-The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Flaxman Low Adventures (1898-1899)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The twelve Flaxman Low Adventures were written by “E. and H. Heron” and began with “The Story of the Spaniards, Hammersmith” (Pearson’s Magazine, Jan 1898). “E. and H. Heron” was the pseudonym of Hesketh Prichard and Kate O'Brien Ryall Prichard. Hesketh Prichard (1876-1922) was a successful author, big game hunter, and cricketer and was reportedly E.W. Hornung’s model for Raffles (see: The Amateur Cracksman). Kate Prichard (1851-1935), Hesketh's mother, was a novelist, short story writer, and political activist.
Flaxman Low is the first modern occult detective. Low was not the first occult detective–that title is usually, and inaccurately, given to Le Fanu’s Doctor Hesselius (see: “Green Tea”), though E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Doktor K. (from “Das öde Haus,” 1817) is a more appropriate candidate–but Low was the first full-time specialist who appeared in recurring stories and was chosen by clients to investigate and solve supernatural mysteries. Low is a gentleman. He is not hired but is genteelly consulted by friends, acquaintances, the law, and the government. Although learned, Low does not pummel others with the scope and depth of his erudition; his conclusions are generally reached through logic and the scientific method rather than through research in arcane tomes. Low’s attitude is that “everybody who, in a rational and honest manner, investigates the phenomenon of spiritism will, sooner or later, meet in them some perplexing element, which is not to be explained by any of the ordinary theories.”1
The stories are presented as being real cases. The Prichards actually modeled the stories on cases studied by the Society for Psychical Research, a group found in 1882 by scholars for the purpose of studying supposedly real paranormal phenomena. Accompanying the Flaxman Low stories were photographs of the locations which the Society investigated, which added to the supposed veracity of the stories. Among the occult phenomena which Low confronts are the murderous ghost of a leper–tearing down the house the ghost is haunting and uncovering the ghost’s skeleton is the only way to dispel the ghost; a haunted house; a figure described as and drawn to resemble Spring-Heeled Jack (see: The Spring-Heeled Jack Adventures) who is a manifestation of the “Elemental Earth Spirit,” uncovered due to recent earthquake (the story refers to vampires as “a distinct race” rather than as individual monstrous aberrations); both a murderous mummy and the ghost of vampire; another haunted house, this one on top of a barrow which possesses an “elemental psychic germ;” a vicious African plant which is possessed by a “degraded soul;” a zombie haunting; a vengeful ghost who seeks to exterminate an entire family by making its members kill themselves; a man obsessed with a moon-worshiper who becomes possessed by the moon-worshipper’s spirit; a Chinese secret society which kills via the poisonous “Blue Death;” another evil African fungi, this one acting on the brain and possessing a “singularly malignant nature;” and Doctor Kalmarkane, Low’s evil opposite.
Low is in the Holmes mode (See: The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries) of the consulting detective. Low does not accept money for his work; he is independently wealthy and performs his work to satisfy his curiosity and to help others. He has an upper-class background and serves the upper classes, usually his friends or people who have heard of him or read his writings. He is a man of leisure and has a wry sense of humor. He is well-educated in “psychical” phenomena and calls himself a “psychical investigator.” He says, of himself, that “I consider that I stand just one step above the specialist who makes a study of brain disease and insanity; he is at work on the disorders of the embodied spirit, while I deal with abnormal conditions of the free and detached spirit.”2
The Flaxman Low stories are interesting for reasons other than their content. Throughout the nineteenth century ghosts and ghost-lore had been seen as the province of women.
In keeping, then, with the conventions informing many fictional haunted house stories, the “Real Ghost Stories" suggest that failure at self-mastery may render one more susceptible to ghostly presences (although stories celebrating access to the spiritual domain as a specifically feminine power would couch this receptivity in terms of an achievement of womanly sympathy rather than the deficiency of a weak will.) According to these conventions, the people who are least adept at practicing self-control— women, servants, and so-called savages— claim access to the supernatural as their special province, and inquiries into ghost-lore must be directed to the unmanly discourse of women’s gossip and primitive superstition.3
Although there was always a counter-trend away from this in the form of the prototypical occult detectives (see: Occult Detectives), the Flaxman Low stories are the ones to definitively break with this convention, using “his objective evaluation of information obtained through meticulous observation”4 rather than intuitively knowing ghost-lore. Further, the Flaxman Low stories “rewrite ghost-seeing as a male experience by reducing the mystical element enveloping ‘the other world’ to simple human ignorance...by transporting the supernatural into the realm of rational, secular knowledge from which women are largely excluded, the ‘Real Ghost Stories’ effectively deny women any expertise or authority in spiritual matters.”5
Another aspect of the occult detectives of the 1890s which Flaxman Low can be said to have begun is the attempt by the occult detectives–serious, heterosexual, ambitious to become more than human–to normalize the monstrous, the abnormal, and the queer supernatural. The occult detective stories of the 1890s deal with
the struggle of an intellectual or man of science who attempts to use science to normalize or to “straighten” a queer, monstrously abnormal occult. The success of the attempt to come to terms with the queer or abnormal, as well as the scientist’s survival, depends upon the ability of the scientist to “queer” himself and/or his subject in preparation for the encounter with the occult Other. In other words, the occult explorer-scientist must identify this Other, and in doing so, he must attempt to become Other in order to access the powers that he seeks.
This preparation functions as an inoculation against the queer effects of the occult. In other words, straight, normative figures incorporate the queer occult into their being in order to build up resistance to its overpowering effects.6
The Flaxman Low stories are told in the slick, commercial magazine style of the late 1890s, which has aged well and is still readable and enjoyable. The stories are not frightening, but they are entertaining. The reader does not come away from the Flaxman Low stories with the same impression of atmosphere and character that the Prichards’ Don Q Adventures have. The Low stories do have some vivid images, but generally the content is only average, with little characterization and lecturing, monologic dialogue. The ideas for the stories are clever, though, and the narration is entertaining.
Print: H. Hesketh-Prichard, K. Prichard, Flaxman Low, Occult Psychologist: Collected Stories. Redditch: Read Books Ltd., 2013.
1 E. & H. Heron, “The Story of Baelbrow,” Pearson’s Magazine (Apr, 1898): 374.
2 E. & H. Heron, “The Story of the Moor Road,” Pearson’s Magazine (Mar. 1898): 247.
3 Susan E. Schaper, “Spectres of the Past: The Victorian Ghost Story” (PhD diss., Indiana University, 1998), 102-103.
4 Schaper, “Spectres of the Past,” 104.
5 Schaper, “Spectres of the Past,” 104-105.
6 Mark De Cicco, “‘More Than Human’: The Queer Occult Explorer of the Fin-de-Siecle,” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts (Mar. 1, 2012): 7.