Occult Offenses Beyond Scooby-Doo: Cracking “Supernatural” Crimes (IANS Column: Bookends)



By Vikas Datta

Is evil a cosmic constant or a human construct? The answer may not be easy to find and depends on the intensity of religious belief. But, there is no doubt in accepting that evil, whatever its origin, must be fought when it harms people – and this is true in life as well as in literature.

The task of identifying the source of evil may not be easy. Especially when it’s important to ensure the paranormal isn’t embraced to cover up clearly human criminal activity – as readers of Enid Blyton’s mystery series like the Five Find-Outers and the TV series can attest. “Scooby-Doo”.

It’s the ambiguous, but not uncommon situation, Thomas Carnacki ‘the Ghost-Finder’, Father Brown, Simon Ark, Sister Pelagia – a special breed of detectives throughout the annals of literature for over a century now – often found in.

In fiction, mainstream sleuths who prey on human evil are ubiquitous, dating back to Sherlock Holmes, but “occult sleuths”, who prey on seemingly supernatural/otherworldly manifestations of evil, are fewer in number. and lesser known, despite the subgenre combining two human fixations – mysteries and the supernatural.

This is partly due to the stipulations laid down by leading crime novel writers, as the genre took off in the early 20th century, to stick to the natural world and its events – even in crimes, such as murders in locked rooms, which seemed miraculous.

The second of Ronald Knox’s 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction held that “all supernatural or preternatural agencies are naturally excluded” and the third of Raymond Chandler’s Ten Commandments said that mystery “must be realistic in character, setting, and direction. atmosphere. It has to be real people in a real world.”

Even Holmes, some of whose cases seem tinged with the supernatural – “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, for his part, was dismissive about the supernatural and once observed: “The world is big enough for us. to apply.”

The rule does not seem to be followed. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Street Morgue Murders” (1841) is considered the earliest example of a detective novel, but in 1855 Irish-American writer Fitz James O’Brien asked his supernatural expert Harry Escott to investigate a ghostly being in ‘The Pot’. of Tulips’ and an invisible one in ‘What Was It? A Mystery” (1859).

Then, long before Holmes appeared, some stories in Sheridan Le Fanu’s “In a Glass Darkly” (1870) are supernatural cases treated by physician Dr. Martin Hesselius.

There was no shortage of occult detectives from the last decades of the 19th century – the author pair (mother-son) of Flaxman Low from E. and H. Heron, John Silence of Algernon Blackwood, Aylmer Vance of Alice and Claude Askew, etc. – but it was William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki who broke new ground.

Appearing in just six short stories published between 1910 and 1912, and three more found and published in 1947 – nearly three decades after the author’s death in the closing days of World War I, Carnacki investigated seemingly supernatural occurrences in across Britain, both in stately country homes and in more modest city dwellings.

He relied on his knowledge from the ancient (fictional) “Sigsand Manuscript”, including the “Saamaa Ritual”, and his Electric Pentacle – a modern version of the protective wands of medieval times, made from electrical equipment and neon lighting, where he usually slipped a camera and a pistol.

For, unlike others of his ilk, his affairs are a mixture of real hauntings and hoaxes – usually with a criminal purpose, and at least one, which is both.

Carnacki went on to achieve some kind of immortality as successive writers featured him in their versions of his other adventures, including a few where he starred alongside Holmes, until 2016.

On the other hand, GK Chesterton’s short, stocky Father Brown, with “a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling” and “eyes as empty as the North Sea” beneath his large spectacles, seems a unlikely detective.

Unlike the deductive and abductive Holmes, who reasons from premises to a logical conclusion, aided by his sharp observation and incisive brain sifting through available evidence, this Roman Catholic priest is intuitive, seeking to place himself in the mind of the criminal to find how the act was done and thus determine the perpetrator.

But there are also similarities. Both had shrewd insight into evil – Holmes by research, and Father Brown by his work, having once said to an adversary, “Has it ever struck you but a man, who does almost nothing but hear the true sins of men, is not susceptible totally unaware of human evil?”

And he, like the Baker Street detective, despised supernatural causes and supported the cause of reason. Brown once quietly told a criminal how he found out he was a fraudulent priest: “You attacked reason. That’s bad theology.”

His approximately 50 stories, which were published in five collections: “The Innocence/Wisdom/Incredulity/Secret/Scandal of Father Brown” between 1911 and 1935 — and three stories found and published posthumously — feature enigmas/plots ingenious, evocative descriptions of time and place, and sometimes a haunting supernatural vibe, which soon dissipate to embarrass us with an unexpected, but perfectly reasonable solution.

Brown’s spirit lives on in Sister Pelagia, Russian-Georgian writer Boris Akunin’s second series available in English, about the physically clumsy but mentally agile Orthodox nun from turn-of-the-century Russia who is tasked by her bishop with solving grave mysteries.

In her second outing, “Pelagia and the Black Monk” (2007), she is sent to solve mysterious, ostensibly paranormal events at a remote island monastery after three men sent by the bishop meet disastrous fates. (two left mentally unbalanced and one dead).

A more worthy successor to Carnacki and Brown, however, is Edward D. Hoch’s Simon Ark, who appears to be an ordinary man in his 60s but claims he is in fact a 2,000-plus-year-old Coptic priest who travels the world to confront evil. , specifically Satan.

Some accounts describe him as cursed with immortality for not letting Jesus rest carrying the cross. The origin of the story of the wandering Jew does not seem credible since the Coptic Church did not appear until well after the crucifixion of Christ. The alternative, mentioned in one of his stories, that he once fabricated a gospel so godly that God could not decide whether to reward him with heaven or punish him with hell, seems more fitting.

His immortality, however, does not give him any particular power, except prodigious knowledge, and only incidental to the stories. He has a persuasive way of dealing with the clergy and the police.

Ark made his debut in “The Village of the Damned” (1955), where he investigates the horrific incident of some 70 residents of a remote village who committed mass suicide at the instigation of a charismatic cult leader. .

This, the first published story of Hoch, who has written several novels but is best known for his 950 stories spanning 14 different characters, from British encryption expert Jeffrey Rand to professional thief Nick Velvet and retired doctor. of New England and “the impossible crime”. ” solver Sam Hawthorne.

Of these, about forty Ark features and can be found in “City of Brass and Other Simon Ark Stories” (1971),

“The Judges of Hades” (1971), “Simon Ark’s Quests” (1984) and “Funeral in the Fog” (2020).

All, told by an anonymous reporter-turned-editor who meets Ark in his first appearance, sees Ark solving a series of mysterious or inexplicable crimes that appear to be supernatural, but usually have more prosaic causes – usually one of the Seven Deadly Sins. , especially lust and human agency. Most are set in the US and UK, although Ark and the narrator are taken to Madagascar.

Is Ark what he claims? The narrator thinks Ark is just trying to appear mysterious, but admits he obviously hasn’t aged in all the years he’s known him. To this question, Hoch offers only an enigmatic “Maybe”.

Except for some of Carnacki’s, which go back to another era, all of these complex and (sometimes) scary stories underscore a terrible message: the human mind can be more diabolical and diabolical than mythology and religion can create.

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