Friday, October 19, 2012

Then I connected up the battery - ghostbusting with Carnacki and William Hope Hodgson

The final ghost story of the week is William Hope Hodgson’s “The Gateway of the Monster,” the first story in the 1910 collection Carnacki, the Ghost Finder.

First, though, I want to thank everyone for their suggestions.  The recommendation-packed comments on that first post are now a treasure trove of terror.  Do you dare risk the Curse of the Comments?  Etc.

Second, some criticism of M. R. James specifically but ghost stories more generally from S. T. Joshi, weird tale expert, ghost story skeptic, drawn from his 1990 book The Weird Tale (University of Texas Press); the title of his chapter on James is “The Limitations of the Ghost Story,” so he makes his view clear enough:

They are simply stories; they never add up to a world view.  The tales are all technique, a coldly intellectual exercise in which James purposefully avoids drawing broader implications.  (140)

I discuss him here because he is clearly the perfecter of one popular and representative form of the weird tale; but in his very perfection of that form he showed its severe limitations in scope.  (142)

My initial hypothesis was that the ghost story is a flexible form capable of the usual range of purposes of fiction.  I will admit that the idea has been shaken a bit by the fact that 75% of the ghost stories I read this week were about haunted bedrooms and the mysterious movements of bedclothes.  Ghosts also haunt ruins and alleys and, I don’t know, glaciers and so on, yes, not just beds?  I will admit that I am making an inference from a very small sample.  Still, it’s sorta weird – spooky, even.

Hodgson’s Carnacki is a prototype of a character I recognize from comic books like Hellblazer and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Doctor Strange.  Carnacki is not merely a ghost finder but a ghost slayer.  His world is full of magic and strange doings that are if not quite rationally understandable at least manageable. 

He spends the first part of “The Gateway of the Monster” proving that the mysterious phenomena in a haunted room are in fact supernatural – like the character’s in “The Upper Berth” he removes the furniture, searches for trap doors, and so on – and once he is satisfied that the ghostly effects are not produced by smugglers trying to scare off nosey kids he gets down to the business of dispelling the dangerous spirit, which he does in a similarly methodical manner.  Carnacki is not exactly a supernatural scientist, but is more like a technician.  Let him tinker with the ectoplasmic engine and he will figure out how it runs.

Thus, the greatest moment in the story,  the deployment of:

“the Electric Pentacle, setting it so that each of its 'points' and 'vales' coincided exactly with the 'points' and 'vales' of the drawn pentagram upon the floor.  Then I connected up the battery, and the next instant the pale blue glare from the intertwining vacuum tubes shone out.”

The Electric Pentacle, besides sounding like the name of an English folk-rock band, is an outstanding bit of pulpy inventiveness.  Good Lord, someone gave it a Wikipedia page.

Again, the narrator tells me how frightened he is:

“I shall never be able to let you know how disgustingly horrible it was sitting in that vile, cold wind!  And then, flick! flick! flick! all the candles 'round the outer barrier went out; and there was I, locked and sealed in that room, and with no light beyond the weakish blue glare of the Electric Pentacle.”

That “flick! flick! flick!” gives a good idea of Hodgson’s vibrant, resourceful narrator.  I would enjoy reading more of him.  I would enjoy more of everything I read this week, actually, with the exception of a generic Arthur Machen story (“The Happy Children”) that I tried, based on no one’s recommendation; it at least had the benefit of taking place outdoors and not featuring a single sheet, blanket, or quilt.

I had meant to end with Kipling, but I will postpone him until next week.  All next week:  Kipling in 1888.  Don't miss it.

And thanks again for all of the help with the ghosts!


  1. Today, you've made me feel much less guilty about my own more pulpy reading. Thank you.

    If you're interested, the people at Podcastle are big fans of Carnacki. They have several episodes devoted to his work. Their podcasts are all free downloads.

  2. This was great fun, and prompted me to read a few ghost stories myself this week. I capped it off with James Thurber's "The Night the Ghost Got In" ("'We had ghosts,' I said. He gazed at me a long time as if I were a slot machine into which he had, without results, dropped a nickel.").

    I'm surprised someone hasn't written an entire collection of bed-clothes ghost stories, as the possibilities seem endless: "The Percale Horror;" "Crimson and Crinoline;" "Night of the 150-Thread-Count Weave;" "The Bedspread at Travelers' Lodge," etc.

  3. C.B. - my pleasure! You make me feel like I did a public service.

    But the fact is that almost everything I read was literature, meaning it was some combination of well-written, meaningful, artfully assembled. So none of it was "In the Penal Colony" or "The Library of Babel." Eh, life is long, art is short. Art in the form of short stories, I mean.

    Thurber is a perfect ending to a run of ghost stories.

    As for that anthology, it would be useful for testing my new hypothesis: The higher the thread-count, the scarier the ghost.