I want to look at two stories that could argue either side of this debate: can occult detective stories actually be frightening? Ultimately, each reader must decide for themselves. Do you feel cheated when the culprit turns out to be Principal Dingwall in a rubber mask? Here’s a couple of examples that may change your mind.
The first story is H. Russell Wakefield’s “Ghost Hunt” (Weird Tales, March 1948). August Derleth called Wakefield “the last major representative of a ghost story tradition that began with Sheridan Le Fanu and reached its peak with Montague Rhodes James”. Where else but Weird Tales should “Ghost Hunt” appear? Ironically, WT published several famous ghostbreakers including Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin, Manly Wade Wellman’s John Thunstone and E. Hoffmann Price’s Peter D’Artois. The ghost chaser in Wakefield’s tale is Professor Mignon, a French psychic who comes off pompous and phony. (I don’t know if Wakefield meant to poke fun at Weird Tales‘ biggest draw, Jules de Grandin, by making his occult detective French. I suspect not, for he doesn’t make stupid French oaths like de Grandin, but no doubt WT readers may have had a chuckle anyway.)
The plot of the story is pretty simple. Tony Weldon has taken his Radio show to a haunted house in London, a mansion with an evil reputation that he lays out for the listeners, telling them how those who lived there committed suicide, often throwing themselves into the river below the house. He then introduces his guest, Professor Mignon. The prof says some silly goobly-gook meant to impress us with his arcane knowledge then goes off with a flashlight to find ghosts. Weldon sits there for a while, hears some banging (which he attributes to rats) as a stain grows on the ceiling. Slowly Weldon’s brain melts down as something unseen flits around him (he says it is a bat), more noises and finally the stain begins to drip. Blood, of course. Weldon forces himself to go upstairs to find Mignon, speaks of shadowy forms around him before deciding to go outside and drown himself in the river.
“Ghost Hunt” does several things so well. First off, it is both a ghostbreaker story as well as actually scary. These two things don’t often happen together. The fact that the occult detective will solve the case, lay the ghost, implies right from the start that the story will operate much as a Mystery story and not really rise to the height of frisson that H. P. Lovecraft and other critics say is the whole point of a horror story. The occult detective tale has a dual track, some horror, some mystery. Despite this, Wakefield actually defies the odds and raise a shudder. He does this by having Weldon ramble in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, allowing us to follow his decline from silly doubt to raving insanity. It is this same technique that would make The Blair Witch Project work decades later.
Secondly, he uses a modern device that you’d think would ruin a good ghost story, Radio. The entire story is the live show of Tony Weldon. Wakefield begins with: “Well, listeners, this is Tony Weldon speaking. Here we are on the third of our series of Ghost Hunts. Let’s hope it will be more successful than the other two….” Wakefield ingeniously uses the Radio element to mask the horrors of the story. This is an essential tool of the ghost story writer, hinting but not fully revealing. While the Radio broadcast suggests the modernity of the scientific it also allows the writer to present appearances that the reader knows mean something other than what the speaker says. That flitting bat is clearly a ghost to the reader while Weldon refuses to accept that, trying to hold onto his sanity.
The second story is Henry Kane’s “Ghost Story” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, October 1960). Kane was a detective novelist with sixty titles to his name as well as a number of television scripts. His largest series revolves around P.I. Richard Chambers, who is also the hero of “Ghost Story”. He begins with:
I do not believe in ghosts. Perhaps I do not believe in ghosts because I refuse to believe in ghosts and my mind rejects the possibility and seeks other explanation. In the Troy affair such explanation, for me, involved death-wish, hallucination, guilt complex, retribution, self-punishment and dual personality….
Let’s remember this story appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, not a horror mag (though it was the October/Halloween issue!). The readers of AHMM could accept some horrific window dressing in the John Dickson Carr mode but ultimately a rational explanation had to come. Kane starts with this coda but the reader quickly forgets it until the ending where it will be necessary if you don’t want a supernatural explanation.
The story begins like so many hard-boiled yarns with a beautiful woman coming to the office of the detective. The woman is Miss Sylvia Troy, a talent-less performer in a night club act. She admits to Chambers that she and two of her brothers had “accidentally” killed their eldest brother, Adam, for his money. Now a terrible spirit seemed to be taking vengeance on them. Joseph, the next eldest, had been found with his wrists slit but with no visible means of committing suicide. Chambers follows the last remaining brother, Simon, but he too ends up dead, sitting at a table with a poisoned glass. In each case witnesses had heard the booming voice of the killer ghost. Chambers puts his mind to saving the sister now, calling the police to her door. Through the door the police can hear the man who has come to kill Sylvia Troy. They fire and when the door is kicked in, they find only her, riddled with bullets.
Kane is a subtle enough writer to let you figure out what happened. Chambers had gone to see Sylvia Troy’s act at the night club, where she did impressions, both male and female. She lacks the talent to pull off any real reaction from the audience but she does have a mastery of imitating male voices. I won’t spell it out either but if you need a motive for Sylvia’s self destruction you can always go back to that first introduction.
In these two stories, talented storytellers have taken sides on this debate. Wakefield resents, as did M. R. James, the silly occult detective and tries to put the idea away forever. Though Wakefield did not end the occult detective craze, his story is a good indicator that Horror fans had become a little too sophisticated for the old de Grandin style stories. (Seabury Quinn would write five more after 1948, with the last being “The Ring of Bastet” (Weird Tales, September 1951). Occult detectives after 1954 would either become children’s fare such as Scooby-Doo (1969) or move into the false monster tradition of Mystery such as Henry Kane’s “Ghost Story” or into Science Fiction with shows like Doctor Who. Only the 1970s craze for the paranormal would bring back the traditional ghostbreaker in the character of Dr. Owen Orient, Carl Kolchak and Lucius Leffing.
In the end, the debate has never really been concluded, merely difused. Modern fans have developed a multiple approach to the question of ghostbreakers. We can enjoy a modern Horror classics such as Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971) or Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror (1977) to such new works as James Herbert’s David Ash series (1988-2012), to Science Fiction like Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series, to comics such as Doctor Strange, Constantine: The Hell-Blazer and my new favorite, Robert Kirkman’s Outcast, to dark fantasy of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, or Grimm variety. There are even a few Mysteries still kicking around like E. J. Copperman’s Haunted Guesthouse series and Victoria Laurie’s Ghost Hunter series. Today, the occult detectives are much too busy to worry about the question at all.