At the time, I was around 20 years old and I’d already read a great many ghost stories and books on hauntings. I had happily devoured fictional tales, such as those written by M.R. James, while I’d also bought just about any books on real-life or historical hauntings that I could find. Over 30 years later, I find myself sat in my study surrounded by non-fiction books on just about everything from Alchemy to Zombies, alongside the works of Dennis Wheatley, Poe, Lovecraft, Machen and others, but I had never read anything quite like Carnacki the Ghost Finder and the memory of my first time very much lives with me to this day.
I suppose it was the perfect book at the perfect time for me. I’d studied Latin, Greek and Ancient History at school, so I’d been introduced to some fascinating material concerning the Underworld and the monsters that inhabited these shady realms. My schooling in the classics had imbued me with some discipline, while I’d earlier read a book entitled Gods, Graves and Scholars that contained the fantastic accounts of Champollion’s ingenious decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphs and Schliemann’s equally ingenious discovery of the fabled city of Troy. I was aware of Sherlock Holmes and I’d seen the Hammer version of the Hound of the Baskervilles, which is of course a brilliant investigation into an apparently lethal haunting, but Carnacki’s meticulous investigations were the first of their kind that I can remember reading.
On top of all that, I’d developed an interest in real-life, inimical hauntings, because by this time, I’d learned about the deadly phantoms in the Tower of London and in Berkeley Square. I then came to discover others, such as the haunting of a road in Devon that resulted in human fatalities a century or so ago and in recent years, I’ve learned of many more, but back in 1980, I was still coming to terms with the disturbing notion that supernatural entities could inflict physical harm. At the time, I was living in East Finchley, which is just a mile or so up the road from Highgate Cemetery, a place that was reputed to be the lair of a vampire, or so I was convincingly assured back in those pre-internet days.
So, while I was aware that Carnacki was a work of fiction, I wondered more and more about where William Hope Hodgson drew his inspiration from as far as the lethal hauntings he described were concerned. My curiosity led me to discover the remarkable manifestations produced by the medium Franek Kluski, as well as many other tantalising accounts of supernatural entities in the séance room, ruined castles and prehistoric monuments. Carnacki had enabled me to tap into a cornucopia of nightmare worlds, both in fiction and in historical accounts, something that continues to give me enormous pleasure.
In brief, I loved absolutely everything about the book and the compelling stories they contained. I even liked Carnacki’s habit of entertaining guests for the purpose of telling them about his exploits, because at around this time, I had joined the Dracula Society and I’d been warmly welcomed into its ranks. I attended a few dinners and I met some very pleasant and engaging people, and while I had greatly enjoyed chewing the fat with them, I soon decided that I was less interested in Gothic literature than in investigating some of “Hell’s mysteries”, as the great man described these matters in The Whistling Room. However, my application to join A Leading Paranormal Investigation Club of the time was tersely refused by the club’s president, so I decided “if you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em”.
I don’t live my life by literary proxy, but like everyone else, I’m subject to outside influences to a greater or lesser degree and there’s no question that Carnacki’s investigations captured my imagination. I was particularly impressed by his attention to detail and his open mind, while I also liked his admissions that he could be mistaken and sometimes fooled. Of all the aspects of Thomas Carnacki’s character, I suppose I was most drawn to his ready confessions to feeling terror and loneliness when he was engaged in his nocturnal investigations.
Perhaps I’d have looked into them all anyway without ever having read the book in question, but Carnacki always came to mind whenever I had the opportunity to visit allegedly haunted locations in Britain and abroad, something I’ve been doing for decades. The most famous such places I’ve been to in direct connection with hauntings are Edgehill, Littlecote House, Borley, Clapham Woods and Silbury Hill, all of which were exhilarating, baffling and sometimes terrifying. The most satisfying investigation that I’ve ever undertaken was that of an apparently haunted church in southern Greece, on account of the feelings of sheer dread, puzzlement and disbelief I experienced when I was trying to fathom the true nature of the manifestations that were causing so much alarm to so many people, but I was also very gratified by the relief and sense of general well-being that followed when I was finally able to point out the agency behind the fearsome “Voice in the Night”.
What else? As this site’s devoted to an appreciation of William Hope Hodgson and his works, I’ll just mention that I wrote some adaptations of the Carnacki stories for a production company some years ago, but the less said about that unfortunate episode, the better. Very briefly, the people with whom I was dealing wanted a ‘love interest’ for Thomas Carnacki, along with other refinements to Hodgson’s writing that they felt would attract a large audience, whereas I felt the stories were just about perfect as they were.
It wasn’t until I looked through this site that I realised that Donald Pleasance had played Thomas Carnacki. I was lucky enough to meet this man a little while before his death in 1995 and I was in awe of him anyway on account of what I knew of his career, although if I’d known at the time that he’d once portrayed Carnacki, I would certainly have asked him about it at some length. Sadly, it was not to be.
I could continue like this for a long while, but perhaps it’s time to call a halt. I’ll conclude by saying that if Carnacki the Ghost Finder had been the only book that William Hope Hodgson had ever written, then it would have had pride of place in my book collection as a unique and engrossing literary marvel. However, we all know of Hodgson’s other works, so I’m looking forward to downing tools and indulging myself by reading every last thing on Sam’s site, while it’s obviously a place I’ll return to, because I know of few other more engrossing subjects than Carnacki the Ghost Finder and the brave, visionary and exceptional man who wrote it.
Author, The Missing Years of Jesus
(Many thanks to Dennis for sharing his thoughts with us. I enjoy hearing how people discover Hodgson or what his writings mean to you so if you have a story to share, please contact me at: email@example.com with the words “Guest Post” in the subject line.–Sam Gafford)