Not all of William Hope Hodgson’s stories take place at sea. Two of his more important works are the science fiction novels The House on the Borderland (1908) and The Night Land (1912). He also wrote a series of short stories that featured the occult detective Thomas Carnacki. Hodgson published nine of the Carnacki stories, most of them between 1910 and 1912.
According to Sam Gafford’s excellent blog on William Hope Hodgson*, the character of Carnacki has been on TV at least twice. In 1954 an episode of the Pepsi-Cola Playhouse showed an adaptation of Hodgson’s The Whistling Room (1910). In an episode of the 1971 BBC TV series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, Donald Pleasence of Halloween fame played the detective. This was an adaptation of Hodgson’s The Horse of the Invisible (1910).
Although there is no direct connection, several of the Carnacki stories may have been a source of inspiration for the TV show Kolchak: The Night Stalker, a short lived series that ran in 1974-1975. There were also two television movies featuring Kolchak that preceded the series, The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973). Kolchak was a Chicago newspaper reporter who investigated unsolved crimes involving supernatural phenomena.
Though a bit of a stretch, it seems reasonable to assume Carnacki is also a predecessor of detectives Scully and Mulder of The X-Files, (1993-2002). There are numerous detectives of the occult and supernatural in fiction, comics, television and movies, probably going back at least to Van Helsing, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
William Hope Hodgson’s The Searcher of the End House (1910) is an entertaining ghost story in which Carnacki himself is a victim of the haunting. There are odd knockings and rappings, slamming doors, wet footprints, and a mysterious bad smell in the house where he and his mother dwell. These intensify and prompt an investigation, first by Carnacki and his landlord, and later involving local law enforcement.
It turns out that the previous tenant, “Captain Tobias”, who has just been released from prison, may be the source of some of the ghostly activity. He is trying to scare Carnacki and his mother out of the house, so he can repossess it and recover some items he has hidden there. Since Carnacki wants to get out of his lease anyway, he and the landlord agree to turn the house over to Tobias, not prosecute him, and ensure “that the whole business be hushed up”. This all seems reasonable! But in the course of the investigation, other phenomena are observed, involving two real ghosts.
And this is really the most interesting part of The Searcher of the End House. Virtually all of the characters see either a mysterious woman or a young child in the house—even the conniving captain—and the history of sightings goes back several years. There are some genuinely unsettling scenes in which the detective endures an alteration in his perception of light and physical space, which are part of the experience of seeing the two ghosts: “…and about each lantern there was a little cloud of absolute blackness, where the phenomenon that is light to our natural eyes, came through the fittings…”
Typical of a Carnacki story is a tiresome explanation at the end in which Hodgson, through his character, anticipates all the questions his readers will have about the origin of the ghostly events. Carnacki speculates that “fear was in every case the key, as I might say, which opened the senses to an awareness of the presence of the Woman.” There is a force present in the house which manifests itself in a human form depending on the sensitivity and level of anxiety of its occupants.
As for the apparition of the child, Carnacki introduces the “Sigsand MS.”, a sort of addendum to the Necronomicon, which describes a “Mother Spirit”, a primal ego, and something about “Monstrosities of the Outer Circle.” Most readers will find this incomprehensible, and the author himself concludes that “it is futile to attempt to discuss a thing, to any purpose, of which one has a conception so fragmentary as this…”
The problem with The Searcher of the End House is that it is really two different stories that would have been more successful as separate tales. Hodgson might have played the tale for laughs, and focused on the almost successful shenanigans of Captain Tobias as he puts on a “ghost-play” to scare Carnacki and his mother away. When he is captured emerging from the well in the basement—an otherwise inherently creepy scene—the detective and inspector burst out laughing. But this “canned laughter” falls flat after earlier scenes of ultraviolet weirdness.
In the same way, the effectively eerie scenes of the ghostly woman and child are counteracted by the jokey uncovering of the captain’s schemes, and the story loses a focused effect.