(Spoilers Note: This post will discuss plot elements of the story, “The Searcher of the End House”. If you have not read this story, you can do so here. )
Now we come to the last of the Carnacki stories to be printed in The Idler magazine. This story first appeared in the June, 1910, issue of the periodical and there was no indication that this would be Carnacki’s last appearance in their pages. We can only speculate why this is so when there was at least one other story that could have appeared and possibly at least two more. Perhaps the response to the series had not been as great as the publishers had hoped for or perhaps Hodgson may have withdrawn the other stories. We have no way of knowing at this time.
One of the unique aspects of this story is that it takes place in Carnacki’s past and involves a case that affected him personally. Speculation could be made that it was this case which prompted Carnacki to become a “ghost-finder”. In any event, it is a story that doesn’t always fulfill it’s promise.
After hearing the short recitation of the case of “The Three Straw Platters”, Carnacki’s friends think that perhaps the evening is coming to a quick close. There are surprised, then, when Carnacki proceeds to tell them a story of his own past, some years ago.
At the time, Carnacki and his mother are staying in a small house on the South Coast. They had been living in this cottage for about two years without incident when something happens.
One night, as Carnacki is writing letters at 2 a.m., he hears his mother’s door open and her knocking on the upstairs bannister. Thinking that it is his mother admonishing him for being up so late, he calls out to her but gets no response. When he goes upstairs, he finds her door open and his mother asleep. Thinking she had just dozed off, he closes her door and goes to bed but notices an odd smell in the passageway.
But the next morning, Carnacki’s mother has no memory of the incident. He lets the matter drop but is still slightly disturbed by it. That night, the same thing happens again. He hears his mother’s door open and then the sound of rapping on the bannister.
Thinking that perhaps she is sleepwalking, Carnacki goes out to the hall but does not see anyone on the landing. Going upstairs, he sees that she is sleeping peacefully in her bed but the smell from the previous night is in her room and much more powerful.
He decides to search her room and she awakens. Although trying not to alarm her, Carnacki’s mother notices the smell herself and calls it to his attention. Growing concerned, Carnacki makes a search of the house but finds nothing. They attempt to convince themselves that it is nothing and “but finally we agreed that it might easily be the queer night-smell of the moist earth, coming in through the open window of my mother’s room, from the back garden, or — for that matter — from the little churchyard beyond the big wall at the bottom of the garden.”
None of these explanations fully satisfy them but they go to sleep as well as possible. That night, Carnacki’s mother’s door is slammed shut. Awakened by the noise, he runs to her room to find her wide awake and frightened. The smell has returned and is much stronger.
As they puzzle out the details, they hear the sound of a door being slammed shut downstairs. Carnacki takes a fire poker and goes downstairs. “The culminative effect of so many queer happenings was getting hold of me; and all the apparently reasonable explanations seemed futile.” But again he can find nothing.
A few hours later, he is awakened by the sounds of many doors being slammed shut downstairs. Just as he is about to go investigate, his own door begins to creep open.
” ‘Who’s there?’ I shouted out, in a voice twice as deep as my natural one, and with a queer breathlessness, that sudden fright so often gives one. ‘Who’s there?'”
It is only his mother, coming to him for comfort, but already Carnacki’s nerves are weakening. Another thorough search of the house and the cellar reveals nothing but Carnacki can no longer deny that there is something wrong with the house. In the morning, he sends his mother away and is determined to get at the bottom of it.
Carnacki’s first stop is the landlord.
“From him, I found that twelve or fifteen years back, the house had got rather a curious name from three or four tenants; with the result that it had remained empty a long while; in the end he had let it at a low rent to a Captain Tobias, on the one condition that he should hold his tongue, if he saw anything peculiar. The landlord’s idea — as he told me frankly — was to free the house from these tales of ‘something queer,’ by keeping a tenant in it, and then to sell it for the best price he could get.”
Captain Tobias spends ten years in the house with no complaint and there seems to have been an end of the bad talk so when Carnacki shows up, the landlord happily rents the place. When pressed, the landlord reveals that some of the older tenants had complained about seeing a woman walking through the rooms but others had never seen anything. “Some tenants never saw anything; but others would not stay out the first month’s tenancy.”
Carnacki gets the landlord to come back and stay the night. The two men search the house and, again, nothing is found. The landlord has brought his gun and Carnacki is armed with a bayonet from one of the rooms. All is quite until about 2 a.m. when Carnacki feels an odd sensation that something is about to happen. The darkness takes on a violet hue that seems to highlight the metal around them.
“And then, coming through this violet night, through this violet-coloured gloom, came a little naked Child, running. In an extraordinary way, the Child seemed not to be distinct from the surrounding gloom; but almost as if it were a concentration of that extraordinary atmosphere; as if that gloomy colour which had changed the night, came from the Child. It seems impossible to make clear to you; but try to understand it.”
Carnacki watches the spectral child which seems to be trying to hide from something. Soon, he realizes that although he sees the child quite clearly, the landlord does not. Suddenly, the landlord grabs Carnacki’s arm and exclaims, “The Woman!” And yet, when Carnacki looks where the landlord is pointing, he sees nothing. The woman seems to be searching for something or someone.
“What did it mean? He had seen a Woman, searching for something. I had not seen this Woman. I had seen a Child, running away, and hiding from Something or Someone. He had not seen the Child, or the other things — only the Woman. And I had not seen her. What did it all mean?”
Then, suddenly, comes the sound of a downstairs down being slammed shut and the mysterious odor returns with a vengeance. Even the landlord can no longer deny the stench. Carnacki fairly drags the other man downstairs where they find all of the doors closed but a mat that Carnacki had placed on the cellar down has been disturbed. Shining the lantern, he sees the wet outline of a bare foot!
“As I came to the bottom step, I saw patches of wet all up and down the passage. I shone my lantern on them. It was the imprint of a wet foot on the oilcloth of the passage; not an ordinary footprint, but a queer, soft, flabby, spreading imprint, that gave me a feeling of extraordinary horror.”
Frightened, the landlord inadvertently fires his gun which attracts the attention of a passing policeman who comes to investigate the matter and is joined by an Inspector. Carnacki shows them the wet footprints but does not tell them about the ghostly Woman or Child. The Inspector decides to leave the patrolman to guard the cellar door while the rest of them, again, search the house. After finding nothing, they return and the patrolman states how he had seen a ghostly woman walk through the cellar door.
The Inspector tells the patrolman to open the door and, when the man does, the smell assaults the group and they find a maggot on the steps. When the patrolman refuses to go down the stairs, the inspector throws the patrolman down the stairs. A search of the cellars finds nothing amiss.
“In the third cellar the prints ended at the shallow well that had been the old water-supply of the house. The well was full to the brim, and the water so clear that the pebbly bottom was plainly to be seen, as we shone the lights into the water. The search came to an abrupt end, and we stood about the well, looking at one another, in an absolute, horrible silence.”
Spooked, the men leave the cellar. The Inspector agrees to return the next night and sit watch with Carnacki and the landlord at the well. The next day, Carnacki makes arrangements with a wire-smith to have a ‘special’ cage made and delivered to the house later. As night approaches, Carnacki and the landlord return to the house and this time Carnacki takes unique steps by placing piano wire a foot above the cellar floor and sealing every door and window in the house except for the front and cellar doors. When the cage arrives, Carnacki rigs it over the well so that, at the release of a rope, it will fall into the well and trap anything there.
After the Inspector arrives with a burly detective, the four men take their place in the well about midnight. Carnacki cautions them all to shield their lanterns and to say nothing. For hours, nothing happens. Then, about half past one, Carnacki feels the familiar sense of ‘something about to happen’. The light changes to violet again and the child reappears. Once more, Carnacki realizes that he is the only one who can see the Child as it again attempts to hide from something. A few short minutes later, the landlord gasps, “The Woman!” but Carnacki still cannot see her.
All Carnacki can see is the Child trying to hide and the violet light mirrored in anything metallic in the room. Suddenly, the Child bolts and runs from the room and the violet light fades away. Then there is the sound of soft splashing and the odor hits them again. Carnacki quickly drops the trap into the well and is greeted by the loud sounds of someone in pain.
“As my light struck the cage, I saw that about two feet of it projected from the top of the well, and there was something protruding up out of the water, into the cage. I stared, with a feeling that I recognised the thing; and then, as the other lanterns were opened, I saw that it was a leg of mutton. The thing was held by a brawny fist and arm, that rose out of the water. I stood utterly bewildered, watching to see what was coming. In a moment there rose into view a great bearded face, that I felt for one quick instant was the face of a drowned man, long dead. Then the face opened at the mouth part, and spluttered and coughed. Another big hand came into view, and wiped the water from the eyes, which blinked rapidly, and then fixed themselves into a stare at the lights.”
The policemen break out laughing and the man is identified as Captain Tobias, the former tenant of the house. It turns out that Tobias has been in prison for the last few years because of smuggling and, when finding the house rented upon his return by Carnacki and his mother, was attempting to scare them away so that he could find something he had hidden in the building. The smell had been caused by a rancid leg of mutton that the Captain had brought with him and the sounds from him moving through a secret passage.
Oddly enough, no charges are filed against the Captain who is allowed to take the house after Carnacki quits it. However, the matter of the ghostly Woman and Child are still unexplained. When questioned, Tobias admits that he had seen a spectral Woman in the house from time to time but never a child.
Carnacki concludes that the supernatural force in the house was triggered by fear from the people. When there was no fear, the house was quiet. But, when fear exists, the hauntings occur. Then, he gives a very unique explanation:
“To give you a root-idea, however, it is held in the Sigsand MS. that a child ‘still-born’ is ‘Snatyched back bye thee Haggs.’ This is crude; but may yet contain an elemental truth. Yet, before I make this clearer, let me tell you a thought that has often been made. It may be that physical birth is but a secondary process; and that prior to the possibility, the Mother-Spirit searches for, until it finds, the small Element — the primal Ego or child’s soul. It may be that a certain waywardness would cause such to strive to evade capture by the Mother-Spirit. It may have been such a thing as this, that I saw. I have always tried to think so; but it is impossible to ignore the sense of repulsion that I felt when the unseen Woman went past me. This repulsion carries forward the idea suggested in the Sigsand MS., that a still-born child is thus, because its ego or spirit has been snatched back by the ‘Hags.’ In other words, by certain of the Monstrosities of the Outer Circle. The thought is inconceivably terrible, and probably the more so because it is so fragmentary. It leaves us with the conception of a child’s soul adrift half-way between two lives, and running through Eternity from Something incredible and inconceivable (because not understood) to our senses.”
“The Searcher of the End House” is interesting in that it is another story with both a logical and supernatural explanation. The logical explanation is not terribly satisfying. Once again, one thinks of any number of SCOOBY-DOO episodes and the careless resolution rings false. As to the supernatural, it remains one of Hodgson’s most curious ‘explanations’. Mention has been made by other critics that this story may have been influenced by Hodgson’s own mother who had lost several children in their infancy. The sight of a ghostly ‘Mother’ looking for a hiding ‘Child’ is striking but we are not sure if the ‘Mother’ is playing or dangerous. Clearly, the death of her children weighed heavily on Hodgson’s mother so was this another effort to ease her pain by showing that the children she lost were waiting for her? No one can say for sure.
In this story, we finally learn Carnacki’s first name: “Thomas”. This is never revealed in any other story as, indeed, very few facts about Carnacki’s life are actually known. Even here, we do not know if he has any siblings (living or dead) or even what his Mother looks like!
The house in which Carnacki and his mother live is curiously close to a group of houses once owned by Hodgson’s grandfather and which were passed down through the family. They eventually ended up with Hodgson’s sister, Lissie, who sold them off. Undoubtedly, this provided the inspiration for the setting of the house and maybe Hodgson himself had seen or stayed in one of his grandfather’s rental properties at some time.
In this story, we learn of several new, untold, tales. They are “The Three Straw Plates”, “The Dark Light Case” and one only identified as “that trouble of Maaetheson’s, which you know about.” We know nothing of these stories other than that they must have involved some alteration of light in some way.
Although serviceable, “The Searcher of the End House” is not one of Carnacki’s best cases. The Ghost-Finder did not exactly leave The Idler with a bang and it is probable that few requests were made for his return.