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Literature / Carnacki the Ghost-Finder

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Carnacki the Ghost-Finder is a collection of short stories by William Hope Hodgson, all concerning the exploits of the eponymous Thomas Carnacki, an Occult Detective. The original 1913 edition contained six stories, which had been separately published in The Idler magazine over the preceding few years; a 1948 edition added three more.

Carnacki, an accomplished gentleman occultist, brought an empirical attitude to his investigations as well as several high-tech (for 1913) gadgets, ranging from photography to a protective device of his own invention called the electric pentacle. Unlike many occult detectives, his cases included a mix of hoaxes and genuine hauntings, meaning there's always some suspense in the stories as to what's really going on.

One Carnacki story, "The Horse of the Invisible", was adapted for television in 1971 as part of the British TV series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes; Carnacki was played by Donald Pleasence. An unabridged audio play adaptation of the original six stories was released in 2016 by Big Finish, starring Dan Starkey as Carnacki.

Since Carnacki is no longer copyrighted, he's free to appear in other media as well.

Download or read the full text online at Project Gutenberg or the University of Adelaide.

This series provides examples of:

  • Appearance Is in the Eye of the Beholder: The narrator asks if the ghost in "The Searcher Of The End House" appears as a child to some people and a woman to others but Carnacki is pretty sure they're two different ghosts.
  • Candlelit Ritual: In "The Gateway of the Monster", Carnacki protects himself against the attacks of the title creature by creating a technomagical barrier that includes burning candles.
  • Catchphrase: Carnacki's narratives are punctuated liberally with variants of "can you understand?", especially when describing states of sheer terror.
  • The Exotic Detective: Carnacki was an experienced occultist dealing with the occasional "Scooby-Doo" Hoax amongst multiple real supernatural events.
  • Formula-Breaking Episode: The Find regards Carnacki investigating a book forgery and has no supernatural elements whatsoever.
  • Framing Device: Each story had one in which Carnacki invited some friends to dinner and told them about his latest case.
  • Garlic Is Abhorrent: Carnacki uses it while setting up wards but admits that he hates the smell.
  • Geometric Magic: Protective circles, including his own invention the Electric Pentacle, play a major role in Carnacki's cases.
  • Great Big Book of Everything: Carnacki gets all his info on the supernatural from the fictional Sigsand Manuscript.
  • Have a Gay Old Time:
    • At tense moments in his investigations, Carnacki often finds himself in a state of "funk".
    • As a non-sexual example mixed with Separated by a Common Language, Americans may be caught off-guard by his references to his "flashlight", by which he means the hand-held powder flash-wands used by photographers of the era.
    • In "The Horse Of The Invisible", Carnacki says ""Beaumont knocked me up about midday".
  • Magical Abortion: The Sigsand manuscript says that stillborn babies are caused by hags snatching the child's soul back. It's thought that the child ghost in "The Searcher Of The End House" is the result of this.
  • Matron Chaperone: In "The Horse of the Invisible", while Beaumont and his fiancee Miss Hisgins are together, they're chaperoned by her aunt.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Some stories leave details like this - for example, in "The Horse Of The Invisible", some elements of the haunting are impossible to prove as genuine or faked, since the hoaxer is dead and the ghost turned out to be real anyway.
  • Noodle Incident: Carnacki often refers to earlier cases that didn't get written up and published. Usually it's just an evocative title, but sometimes he'll also drop a tantalising detail.
    "The Black Veil case, when young Aster died. You remember, he said it was a piece of silly superstition and stayed outside. Poor devil!"
  • Papa Wolf: Captain Hisgins confronts the audible menace from "The Horse Of The Invisible" as best he can, standing protectively over Mary with his naval sword drawn. Carnacki is impressed, and praises the man when he tells of it.
  • Paranormal Investigation: Carnacki's work was to find out whether or not hauntings were real on certain locations. Sometimes they weren't... many times they were.
  • Post-Modern Magik: Carnacki is possibly the first protagonist to fully embrace this trope, devising updated versions of medieval-era protective wards that incorporate electrical wires and multicolored neon lighting.
  • Real After All: In at least one of the stories, a haunting is revealed as a hoax, and then as the hoaxer is being confronted, the real ghost puts in an appearance.
  • "Scooby-Doo" Hoax: One case has smugglers faking a haunting so they can use an abandoned building.
  • Signing-Off Catchphrase: The narrator lampshades Carnacki's ritual phrase "Out you go!" for chucking his friends out once he's told his story, but also usually wraps up the narrative with some variant of "And then we all walked thoughtfully home" himself.
  • Sins of Our Fathers: Arlestrae Donahue in "The Whistling Room" is a descendant of King Ernore whose rival is responsible for the titular room. It's thought that if she had went into it then something terrible would have happened.
  • Summoning Artifact: In "Gateway of the Monster", the title being (a giant strangling hand) enters our world through the Luck Ring of the Andersons — a small pentagonal ring. It was originally activated by being worn, but continued to summon the monster afterward.
  • That Poor Cat
    • In "Gateway of the Monster", Carnacki's lowest-tech piece of equipment is a cat in a basket, which he places experimentally outside his magical protections.
    "I heard the basket, in which the cat lay, creak... I knew that I was going to learn definitely whether whatever was abroad was dangerous to Life. From the cat there rose suddenly a hideous caterwaul, that ceased abruptly"
    • In "The House Among the Laurels", he stakes out two dogs (this time with safeguards):
      "And then, abruptly, from the boarhound over in the far corner, there came a terrible yelling howl of agony, followed instantly by a sickening, breaking noise, and an immediate silence."