The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Occult Detective
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Occult detectives are those investigators, usually gentlemen rather than professionals, who specialize in cases involving the supernatural. Although the occult detective first appeared in the nineteenth century, it was only in the twentieth century that he became a recurring character in horror fiction, with Algernon Blackwood’s Doctor Silence (1908) beginning the craze for occult/psychic detectives—a craze which lasted until the end of World War Two and still survives in a somewhat attenuated fashion today.
The roots of the Occult Detective character type can be found early in the Gothic novels, in which mysteries apparently or actually involving the occult—ghosts, specters, fetches, and other supernatural occurrences—were investigated, pursued, and often solved by the novels’ protagonists, who were often (though not always) young women. Unfortunately, as with detective fiction and the novel more generally, the male bias against female protagonists led to the amateur female occult detectives of the Gothics being supplanted by male protagonists. Arguably the first “ghost hunter” variety of occult detective, the titular protagonist of the anonymously written “Madame Deshoulieres, French Poetess” (The Literary Gazette, n. 46 [Dec. 6, 1817]: 363-364), is a woman, but over the next fifty years, a space of time in which eighteen occult detective stories appeared, no woman appeared as a mystery- or crime-solver in an occult detective story.1
While Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin Mysteries can be said to have begun the transformation of mysterious and criminous stories from Proto-Mysteries to plain mysteries and detective stories, the ghost hunter brand of occult detective appeared in at least nine stories before the debut of Dupin in 1841. More standard occult detectives, however, only appeared in two stories: E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Das öde Haus” (Nachtstücke, 1817) and Henry William Herbert’s “The Haunted Homestead” (The Ladies’ Companion and Literary Expositor, 13, no. 8-10 [Aug-Oct. 1840]), so that the 1855 appearance of Harry Escott in Fitz-James O’Brien’s “The Pot of Tulips” (Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 11, no. 66 [Nov. 1855]: 807-814), and Escott’s follow-up appearance in “What Was It? A Mystery,” were something of a revelation. The Hoffmann story was not translated into English until 1855, and the Herbert story had disappeared without influencing anyone, but O’Brien’s stories, given his then-rising prominence, were influential in ways that the Herbert and Hoffmann stories were not, and Escott deserves credit as the first important occult detective.
Eighteen occult detectives/investigators followed over the next forty years, including the nameless narrator of Bulwer Lytton’s “The Haunted and the Haunters,” J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Dr. Martin Hesselius (see: “Green Tea”), and Rudyard Kipling’s Strickland (see: “The Mark of the Beast”), but it wasn’t until Arabella Kenealy’s Lord Syfret (see: “Some Experiences of Lord Syfret”), in 1896, that occult detective fiction saw its first series starring a professional occult detective. What followed Kenealy’s stories were Alexander M. Reynolds’ “The Mystery of Djara Singh” in 1897 and then E. and H. Heron’s Flaxman Low Adventures in 1898, which were directly influential on Blackwood’s John Silence stories.
Elements which fed into the popularity of the occult detective character type in the second half of the nineteenth century include “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…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.”2
Not to be under-emphasized is the influence of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes Mysteries on occult detective fiction; as Sarah Crofton notes, “in the wake of Holmes, stories of ghost investigators took on a distinctly new tone, one marked by awareness of the detective story as a genre. Authors of the fin-de-siècle drew upon the new tropes of detective fiction to create characters whose proofs of the occult both ape and undermine the detective’s familiar explicative methods.”3
In modern criticism Flaxman Low is often a synecdoche for occult detectives as a whole, so that the following can be taken be true not just of Low but of occult detectives in general:
Traditional detectives operate as the ultimate sceptics, disbelieving everything until it is corroborated by putting all of the pieces of evidence together. Flaxman Low, on the other hand, works in a universe where physical laws do not apply, and there are no borders to his puzzles. Attacks are made without conventional motive, perpetrators appear and disappear from his realm of existence without leaving footprints or fingerprints, ghosts do not have alibis nor can they be brought to earthly justice. Low cannot be a sceptic because there is nothing for him to be skeptical of. He knows from personal experience that anything can happen.
Smajic notes that: “While the rationalist protocols of nineteenth-century detective fiction ostensibly preclude non-rational forms of knowledge and, even more so, supernatural occurrences, the genre consistently displays signs of affinity with clairvoyance and telepathy, intuitionism and spiritualism” (2010, 6). Sherlock Holmes, for instance, is famous for knowing everything of importance about a client at a glance. While given a sheen of practical knowledge by appeal to bootlaces and shirtsleeves, the truth is that Holmes just seems to know things about other people, and despite assurances of the simplicity of his tricks, there is really no conventional explanation for the accuracy of his insights. Watson, like the rest of us, sees, while Holmes observes. Holmes is master of a form of knowledge beyond the ken. Low, and his nemesis Kalmarkane, are able to interact on the ethereal plane and have the ability to make their “will effectual in the spiritual as in the physical world” (Prichard and Hesketh-Prichard 2011, 282, 298). Again we see the traditional detective granted extraordinary powers of knowing, while the occult detective has an exceptional ability to experience.4
Sarah Crofton sums up the occult detective of the late nineteenth century nicely:
At the heart of these stories is an amalgamation of detective fiction and ghost stories, the latter genre present in so far as these stories revel in the threatening, unspeakable, and external; the former exploring themes of expertise, exegesis, and policing. These tales mix confidence in the detective’s authority with an excitement about the threatening possibilities of the ineffable. The power of the story is not in collapsing the complex relationship between the explicating voice and the inexplicable phenomenon. Rather, it is in engaging the reader on dual levels.5
For Further Research
Neil Cornwell, “Seerman: The Rise of the Psychic Detective,” in Neil Cornwell, Odoevsky’s Four Pathways Into Modern Fiction: A Comparative Study (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2010).
Sage Leslie-McCarthy, “The Case of the Psychic Detective: Progress, Professionalisation and the Occult in Psychic Detective Fiction from the 1880s to the 1920s.” Thesis, Griffith University, 2007.
Tim Prasil, “The Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives,” accessed Feb. 12, 2019, https://brombonesbooks.com/occult-detectives-ghost-hunters-in-fact-and-fiction/the-chronological-bibliography-of-early-occult-detectives/
Tim Prasil, “The Legacy of Ghost Hunter Fiction: A Chronological Bibliography,” accessed Feb. 12, 2019, https://brombonesbooks.com/occult-detectives-ghost-hunters-in-fact-and-fiction/the-legacy-of-ghost-hunter-fiction-a-chronological-bibliography/
1 I’m indebted to Tim Prasil’s “The Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives,” https://brombonesbooks.com/occult-detectives-ghost-hunters-in-fact-and-fiction/the-chronological-bibliography-of-early-occult-detectives/ and “The Legacy of Ghost Hunter Fiction: A Chronological Bibliography,” https://brombonesbooks.com/occult-detectives-ghost-hunters-in-fact-and-fiction/the-legacy-of-ghost-hunter-fiction-a-chronological-bibliography/, for information about the early days of the occult detective character type and story.
2 Mike Ashley, “Occult Detectives,” in John Clute and John Grant, ed., The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (London: Orbit, 1997), 701.
3 Sarah Crofton, “CSΨ: Occult Detectives of the Fin de Siècle and the Interpretation of Evidence,” Clues 30, no. 2 (Fall 2012): 30.
4 Robert Perrett, “Flaxman Low, Occult Psychologist,” in Lucyna Krawczyk-Źywko, ed., Victorian Detectives in Contemporary Culture: Beyond Sherlock Holmes (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 82.
5 Crofton, “CSΨ,” 37.