Friday, 4 January 2013

Things that go 'Oink' in the night

A few posts ago, I mentioned the discovery of a series from Wordsworth Editions called Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural.  Three titles from this range were delivered on Christmas Eve by St. Nicholas, whose ashen face, nervous demeanour and somewhat dilated pupils suggested that he had been sampling the wares, (purely in the interests of quality control, I imagine).  In any case, his condition was nothing that a few fortified mince pies could not reverse, and he was his archetypal blithe self again as he sped into the night.  My wife and I have now both enjoyed The Casebook of Carnacki, the Ghost Finder, by WH Hodgson, and I thought I would celebrate this rare and happy spousal coincidence of literary satisfaction with a few words about this book.

Our hero, whose exploits first appeared in The Idler in 1910, is a gentleman of leisure who frequently invites a quartet of friends to dinner - one of whom narrates the stories - and regales these companions with post-prandial accounts of his investigations into apparently paranormal phenomena.  These ghostly goings-on range from mysterious stabbings, through apparitions of phantom children to malign, other-worldly equine and (in the particularly unsettling final tale) porcine manifestations, and are discovered by Carnacki to be caused variously by elaborate human chicanery, genuine supernatural entities, or both. The environment favoured by Hodgson for these tales is that of a vast country estate, populated by families and friends who may be harbouring sinister intentions, and by servants who tend to flee in a huddled mass in the face of apparent mystical mischief, but who occasionally make a reluctant stand.  Imagine Downton Abbey written by Dennis Wheatley, or Scooby Doo by Julian Fellowes, for that matter.

Carnacki investigates these cases by applying a combination of Holmesian forensic and deductive techniques and his knowledge of the supernatural realms, and brings to bear a range of marvellous devices related to the non-earthly aspect of his work.  Thus the stories embody the profound fascination of this period with both the scientific / technological and the spiritual, which is one of the reasons they remain interesting and worthwhile. Another appeal to the modern reader is that these stories (and the genre of which they are among the finest examples) prefigure many later forms and trends, for example: the paranormal detective novels that are so in vogue at present; a fair amount of graphic novel work (e.g. Alan Moore's John Constantine, who became the hero of 'Hellblazer'), many children's TV series and even some aspects of steampunk (witness Carnacki's deployment of the amazing Electric Pentacle).  The best justification for the stories' continued availability, however, is that they are beautifully written.  Hodgson combines a mixture of elegant prose, droll characterisation and vivid description, especially when it comes to delineating various forms of terror and anxiety, to which his protagonist is endearingly, far from immune:

'It produced in me a temporary dazedness in which things and the horror of things became less real.  I stared at them, as a child stares out from a fast train at a quickly passing night-landscape, oddly lit by the furnaces of unknown industries.'

The supernatural lore and literature drawn on by Carnacki is sketched in with a tantalising coyness, providing just enough detail to intrigue and lend an air of (within the context) credibility.  There are constant references to the Sigsand text and the gorgeously vowel-bloated Saaamaaa Ritual, with its unfathomably powerful Unknown Last Line.  This cocktail of precision and vagueness is enhanced by references throughout the stories to the Case of the Black Veil, which is never expanded upon. It is not until the conclusion of The Hog, which features the aforesaid swine of Satan, that Carnacki does anything like flesh out his view of the nature and location of the forces against which he has battled, and the beautifully sustained tone of near-pastiche is continued as he does so.

Please read these stories, and support their estimable publisher by buying the book, several times.  Before you open it, however, do ensure your Pentacle is plugged into the mains.

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