M. R. James, undoubtedly the finest ghost story writer in the English language, disparaged the occult detective story. This is very odd for James was inspired by, promoted the works of, and virtually single-handedly resurrected the fame of J. Sheridan Le Fanu, the man who invented the occult detective (even if more by accident than intention.) Proof of this fallen fortune lies in H. P. Lovecraft’s monumental essay “The Supernatural Horror in Literature” which says of Le Fanu: “The romantic, semi-Gothic, quasi-moral tradition here represented was carried far down the nineteenth century by such authors as Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, Wilkie Collins, the late Sir H. Rider Haggard…” and that’s all. He doesn’t champion such tales as “Carmilla” or “Green Tea” (obvious Lovecraft fodder.) Writing in 1927, Lovecraft had yet to see a copy of Madame Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales, edited by M. R. James. In that book James writes: “My Aunt Margaret’s Adventure (ibid. 1864) which belongs to a class of which I disapprove–the ghost-story which peters out into a natural explanation…”
M. R. James idolized Le Fanu, his slow pace, his building up to horror. Ironically, it was J. Sheridan Le Fanu who gave us the actual ghostbreaker (Poe created the false monster detective in C. Auguste Dupin, not quite the real deal) in the shadowy form of Dr. Martin Hesselius. This character is used as a framing device for what is essentially a collection of separate tales for In a Glass Darkly (1872). He doesn’t have exciting scenes of the Supernatural Sam and Dean variety, he just consults. But the idea begins here and ends with Flaxman Low, John Silence, Carnacki, Jules De Grandin, John Thunstone to today and new series like The Dresden Files. And I think Le Fanu would be pleased (even if James wasn’t) for Le Fanu was also an early Mystery writer. Stories like Wyler’s Hand (1864) or “In Room in the Dragon Volant” (1872), are early mysteries in the school known as Sensation novels made famous by Wilkie Collins (which Lovecraft did seem to know of in Le Fanu’s case, if only by hearsay). These tales have plenty of dark atmosphere and Gothic chill to them though they aren’t actual horror tales.
This brings us to our question: can an occult detective story (whether it ends with a logical or a supernatural explanation) be scary? Especially in the case of a series character, which most of them tend to be. It is implied in the fact that it is a series that the detective will survive. Without the threat of death, can it really be scary? And if the spectral hound turns out to be a Pekinese in day-glo paint, does the reader feel cheated, even if they were frightened earlier in the story? Perhaps not. M. R. James may be right. For truly great horror fiction, you have to write a non-series tale with real ghosts. Which is exactly what he did so well.
When I look at the classic ghostbreakers like Jules De Grandin, Moris Klaw, or even Scully and Mulder, you know they aren’t going anywhere. They’ll be back next week or month. So, in that way their stories aren’t as scary as a horror tale or film in which there are no sequels. (H. Russell Wakefield sends up the ghostbreaker in “Ghost Hunt” (Weird Tales, March 1948) The short tale features Professor Mignon who broadcasts his investigation over the radio, and does not survive to return in a sequel.)
But is that the point of a ghostbreaker tale? Is it the same animal as M. R. James’s little masterpiece “Wailing Well” or “Count Magnus”? I think not. Let’s not forget half of “occult detective” is “detective”. The ghostbreaker is half in the world of Horror and half in Mystery. Sometimes the answer is non-supernatural. Other times it is otherworldly. The ghostbreaker fan is expecting both kinds of stimulation.
It really goes back to Ann Radcliffe and the Gothic Explique. These old novels tried to frighten the reader but supplied an explanation at the end (often very flimsy and guaranteed to send Don James into a paraxym of disgust). This mode of storytelling would split through Edgar Allan Poe into two separate genres: Horror and Mystery. The Gothic Explique and later detective fiction like the classic Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-2) take the reader from Unknown to Known. The Jamesian Horror tale usually works the other way, beginning with dull and ordinary (the antiquarian or academic on holiday) to the Unknown or ‘cosmic horror’ as Lovecraft would call it.
Both modes are enjoyable but essentially moving in opposite directions. The ghostbreaker is in the same camp as the straight detective. He or she faces the supernatural (or natural posing as supernatural) and vanquishes it. Whether the ghostbreaker is a doctor (Hesselius, John Silence) who heals a patient, or a detective (Low, Carnacki, etc.) or an actual ‘ghost’ breaker (Thunstone, the Winchesters) matters little. The result is the same, beginning at clues and ending at a resolution (not always a happy ending). This catharis did not appeal to M. R. James but it obviously did to the readers of Weird Tales, the magazine published ninety-three Jules de Grandin adventures, or the viewers of the ten-plus seasons of X-Files.