Fighters of Fear: Occult Detective Stories, edited by Mike Ashley (Talos 978-1945863523, $29.99, 624pp, hardcover) January 2020
It is a simple and undeniable fact that the past will in many ways always overpower and outweigh the present. It’s a matter involving sheer numbers and mass. The present is a tiny moving window of some quantum of time in which our consciousness lives. To be generous, let’s denominate “the present” to be whatever the current year is, giving it a full twelve months of existence. Obviously, the past is all the eons that have come before, an almost infinitely greater span than the prior and next few months.
Culturally speaking, the productions of the past occupy a similar position of dominance, serving as the deep substrata for the thin scrim of the present. Sure, the year 2020 might see the publication of one or two thousand works of fantastika which, by their sparkly newness, attract our attention. But 2019—the immediate past—delivered just as many (which are now no longer “present”) as did 2018, and 2017, and so on, back to the era where there were maybe only one hundred new SF books a year, or the era that saw only one rare new SF work every decade. No matter: cumulatively, all the fantastika published up to “the present” hugely outweighs the little, un-time-tested crop from 2020.
The same of course is true of paintings, movies, TV shows, music, sporting contests, and any other aspect of culture.
Some people deny any worth to the past, choosing to focus exclusively on only contemporary things and ignore or slight the vast accomplishments of history. Others traffic exclusively in nostalgia, dismissing the present. It’s always seemed good to me, as a reader, to split my time between the newly born and the elderly stuff. Unless of course you’re a blinkered victim of “presentism” and deny that any older work can possess merit and entertainment value.
But the sheer volume of past fantastika can dissuade even a curious reader, and so that’s why we have knowledgeable curators, those who can sift the past, apply Sturgeon’s Law, and emerge with treasures. One of the best in this field is Mike Ashley. He’s been doing a series of excellent theme anthologies lately under the umbrella of British Library Science Fiction Classics. His newest is outside that framework, but just as spectacular, and with a winning, always alluring theme: adventures of investigators or champions who specialize in paranormal events. There are famous authors and forgotten ones here, but all of them are worth your attention.
At over six hundred pages, this is a Mammoth Book of… in all but name.
Ashley’s typically concise and illuminating introduction lays out his remit and his conception of this subgenre, a thesis which he will further explore in the rich story introductions, which also offer lots of biographical detail on the writers. Then we are off and running, the stories arranged in chronological order of publication. And it’s typical of Ashley’s forensic skills that he gives us four stories that precede the one which most other critics use to mark the beginning of the mode.
“Green Tea”, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, kicks us off in high gear with the tale of a man who disorders the “spiritual fluids” in his brain’s anatomy, with subsequent hallucinatory episodes. In “The Shining Pyramid”, Arthur Machen shows an ancient rural ritual involving an abducted girl who, surprisingly, cannot and should not be rescued. Many of these stories are not all wrapped up neatly and predictably at the end. Arabella Kenealy conjures up “The Haunted Child”, whose titular creature is at once repugnant and pitiful. “The Mystery of the Felwyn Tunnel”, by L.T. Meade & Robert Eustace, is a rarity so far: a tale with no actual supernatural basis. The others all involve real spectral uncanniness.
“Most studies of the occult detective start with Flaxman Low, with some good reason, because here we have an individual who specializes in the study of strange phenomena from which he has developed a profound knowledge of the supernatural.” And so we are introduced to the hero of “The Story of Yand Manor House”, by E. & H. Heron, as he confronts an invisible but tangible terror. “Low pushed out his hands with a mad longing to touch a table, a chair, anything but this clammy, swelling softness that thrust itself upon him from every side, baffling him and filling his grasp.”
“The Tapping on the Wainscott”, by Allan Upward, gives us a classic spook who will not rest until injustice is remedied. Robert W. Chambers offers an immortal infatuation that spans the centuries in “Samaris”, while “The Whistling Room”, by William Hope Hodgson, delivers an unforgettable image: “The floor in the middle of the huge, empty room, was puckered upward in the center into a strange soft-looking mound, parted at the top into an ever-changing hole, that pulsated to that great, gentle hooning.” A ghostly doppelganger stalks the pages of “The Woman with the Crooked Nose”, by Victor Rousseau, while Max Rittenberg’s “The Sorcerer of Arjuzanx” gives us our first real malevolent villain: “Osper Camargo was a dangerous man. The problem in hand was: how far did his powers in the realm of the supernormal extend?”
“The Ivory Statue”, by Sax Rohmer, is notable for introducing the trope of a sidekick for the occult sleuth. This time it is the mysterious daughter of Moris Klaw, a seductive woman named Isis. The husband-and-wife team of Claude & Alice Askew show us, in “The Stranger”, an element of feminism, as a young woman must sacrifice to marriage all the secret pagan joys she has known as a virgin. In “The Swaying Vision”, Jessie Douglas Kerruish depicts a modern haunted house of a unique sort: it only became haunted by ostensibly ancient terrors a few months before the current occupants moved in! At this juncture, I should remark that so many of these tales are architecture-centric that the primeval role of a domicile in the mental and physical lives of humanity is highlighted in a greater way than even domestic fiction can produce.
F. Tennyson Jesse was a female writer, as were a big proportion of the other contributors to this volume, illustrating the centrality of women authors in this mode. Her detective, Solange Fontaine, is also female, and thrusts herself into a creepy mental hospital to solve a baffling case. Another human evildoer is at the heart of “The Villa on the Borderive Road”, by Rose Champion de Crespigny. A woman is being driven mad by a phantom hand, and only Norton Vyse can figure out how. The by-now-familiar trope involving the psychic residue from bodily excretions informs Ella Scrymsour’s “The Room of Fear”. A bit of humor accompanies “The Seven Fires”, by Philippa Forest, as we see a chambermaid’s accidental cleaning rituals bringing in their wake bouts of spontaneous combustion.
In line with her realworld beliefs in the transmigration of souls and other psychic doings, Dion Fortune recounts a body swap in the wryly titled “The Subletting of the Mansion”. Editor Ashley reveals that Seabury Quinn’s series starring Jules de Grandin retains the honor of being the longest set of adventures in this genre. Reading “The Jest of Warburg Tantavul”, a lurid, captivating exercise in incest and beyond-the-grave revenge, one sees how Quinn racked up such a compelling run. More somber and tragic is “The Soldier”, by A.M. Burrage, wherein a martial specter is shown to arise from carnal betrayals. Another evildoer in the form of a sorcerer named Rathin Memory plagues an innocent young woman in Sydney Horler’s “The Horror of the Height”. Almost a novella, “The Mystery of Iniquity” by L. Adams Beck, gives us a battle between investigator James Livingstone and a psychically powerful woman turned to paths of damnation by her own father.
“The Thought-Monster”, by Amelia Reynold Long, shows us the fatal folly of dabbling in existential exercises, as a man unwittingly conjures up a deadly tulpa-type entity. What possible motive could a ghost have for stealing shoes and boots and other leather items only? Henry S. Whitehead discloses a very good answer in “The Shut Room”. Meanwhile, Gordon MacCreagh, in “Dr. Muncing, Exorcist”, has to deal with a seance-conducting housewife whose foolish hobby brings a new evil into the world. His victory is incomplete. A church features not one but two ghosts in “The Case of the Haunted Cathedral”. Margery Lawrence ingeniously weaves their fates together. Manly Wade Wellman introduces us to John Thunstone, who has to contend with an entire aboriginal race of malicious creatures in “The Shonokins”.
What could be the cause of a spiritual malaise that only manifest when it snows? The answer involves surprising pathos in “The Dead of Winter Apparition”, by Joseph Payne Brennan. Brennan also amusingly nominates himself as the Watson sidekick in all these tales of Lucius Leffing. The vast majority of our tales have occurred in the UK and the USA, but with “The Garden of Paris”, by Eric Williams, we journey to France, where Monsieur Delacroix of the UNO must unravel the mystery of screams in the Paris night which occur but once a month.
Our final two authors are heirs to all that has preceded them, being still with us and productive, carrying the tradition of occult sleuth forward into the twenty-first century. Mark Valentine gifts us with “St. Michael and All Angels”, wherein our second haunted church harbors not human spirits, but something more bestial. And finally in Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s “Jeremiah”, a Christmas exorcism goes awry when ghost and victim change places.
Because many of these stories appeared not in the pulps but in the “slicks” of their day, the prose in all of them is accomplished and inviting. Despite what some might regard as juvenile trappings—supernatural monsters are the stuff of nurseries and dime novels, right?—the themes of the stories are very complex and mature: love and hate, revenge and forgiveness, ambition and despair: all the emotions and events that you might find in a great Russian novel are explored. The various investigators run the gamut: from cerebral and almost effete, to brawny brawlers. And we traverse venues from high society to low. All in all, these selections, curated so wisely and creatively by Mike Ashley, are a deep tranche through a century or more of many sociopolitical, cultural and interpersonal matters.
Not only do these wildly heterogeneous yet companionable stories still provide scads of thrills and sheer entertainment, but they also illuminate such modern phenomena as The X-Files and Ghostbusters, Hellboy, and the Shadow Police novels of Paul Cornell. Read them to savor the roots of a timeless field.
While you are here, please take a moment to support Locus with a one-time or recurring donation. We rely on reader donations to keep the magazine and site going, and would like to keep the site paywall free, but WE NEED YOUR FINANCIAL SUPPORT to continue quality coverage of the science fiction and fantasy field.