CARNACKI #6: “The Thing Invisible”


carnacki 1(Spoiler warning!  This blog posts discusses plot details in the story, “The Thing Invisible”.  If you have not read this story yet, you can do so here.)

We come now to the sixth, and final, Carnacki story to appear in a magazine during Hodgson’s lifetime.  “The Thing Invisible” was published in the January, 1912, issue of The New Magazine.   It was also the last story to be included in the book collection of Carnacki stories that first appeared in 1913.   It is significant to note that there was a space of 18 months between the publication of this story and June, 1910’s, appearance of “The Searcher of the End House” (which was the last Carnacki story to appear in The Idler).  I have several theories as to why this may have been so which I will take up after the story recap.

After dinner with his friends, Carnacki reveals that he has just returned from South Kent where he was called for a most interesting case.  Sir Alfred Jarnock’s estate has a chapel which has a reputation for being haunted.  There is a legend that if any enemy were to enter the chapel after nightfall, they would be attacked by a dagger which rests over the altar.  Just another curious folktale that would have been ignored had a recent, dangerous, incident not have happened.

One Sunday, after service, the Rector had been talking with Sir Jarnock and Jarnock’s eldest son while the butler was going about extinguishing the candles.  Remembering that he had left his small prayer book on the Communion table, the Rector called to the butler to retrieve it.  As the three men looked towards the butler, he opened the small chancel gate and, before their eyes, was struck by the dagger.

“The Rector’s version was clear and vivid, and he had evidently received the astonishment of his life. He pictured to me the whole affair—Bellett, up at the chancel gate, going for the prayer book, and absolutely alone; and then the blow, out of the Void, he described it; and the force prodigious—the old man being driven headlong into the body of the Chapel. Like the kick of a great horse, the Rector said, his benevolent old eyes bright and intense with the effort he had actually witnessed, in defiance of all that he had hitherto believed.”

The butler survived the attack as the blade missed his heart but broke his collarbone.  It was then that Jarnock’s eldest son, George, had sent for Carnacki.  Sir Jarnock’s nerves had gotten the better of him and he appeared unable to deal with the situation.

After arriving, Carnacki makes his usual exact examination of the place and even spends three days painstakingly inspecting the roof.  He comes to the conclusion that there is no way for someone to hide in the chapel which is problematic as all witnesses, including the butler, claim that there was no one at all near him when the attack occurred.

“Above the altar hangs the ‘waeful dagger,’ as I had learned it was named. I fancy the term has been taken from an old vellum, which describes the dagger and its supposed abnormal properties. I took the dagger down, and examined it minutely and with method. The blade is ten inches long, two inches broad at the base, and tapering to a rounded but sharp point, rather peculiar. It is double-edged.

“The metal sheath is curious for having a crosspiece, which, taken with the fact that the sheath itself is continued three parts up the hilt of the dagger (in a most inconvenient fashion), gives it the appearance of a cross. That this is not unintentional is shown by an engraving of the Christ crucified upon one side, whilst upon the other, in Latin, is the inscription: ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will Repay.’ A quaint and rather terrible conjunction of ideas. Upon the blade of the dagger is graven in old English capitals: I WATCH. I STRIKE. On the butt of the hilt there is carved deeply a Pentacle.”

Finally speaking to Sir Jarnock, Carnacki proposes that he spend the night in the chapel to which Sir Jarnock completely refuses.  It is Sir Jarnock’s habit to lock the chapel every evening so that none would risk harm and he would not yield on this point especially after what had happened to the butler.

Undaunted, Carnacki decides to make an impression of the key when he borrows it the following day and have a duplicate made in secret.  He sets up his camera and takes a picture of the quite chapel in daylight.  Carnacki then goes into town to develop the plate and have the duplicate key made.

That night, Carnacki sneaks into the chapel.  In preparation, he dons several pieces of plate mail over which he wears a shirt of chain mail ‘borrowed’ from the Jarnock’s Armory.  He carries with him a lantern and his gun.

“Now it would be silly to say I did not feel queer. I felt very queer indeed. You just try, any of you, to imagine yourself standing there in the dark silence and remembering not only the legend that was attached to the place, but what had really happened to the old butler only a little while gone, I can tell you, as I stood there, I could believe that something invisible was coming toward me in the air of the Chapel. Yet, I had got to go through with the business, and I just took hold of my little bit of courage and set to work.”

Carnacki resets his camera and re-examines the chapel again to no avail.  He takes another picture of the chapel with the use of his flash and then sits down in one of the pews to wait.  As the evening wears on, he hears odd noises like the sound of a metallic ‘clank’ from the direction of the altar and soft steps near him.  The dark and the quiet bear down on him:

“Suddenly my courage went. I put up my mailed arms over my face. I wanted to protect it. I had got a sudden sickening feeling that something was hovering over me in the dark. Talk about fright! I could have shouted if I had not been afraid of the noise…. And then, abruptly, I heard something. Away up the aisle, there sounded a dull clang of metal, as it might be the tread of a mailed heel upon the stone of the aisle. I sat immovable. I was fighting with all my strength to get back my courage. I could not take my arms down from over my face, but I knew that I was getting hold of the gritty part of me again. And suddenly I made a mighty effort and lowered my arms. I held my face up in the darkness. And, I tell you, I respect myself for the act, because I thought truly at that moment that I was going to die. But I think, just then, by the slow revulsion of feeling which had assisted my effort, I was less sick, in that instant, at the thought of having to die, than at the knowledge of the utter weak cowardice that had so unexpectedly shaken me all to bits, for a time.”

When nothing happens, Carnacki recovers his courage.  He turns on his lantern but sees nothing amiss or worrying so shuts it off and sits for awhile more in the dark.

His nerves fading, Carnacki becomes convinced that he is hearing a slithering sound near the camera and shines his lantern to find nothing there.  Standing up, he is determined to see if the dagger has moved and walks up to the chancel gate to find that the dagger is no long in the scabbard above the altar.

Afraid that it might be floating about somewhere near, he steps up the gate and, as he opens it, is struck mightily in the chest by the dagger!  Thrown backward, he loses his gun and the lantern smashes on the floor.  Panic stricken, Carnacki runs blindly down the aisle, knocking over his camera and out the door.

In his room, Carnacki regains his calm and examines his armor.  The dagger had pierce both the chain and plate armor and left a scratch on his chest.  With a chill, Carnacki realizes that it had been pointed at his heart.

At dawn the next morning, Carnacki returns to the chapel and examines his equipment.  The lantern is shattered but his gun is untouched and the camera only  slightly damaged.  The dagger is lying in the aisle.

With a sudden, unreasoned action, I jumped forward and put my foot on it, to hold it there. Can you understand? Do you? And, you know, I could not stoop down and pick it up with my hands for quite a minute, I should think. Afterward, when I had done so, however, and handled it a little, this feeling passed away and my Reason (and also, I expect, the daylight) made me feel that I had been a little bit of an ass. Quite natural, though, I assure you! Yet it was a new kind of fear to me. I’m taking no notice of the cheap joke about the ass! I am talking about the curiousness of learning in that moment a new shade or quality of fear that had hitherto been outside of my knowledge or imagination. Does it interest you?

Carnacki cleans up and takes the plates out of the camera before heading back to town.  He wakes up the local photographer who grants Carnacki access to his darkroom.  The first plate he develops is of the chapel, taken with the flash but there is nothing unusual in the picture.  The second plate is of what had been in the camera at the time of the attack with the lens open.  It is Carnacki’s hope that something might have imprinted upon the unexposed plate.  Although the second plate shows some shapes which could have been the dagger, they are too vague to be sure.  It is while examining the other photo that Carnacki makes an exciting discovery.

Arriving back at the castle, Carnacki is told that Sir Jarnock is unwell and would prefer that no one enter the chapel without him.  George Jarnock states that it is in keeping with his father’s personality as he would never allow anyone into the chapel.

Carnacki sneaks off and conducts some experiments in the chapel which confirm his suspicions.  He gets George to come with him and they bring a dummy dressed in plate armor to the chapel.  Although surprised when Carnacki produces a key, George says nothing.

16_thingThey place the dummy in the same position where the butler had been attacked.  When George makes a motion to open the chancel gate, Carnacki warns him that he is in danger and to step away.  George steps away to the left and Carnacki, well to the right of the dummy, leans it forward so that it presses on the chancel gate which springs open.  Suddenly, the dummy is stuck by a tremendous blow and thrown to the floor where it lays with the dagger buried in the armor.

Carnacki shows George how the trick was done.  A section of the left hand gatepost has a hinge which, when pressed down, opens a gap in the floor into which the post fits snugly with a click.  Carnacki then takes the dagger and places it in a hole in the post, point upward.  Then, pressing further, the section lifts back up, covering the dagger and closing the hole in the floor.  It is nothing more than a trap set for an unsuspecting enemy.

The case is resolved when Sir Jarnock confesses to setting the trap every night out of habit and that, the day of the butler’s injury, had set it too early.  The hole, Carnacki surmises, was used in previous ages to hide valuables and, indeed, that is where Sir Jarnock has hidden his late wife’s jewelry.

As there was no permanent injury with the butler recovering, the affair is hushed up and the chapel retains it’s ‘haunted’ reputation.

“The Thing Invisible” is definitely one of Carnacki’s weakest cases as written by Hodgson.  Not only is there no supernatural cause but the ‘haunting’ itself is handled poorly and is hardly interesting.  Compare this to other stories where even the manufactured hauntings are more dramatic and we can see why this story lacks.   The only ‘fear’ comes as Carnacki sits alone in the chapel and even this is not as effective as in other stories.

In addition, there is no mention of any of Carnacki’s previous cases (like there are in other stories), the Sigsand Manuscript, or even the SaaaMaaa Ritual.  In some ways, it seems as if this case happened to a completely different Carnacki!  None of his investigative techniques are used here such as sealing the doors or placing wires to determine if anyone else is walking nearby.

It is for this reason that I feel that this is quite possibly the first Carnacki story written by Hodgson.  The story feels as if Hodgson is working his way towards the ‘Carnacki’ that we grow to know in the other stories and even some of his prose style is reminiscent of early works.  In addition, the beginning is written in such as way as to set up the formula for the later stories.  It explains the narrative frame far more than the later tales do and reads like an introduction to the series.

I believe that it was for this reason that August Derleth chose this story to lead the 1947 collection whereas, in the original 1913 edition, it is the last story in the book.  Although I can understand this reasoning, I feel that, in some ways, it is a mistake to lead with this weaker story.  Someone new to Carnacki might read this tale and wonder what all the fuss is about and not bother to read any further.  Far better to maintain either the original collection’s order (with the three additional stories added) or place this story closer to the middle when the strength of the other stories will prop up it’s deficiencies.

I feel that it is likely that The Idler rejected this story and maybe even for the same reasons I’ve just noted.  Perhaps they also felt that this was a ‘weaker’ story.  This would explain the time gap between the Idler appearances and this story later in The New Magazine.  My conclusion is that Hodgson had to shop this story around before finding it a home and that would not happen until 1912.  This was the last Carnacki story to appear in Hodgson’s lifetime.  We don’t know exactly when Hodgson stopped writing stories about his “ghost-finder” but others, like Sam Moskowitz, believe that at least “The Hog” was written closer to Hodgson’s death in 1918.  It is yet another Hodgson question that we will never be able to fully answer.

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2 Comments

Filed under Carnacki, Hodgson, William Hope Hodgson

2 responses to “CARNACKI #6: “The Thing Invisible”

  1. Reg

    I’ve just read this story for the first time and simply cannot figure out how such a device would work. Trying to sketch it out using the description given is hopeless. Does anyone have any ideas?

  2. Mickey

    One of the better Carnacki stories, in my opinion, at least. What I like about it is the consistency, all the pieces come together at the end and all the facts are rationally explained without “and there was something I can not understand” or “how the ilusion was created I cannot say”. This Carnacki story cannot boast of any supernatural element, but it doesn’t matter at all.

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