Carnacki the occult detective is a character who appears in several stories by William Hope Hodgson. The Gateway of the Monster (1910) is certainly representative of the series. The story is interesting in how it attempts to meld the trappings of a ghost story with elements of science fiction, though both the occultism and the science are pretty unconvincing. The detective’s struggle with the Ab-Natural, a kind of ghost-monster, is the most entertaining part of the tale.
In The Gateway of the Monster, Carnacki is commissioned to investigate what appears to be a haunted room—the “Grey Room” in the Anderson mansion. The room, unused for decades, is subject to door slamming in the middle of the night, the tossing of bedclothes into a corner of the room, and strange shadows and chills. Reportedly three people were strangled in the room, (though not all at one time). Carnacki suspects the presence of an Ab-Natural, and plans to spend the night there.
Before he can investigate the phenomena directly, the detective must first set up his supernatural defenses. Regarding the importance of the pentacle design, Carnacki says, “I used the shape of the defensive star for this protection because I have, personally, no doubt at all but that there is some extraordinary virtue in the old magic figure.”
Carnacki follows pretty closely the technique outlined in the 14th Century document known as the Sigsand Manuscript. This is the Hodgsonian equivalent of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. While some may doubt the effectiveness of Carnacki’s method, the detective reminds readers that it was used successfully in the “Black Veil’ case, and in several more recent adventures, though not so much in the “Noving Fur” case, (in which he nearly died).
You will need: measuring tape, broom made of hyssop, garlic, (and a means of charring the bulbs), chalk, five jars of a ‘certain water’, a loaf of a ‘certain bread’, at least five candles, and a battery powered Electric Pentacle. A cat is also useful—but not one for which you have any affection or emotional attachment.
1. In the center of the room, measure out a circular space with a diameter of twenty one feet.
2. Sweep this area clean with the hyssop broom.
3. Around this area draw a neat circle on the floor with the chalk, being careful not to step over the circle.
4. Just outside the circle, smudge the floor with the charred garlic in a broad band. Some may find the scent disagreeable—the spirit world is unanimous in this regard. (This constitutes the First Sign of the Saaamaaa Ritual.)
5. Open a jar of a ‘certain water’ and with your left forefinger, go around the circle again, this time just within the circle of chalk. Make five evenly spaced left-handed crescents with the water—the ‘water circle.’ (This completes the Second Sign of the Saaamaaa Ritual.)
6. Put a lighted candle in the valley of each crescent.
7. With the chalk, draw a large pentacle so that the points precisely touch the chalk circle.
8. At each of the points of the star put a portion of the bread, as well as one of the jars of the water.
9. In the center of the defensive circle orient the Electric Pentacle so that the points of its star align with those of the chalk design on the floor. Hook up the battery and switch it on.
10. Now you are ready!
It may seem like a lot of trouble to go through. Why is it not sufficient simply to wear a pentacle shaped medallion over your shirt? But Carnacki swears by this method.
This is not pseudo-science so much as pseudo-occultism, though both are derived from the same root: human faith in the effectiveness of ritual—the naïve belief that when procedures are accurately repeated with careful attention to detail, exactly the same results are achieved. Look for the presence of ritual in situations where outcomes are unknown or the forces involved are poorly understood.
Ultimately, the reverence for ritual is a primitive behavioral strategy to reduce anxiety and confusion. But as Heraclitis determined, twenty five centuries ago, ‘You cannot step twice into the same river’. Nothing can be repeated because the nature of reality is constant change.
This was Carnacki’s experience in the “Noving Fur” case, and he faces the same challenge in The Gateway of the Monster. The Pentacle Protection System is effective, but barely so. The evil Ab-Natural is capable of influencing the detective in such a way that he knocks over the jars of water or blocks the light of the Electric Pentacle, thus allowing a breach in the supernatural defenses. There are several close calls.
In the morning the detective finds an item of jewelry hidden in the frame of the bed. There may be a way to use the item against the weird phenomena, but Carnacki only discovers it by accident at the climax of the story, when he once again nearly loses more than his life. Indeed, during his second tangle with the Ab-Natural, both his pseudo-occultism and pseudo-science almost fail him completely.
Hodgson’s Carnacki stories—as well as Lovecraft’s later attempts at science fiction in the mid to late 1920s—show the gradual absorption of a more scientific and materialistic world view into weird fiction. It is rarely a good fit. Perhaps authors at the time felt that the credibility of their stories needed ever larger doses of technology and scientific theorizing to remain convincing. Tellingly, the various contraptions, so carefully and nervously installed at the epicenters of supernatural horror, must be repeatedly left behind in favor of good old retreat.