William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki Stories

Paul R. Potts

I’ve been reading the Carnacki stories (from The House on the Borderland and Other Mysterious Places: The Collected Fiction of William Hope Hodgson Volume 2, published by Night Shade Books).

I’m enjoying them so much that we are forgoing our family’s usual Saturday evening film night tomorrow, and will instead do a reading of the second Carnacki story, The Gateway of the Monster. I previewed the story this morning before leaving for work — they are quite short, which is ideal for someone without much free time to read. Last night I read the first one, The Thing Invisible.

The text is out-of-copyright and is actually available online. See the Wikipedia page on Carnacki here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnacki which has links to a couple of online versions of the texts. If you don’t want to buy the new Night Shade edition, which is very nice, you can read it online or print it out without violating copyright. The wonders of expiring copyright! In fact, I’m going to do this so we have a couple of reading copies and can keep the bound copy in good condition.

The stories follow, for the most part, the same basic pattern. The “ghost-finder” Carnacki periodically sends notices to a small group of friends inviting them to dinner. The introduction is extremely brief and almost no information is provided about his guests, or the meal. After the meal, the group sits with him and listens to his tale.

Carnacki tells the story, in an informal and somewhat self-deprecating style, with occasional digressions about other ghost-finding incidents and references to ancient manuscripts or scholars. Carnacki usually conducts an exhaustive search for a natural explanation for the “haunting” by daylight, but ultimately winds up spending a night alone, or with a small group, in the haunted house, or room, often within the “electric pentacle,” a protective circle of his own invention, that combines the traditional protective “magic circle” concept with the technology of his time.

In the end Carnacki discovers that the “haunting” has either a natural explanation, or there does seem to be a supernatural manifestation, or in a couple of cases, has a bit of both. The dramatic tension consists, for the listener, partly of wondering what kind of story this will turn out to be.

Getting to the bottom of the “haunting” seems to be Carnacki’s primary motivation: he doesn’t care that much, for example, whether criminal evil-doers that may be involved are apprehended. If a supernatural explanation is involved, Carnacki tries to end it, by destroying the haunted artifacts that allow the manfifestation to occur.

While Carnacki is skeptical, he also gets worked up into a state of terror (much to his embarrassment) even when nothing actually supernatural is happening — his imagination runs away with him. This is a great device as it encourages the reader’s imagination to do the same. Of course, afterwards, he likes to claim that he was never in doubt, and knew there was a rational explanation all along!

I can imagine Hugh Laurie playing Carnacki. In my mind, he is not a tough guy. He is very competent technically, and fascinated by the supernatural, and brilliant, but when he hears a creepy noise under the right circumstances, he gives out an embarrassingly high-pitched scream of terror; in The Gateway of the Monster he keeps twitching and knocking over his vials of holy water and other protective devices when threatened by a supernatural entity. In The Thing Invisible he crashes headlong into his camera while wearing a dressing gown over a suit of armor.

Carnacki’s audience is entirely silent until the end, when they might ask a question or two. When he is done Carnacki throws them out, saying “out you go,” and his guests wander home. If only every dinner party could end so neatly! And I’m sure Carnacki isn’t the one stuck washing up the dishes. Did I mention that these stories are part horror, part fantasy?

Ann Arbor, Michigan
March 10 and May 7, 2006, and June 30, 2016

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