(Spoiler alert! This post will discuss plot points of the story “The Gateway of the Monster”. If you haven’t read it, you can read it online here before reading the rest of this post.)
Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder, is arguably William Hope Hodgson’s most famous creation. Since his first appearance in 1910, Carnacki has gone on to be featured in new stories by other authors including William Meikle and appears in various comics such as Alan Moore’s LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN.
Carnacki appeared in six stories that were published in Hodgson’s lifetime and these were collected into an anthology that first appeared in 1912. Later, when August Derleth was putting together a new collection of Carnacki stories, Hodgson expert H. C. Koenig presented him with three ‘unpublished’ stories to bring the number of Hodgson tales up to nine. These nine stories would comprised all other Carnacki collections that followed.
The very first Carnacki story to appear was “The Gateway of the Monster” which was in the January, 1910, issue of The Idler. Sam Moskowitz has this to say about The Idler:
He interested Robert Barr, editor of The Idler, in the series for which he would be paid about $33 apiece. The Idler, founded in 1891 by Jerome K. Jerome and Robert Barr, had for some years been a prestige literary magazine in England, but eventually Jerome broke off from it and Barr carried on alone. It had been sliding down hill, and would not long survive the year’s end. Hodgson’s stories were hardly designed to lengthen The Idler’s life span. (OUT OF THE STORM, p 79)
At this point in time, it is not possible for us to determine the order in which Hodgson wrote the Carnacki stories. Therefore, we are forced to use the order of publication. With “The Gateway of the Monster”, we are introduced not only to Carnacki but several of his trademark methods as well.
The story begins with the narrator, Dodgson (a veiled literary doppelganger of Hodgson) arriving at Carnacki’s house in London for dinner after receiving “the usual summons”. This refers to an invitation from Carnacki for dinner and then to hear about the Ghost-Hunter’s latest exploit. After making the error of asking about the case during dinner (a cardinal sin with Carnacki), the group finishes dinner and gathers around Carnacki for his story.
Without much introduction, Carnacki tells about being consulted by Anderson, a man with an ancestral home (“less than 20 miles from here”) that has a ‘haunted room’. Every night, the door to ‘the Grey Room’ is slammed for hours on end and, in the morning, the sheets and covering on the bed are found thrown into the left corner of the room. Carnacki learns that the room has a history extending back over a hundred and fifty years when an ancestor of Anderson’s and his wife and child were strangled in it.
Carnacki travels to the house where he is joined by the butler, Peters, who has a great fear of the haunted room. Undaunted by the growing evening, Carnacki proceeds to place seals over the windows, walls, pictures, fire-place and closets. As he works, the butler nervously appeals to him to leave the room and Carnacki himself begins to feel uneasy. “Near the entrance I had a sudden feeling that there was a cold wind in the room.”
Finally, Carnacki seals the doors to the rooms with candle wax. During the night, he hears the slamming of a door and goes into the passage but he cannot go further. “There was something precious unholy in the air that night.”
In the morning, Carnacki finds that all of the door seals are intact, except for the door to the Grey Room. Inside, nothing is disturbed other than the bundle of bed linens thrown onto the floor. Carnacki knows that he has a legitimate case now.
On his orders, the butler and maids clear the room of everything except for the bed. Then, after a careful examination, determines that “some incredible thing had been loose in the room during the past night”. Carnacki seals the room again and sets up a camera which he ties to the doorknob so that, should anyone open the door, the camera would capture the picture of the culprit.
That night, as Carnacki watched and waited, the door to the Gray Room is opened and slammed again in the light of the camera’s flash. As he stares, he feels the danger coming closer:
“For some unknown reason, I knew it was pressed up against the door, and it was soft. That was just what I thought. Most extraordinary thing to imagine, when you come to think of it!”
Carnacki quickly draws a pentacle around himself on the floor and sits there, listening to the door slam over and over again throughout the night. In the morning, the camera yields a picture that shows only a half-opened door.
Determined, Carnacki goes to town and gathers supplies for an overnight stay in the room. Without Peters knowledge, Carnacki locks himself into the Grey Room and proceeds to construct his ‘protections’. They consist of a chalk circle, the outside of which is smudged with garlic. Then, Carnacki constructs a ‘water-circle’ just within the chalk circle while making “the Second Sign of the Saaamaaa Ritural. He also draws a chalk pentacle which he reinforces with an “Electric Pentacle” which is a series of lighted tubes that reinforces the chalk pentacle. The idea for this, Carnacki explains, he got from reading Professor Garder’s “Experiments with a Medium” and which Carnacki believes has the ability to separate the material from the “Immaterial”.
What follows is a haunting sequence as Carnacki is attacked by the force that inhabits the Grey Room. It begins with the slow pulling off of the bed linen but eventually results in Carnacki being besieged by a giant hand! Even worse, the force seems to be influencing Carnacki as he very nearly breaks the protection several times. Nerves on edge, Carnacki forces himself not to move until the morning when he flees the room.
Exhausted, Carnacki examines the room the next day and removes his equipment. Inspired, he examines the area where the bedclothes are always thrown and discovers a ring hidden behind the skirting. Certain that he has discovered the source of the haunting, Carnacki believes the ring to be the fabled “luck ring” of the Andersons. The ring had been handed down through the family for generations but only with the stipulation that it never be worn. Eventually, of course, a drunken Anderson wagers to wear the ring with the result that his wife and child are found strangled in the bed. Suspected of the murder, Anderson vows to spend the night in the room himself and is found strangled the next morning. Since that time, no one had slept in the Gray Room.
That night, Carnacki builds his protections around himself and the ring, thinking that the giant hand would appear outside and attempt to retrieve the ring. He is mistaken, however, as the hand begins to materialize inside the circle. Terrified, he tries to flee the room:
“I fumbled idiotically and ineffectually with the key, and all the time I stared, with the fear that was like insanity, toward the Barriers. The hand was plunging towards me; yet, even as it had been unable to pass into the pentacle when the ring was without; so, now that the ring was within it had no power to pass out. The monster was chained, as surely as any beast would be, were chains riveted upon it.”
The next day, Carnacki melts the ring in a furnace and the haunting is over. Carnacki shows his friends the lump of metal that had once been the ring and then, “stood up and began to shake hands. ‘Out you go!’ he said, genially.”
Already in this first story, much of the pattern is established. Carnacki summons his friends to dinner, tells them a story and then tosses them out. His behavior is less than cordial. This is often one of the main criticisms against Carnacki but, like Sherlock Holmes, is actually one of his most endearing features. We never really learn much about Carnacki and his history. Like many of Hodgson characters, he is a blank. This is often not appreciated by critics:
The cardinal weakness of Hodgson’s Carnacki series was an almost total lack of visualization of the main character and a story frame for the introduction of the stories so weak that they can only be construed as deliberate pot boilers. It is only in a few of the stories that Hodgson regains integrity in the heat of narration. (OUT OF THE STORM, p 80)
I respectfully disagree. Carnacki, as portrayed by Hodgson, is not the true center of the plot. It is always the case which he is investigating that is the most important feature. This falls flat sometimes especially when the case turns out not to be supernatural. However, I believe that Carnacki’s ‘blankness’ was deliberate by Hodgson and meant to be able to allow the reader to put themselves into his place.
Also, we see already Carnacki’s techniques. He uses an unusual combination of occult ritual and science. Being a photographer himself, it is not surprising that Carnacki is also one and he uses the camera on a number of cases. This, combined with his ‘Electric Pentacle’ brings him neatly into the 20th century. Here we already see the “Saaamaa Ritual” as well as the “Sigsand Manuscript” which is Hodgson’s equivalent to Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. The “Electric Pentacle” is devised by Carnacki after reading Professor Garder’s “Experiments with a Medium” which cuts a Medium off from the Immaterial by surrounding them “with a current of a certain number of vibrations in vacuum.” This makes Carnacki truly unique in his application of then-modern scientific principles in support of occult practices.
During his talk, Carnacki makes mention of two previous cases which Hodgson does not record; “The Black Veil” and “The Noving Fur”. It is during “The Black Veil” case that Aster, who sneered at Carnacki’s defense, perished. These echo the many ‘unrecorded’ cases which Holmes refers to throughout his adventures.
There is little in terms of internal dating that one can do with the Carnacki stories. They take place in a nebulous, post-Victorian world and make no reference to each other. This makes it nearly impossible to say which came first. There is only one tale, “The Searcher of the End House”, which takes place in Carnacki’s past which would place it before all the other stories.
Like Dodgson and the others, when we receive that invitation from Carnacki, we come.
(The artwork used in this post comes from this stories original appearance in The Idler and was by Florence Briscoe.)
Hodgson, William Hope. CARNACKI, THE GHOST-FINDER. Sauk City, WI: Mycroft & Moran, 1947.
Hodgson, William Hope. OUT OF THE STORM, edited by Sam Moskowitz. West Kingston: RI: Donald M. Grant, 1975.