Detectives of the occult – hanged, drawn and quarterly

I wasn’t really aware of just how enduringly popular the Occult Detective is in literature and other art forms until recently. It was through fellow writer and aficionado of weird fiction and long dogs, John Linwood Grant, that I had my initiation into the genre. John, with Sam Gafford, edits a new publication that promises to be everything the fan of occult detectives could hope for and more – Occult Detective Quarterly.

This new ‘zine’ (newish – being a quarterly, it’s only on its second issue but has actually been around since October last year) combines short fiction with artwork, essays and articles, reviews, and, from ODQ#2, cartoons. This last is in the form of Sam L. Edwards and Yves Tourigny’s hilarious and brilliantly drawn ‘Borkchito: Occult Doggo Detective,’ a Chihuahua with a knack for spook hunting and language familiar from a million heckin’ memes.

In reality, I actually was something of a fan of the occult detective genre without realising it, having read a significant proportion of the run of Hellblazer comics– John Constantine, as is discussed in an article in ODQ#2 is very much in the occult detective mould. I’d also read and enjoyed other oddments that are either directly in the occult detective canon, or influenced by it, without really realising that it was a thing, from Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger stories to Dan Simmons’ novel Drood. Indeed, many well-known ghost stories, and tropes of ghost stories, involve the occult detective in one form or another. An article in ODQ#1 ‘How To Be A Victorian Ghost Hunter (In Five Easy Lessons)’ by Tim Prasil goes over the history of the ‘ghost hunter’ sub-genre with all its associated tropes – the haunted house, the investigator who stays overnight to observe, hunt and/or remove (or indeed, sometimes debunk) the associated spectral unpleasantness, and the ways they prepare themselves for the task at hand.

Other fascinating articles look at the history of individual ghost hunters such as Dr Spektor (Charles R. Rutledge, ODQ#1) and the aforementioned Constantine (Danyal Fryer, ODQ#2). The main event of ODQ is, however, undoubtedly the fiction. Both issues so far have been packed to the gills with a wide variety of occult detective fiction.

The great thing about occult detective fiction is that you have, on the one hand, a good idea of what to expect and on the other hand a million ways of being surprised. You know you will encounter a supernatural mystery, and an investigator or investigators who will attempt to get to the bottom of it. Beyond that, all bets are off. The investigator might be anything from Carnacki, the Victorian ghost hunter created by William Hope Hodgson, to Gus, the gorilla with a demonic ‘mojo’ and noirish patter from David T. Wilbanks and William Meikle’s ‘Got My Mojo Working’ (ODQ#1). Another aspect of the occult detective genre is that it is perpetually fertilised by conventional detective fiction. Thus we have the slick, Shaft-influenced John Conquer, an African-American ‘tec working in ‘70s Harlem in Edward M. Erdelac’s ‘Conquer Comes Calling,’ (ODQ#2) and the gruff French Inspector Robart in turn-of-the-20th-century Paris, who has something of Poe’s Auguste Dupin about his deductive abilities. Both of these characters were highly engaging, and I’d very much like to see more of them. Speaking of Carnacki, he is to occult detectives what Sherlock Holmes is to the regular kind of literary investigator – not the first, nor even the one that shaped the genre, but the lodestar by which all others navigate. Astonishingly, there were only six Carnacki stories written by Hodgson, but the character and the form of the stories (relayed over brandy and cigars through a framing narrator) was sufficient to spawn a constellation of new tales. Carnacki makes a couple of appearances in ODQ, one in a very similar vein to Hodgson’s original tales, another with a significantly different spin.

Several of the central characters were, in their own way, more than human – as well as the aforementioned Gus, Assumpta O’Conner in Kelly A. Harmon’s ‘Light, from Pure Digestion Bred’, Ismael Carter in Tim Waggoner’s ‘The Grabber Man’ (ODQ#2) and Henry Ganz in T.E. Grau’s ‘Monochrome’ (ODQ#1) each stand out as occult detectives with a foot in different worlds. O’Conner is afflicted with a ‘demon mark’ that gives her warning of approaching demons, and she works as much with as against the supernatural forces she encounters. Carter similarly bears the scars of being touched by something beyond this realm early in life and has abilities that enable him to see more of it than most people. Ganz is particularly interesting as a reporter who, thanks to the bonds that link him to the otherworldly is barely-functioning and needs the ministrations of a kindly editor to help him make the best of his unusual abilities.

If I had to pick a highlight from ODQ so far it would be Grau’s bleak, atmospheric tale which, being somewhat longer than most stories, has room to breathe and explore the world Ganz inhabits more fully. But I haven’t read anything in the two issues that I didn’t enjoy. It would also be remiss not to mention the wonderful artwork in both issues that really brings the stories to life and is so effective in building the atmosphere crucial to a full enjoyment of the stories.

The Arcana of the Alleys – illustration by Sebastian Cabrol

ODQ is thoroughly recommended. It can be purchased on Amazon

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Dave Brzeski says:

    Nice review, but you made one slight error. There are nine original Carnacki stories by William Hope Hodgson. You may have confused him with Algernon Blackwood’s Dr John Silence who only had six stories. :)

    1. Thanks Dave, my mistake

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