hunters (1905-1906 Royal Magazine), while Pearson's repeated the presentation for True Ghost Stories by Jessie Adelaide Middleton in 1907. The next major leap, though, came with John Silence, Physician Extraordinary (coll 1908; with new preface vt John Silence 1942) by Algernon Blackwood. Because of the publisher's advertising campaign, which included some of the biggest posters then printed on hoardings and buses, the book became an overnight bestseller and established the OD as a genre in its own right. John Silence was another doctor who had undergone years of arcane training. Although they were presented as fiction, Blackwood had first planned the stories as a series of essays on psychic afflictions – this adds to their authenticity and conviction. When Blackwood declined to continue the stories, his publisher Eveleigh Nash turned to William Hope Hodgson, who created his Thomas Carnacki following the success of John Silence. Carnacki – not a doctor but a psychic researcher – has recourse to arcane manuscripts as well as modern scientific instruments. The stories were collected as Carnacki the Ghost-Finder (coll 1913; exp 1947 US).

Over the next decade many of the popular magazines ran OD series, most of which have not appeared in book form. These included the long-running Semi-Dual series by J U Giesy, starting with "The Occult Detector" (1912 Cavalier) and ending with "The Ledger of Life" (1934 Argosy). Semi-Dual is a psychologist who can detect crime through psychic vibrations and uses Astrology as his main aid. His cases involve a wider cosmic scale rather than mere spirits, and feature battles against evil-doers in the mode of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu. Rohmer created his own psychic detective with Moris Klaw, who solves his mysteries by sleeping at the scene of the crime and dreaming the solution. Rohmer's stories began to appear in 1913 and were eventually collected as The Dream-Detective (coll 1920; exp 1925 US). Other series from this period include: Aylmer Vance (a clairvoyant) by Alice Askew (1874-1917) and Claude Askew (1865-1917), which ran in The Weekly Tale-Teller during 1914; Norton Vyse by Mrs Champion de Crespigny (1859-1935) in The Premier Magazine in 1919; and Shiela Crerar, the first woman OD, by Ella Scrymsour (1888-1962) in The Blue Magazine in 1920. Luna Bartendale, another female OD, made her single appearance in The Undying Monster (1922), a better-than-average Werewolf tale by Jessie Douglas Kerruish. Dr Arnold Rhymer was the psychic investigator created by Uel Key in The Broken Fang (coll 1920); although he is called a "specialist in spooks", most of the stories involve psychic espionage by the Germans during World War I. Elliott O'Donnell (1872-1965) created ghosthunter Damon Vane in The Novel Magazine in 1922 as a way to recount his own psychic investigations. Dr Taverner, created by Dion Fortune in The Secrets of Doctor Taverner (coll 1926), is more like Low and Silence in drawing upon his occult studies and experiences.

All of these stories are variants on a theme, and there were few new features to add. As a result the popularity of the OD genre had by the 1920s faded. Its main continuation was in the USA, with the stories of Jules de Grandin by Seabury Quinn; these ran in Weird Tales 1925-1951. Not all of the stories involved supernatural events, and there was considerable emphasis upon sex and violence, especially in The Devil's Bride (1932 WT; 1976), the longest of the cases and the most vicious. WT was also the home of John Thunstone, a more believable OD, created by Manly Wade Wellman. This series began in 1943 but the stories were not collected until Lonely Vigils (coll 1981), after which Wellman added two more adventures, What Dreams May Come (1983) and The School of Darkness (1985). Wellman used authentic Folklore and Legends as background for his stories; they are thus among the most distinctive in the field.

E Charles Vivian wrote a number of novels featuring Gregory George Gordon Green, known as Gees. Not all of these are Supernatural Fiction, and indeed Gees is introduced as an everyday investigator who, in later novels, becomes increasingly involved in the bizarre. Grey Shapes (1937), Maker of Shadows (1938), The Ninth Life (1939) and particularly Her Ways Are Death (1941) show Gees becoming more experienced in handling the occult, so that by the last novel he has become something of an adept.

The adventures of Margery Lawrence's Miles Pennoyer, who is modelled on John Silence, appear in Number Seven Queer Street (coll 1945). The last Golden Age OD was Lucius Leffing, created by Joseph Payne Brennan. Although working in the modern USA, Leffing has a spiritual affinity with the Victorian Age and lives like a latter-day Sherlock Holmes. Most of his investigations are mundane because, by the time Brennan had created the character, the market for supernatural fiction had waned. These tales are published as The Casebook of Lucius Leffing (coll 1973), The Chronicles of Lucius Leffing (coll 1977), The Adventures of Lucius Leffing (coll 1990) plus the short novel Act of Providence (1979) with Donald M Grant (1927-2009).

Although an exorcist might be classified as an OD, he is not a detective in the normal sense, and the success of William Peter Blatty's novel The Exorcist (1971) did not result in a revival of interest in OD stories – if anything it made them more of an anachronism. ODs since 1971 include: Titus Crow in books by Brian Lumley; Francis St Clare in many short stories and The Psychic Detective (1993) by R Chetwynd-Hayes; Ralph Tyler by Mark Valentine (1959-    ), some of whose adventures were collected in 14 Bellchamber Towers (coll 1987 chap); Jessica Amanda Salmonson's Penelope Pettiweather, who appears in Harmless Ghosts (coll 1990 chap); and Ernie Pine in various stories by Rick Kennett (1956-    ), some of which have been collected as The Reluctant Ghost-Hunter (coll 1991 chap) – Kennett and A F Kidd (1953-    ) found that they had both independently written some Carnacki pastiches, and these were published as No 472 Cheyne Walk (coll 1992 chap). James Herbert gave the medium a boost when he created the character of David Ash, a sceptical OD who finds real-life cases in Haunted (1988) and The Ghosts of Sleath (1994). Although ODs lack the commercial success they had a century ago they still retain a vibrant fascination for their ardent core of admirers.

Representative anthologies are Horror Hunters (anth 1971) ed Roger Elwood (1943-2007) and Vic Ghidalia (1926-2013); The Supernatural Solution (anth 1976) ed Michel Parry; and Supernatural Sleuths (anth 1986) ed Peter Haining. [MA]

further reading: "Fighters of Fear" by Mike Ashley in Voices from Shadow (anth 1994 chap) ed David Sutton.

see also: L Adams Beck; Robert W Chambers; August Derleth; Paul Gallico; Marvin Kaye; Kolchak Movies; Kolchak: The Night Stalker; Evangeline Walton.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.