In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle investigates the Victorian world of a neglected ‘psychic detective’
The popularity of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, published in The Strand magazine from 1891 until the 1920s, led to many imitators. As well as such creations as Ernest Bramah’s Max Carrados, the blind detective, and the psychological detective, Dr John Dollar (created by Doyle’s own brother-in-law, Raffles creator E. W. Hornung), a mini sub-genre of fictional detective also emerged: the psychic detective or paranormal investigator. Flaxman Low was not the most successful of these, but he is one of the most satisfying and enjoyable.
Although numerous scholars of the ghost story and psychic detective tale have traced the fictional paranormal investigator back to Dr Martin Hesselius, the creation of the Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu (whose 1869 story ‘Green Tea’ remains popular), it was not until the turn of the century, and in the first few years of the twentieth century, that the fictional psychic detective really took off. This was partly, as I explore in my academic study Bewilderments of Vision, a result of the development of the ghost story in the final years of the nineteenth century, when the notion of the ‘ghost’ – following the work of mid-nineteenth-century trailblazers like Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe – became altogether more ambiguous and undecidable. In the work of writers like Vernon Lee and Henry James we often come away unsure of whether the ‘ghost’ encountered in the story was really supernatural, or no more than a hallucination or trick of the light.
All of this coincided with a rising interest in the scientific investigation of ghostly phenomena, and the Society for Psychical Research was founded in England in 1882. Like a sort of nineteenth-century version of Most Haunted, people like Edmund Gurney and F. W. H. Myers set about trying to investigate paranormal phenomena using a range of scientific apparatus, collecting testimonies from people concerning ghost-sightings, and attempting to understand what causes ‘ghosts’. Edmund Gurney’s two-volume book Phantasms of the Living (1886) sold in considerable numbers. These two popular interests – paranormal investigation and the fictional detective embodied by Sherlock Holmes – met and combined to form the fictional psychic detective, whose heyday was in the early twentieth century, specifically the years immediately leading up to the First World War.
Popular fictional psychic detectives included William Hope Hodgson’s Thomas Carnacki (whose thoroughly entertaining adventures are available in The Casebook of Carnacki The Ghost-Finder (Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural)); Aylmer Vance, the creation of husband-and-wife team Alice and Claude Askew (available as Aylmer Vance: Ghost-Seer (Wordsworth Mystery & Supernatural)), and, most enduring of all, the case-files of the ‘psychic doctor’, John Silence, created by master of the Weird, Algernon Blackwood (whose John Silence: Physician Extraordinary was supposedly the first work of fiction advertised on the side of a bus). All of these arose in the Edwardian era, i.e. the period roughly running from the beginning of the twentieth century up until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.
At least, I thought the psychic detective only really came on the scene in the Edwardian era. I read all of the above when I was researching my PhD on late Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories, but one psychic detective whose adventures I didn’t read was Flaxman Low, the creation of the British authors Hesketh Hesketh-Prichard and his mother Kate O’Brien Ryall Prichard, who published the Flaxman Low stories under the pseudonyms ‘H. Heron’ and ‘E. Heron’. It was only when a colleague of mine gave me an old copy of The Supernatural Omnibus, a glorious collection of spooky stories from the 1930s edited by Montague Summers, that I decided to read the Flaxman Low stories it contained: three in all, although a total of thirteen ‘cases’ were penned by the mother-and-son duo. These stories appeared in 1898-9, making them the earliest examples of bona fide psychic detective stories involving a continuous character. The inspiration for Flaxman Low was clearly Sherlock Holmes, although the ‘Herons’ may also have been influenced by Professor Van Helsing, the paranormal expert from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published a year before the first Flaxman Low story appeared.
What makes these stories so satisfying is that the authors manage to get round the difficult problem that plagues writers who fuse the supernatural story with the detective genre: we want the mystery to have an ultimately satisfying explanation, if not a rational one (i.e., the ‘ghost’ can either turn out to be real or fake, but the means by which the detective reaches his or her conclusions must still observe the rules of detective fiction). Stories which trail off into vagueness or irresolution are unlikely to please fans of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Yet to conclude the story in too clear-cut a fashion can destroy the whole aura of mystery and the unknown which surrounds the ghost.
A good example of how E. and H. Heron resolve this is in what is probably the most widely anthologised Flaxman Low story, ‘The Story of the Spaniards, Hammersmith’. Without giving away any major spoilers, this tale sees Flaxman Low investigating the haunted house inherited by an old friend. Both Low and his friend observe ghostly sightings around the mansion: a stick tapping, a bladder being moved about the place as though a child were playing a game, and – most unsettling of all – ‘a blotched, yellowish face, flanked by two swollen, protruding ears, the whole aspect being strangely leonine’. I won’t say how Flaxman Low sets about solving this mystery, but suffice to say that the ending snaps shut in a satisfactory fashion, bringing these curious details together in a neat denouement, but with the final paragraph retaining enough of the M. R. James aura to hint at the history surrounding the supposed ghost haunting the house.
The Flaxman Low stories are a fine way to while away a wet Saturday, or to provide a brief thrill if you fancy a ghostly book at bedtime. Shamefully, they’re not available in an affordable print edition (Wordsworth Editions: please publish them all in a nice little volume), but you can read the stories online for free via Project Gutenberg here.
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Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.
Image: An illustration (by B. E. Minns) from Ghosts: Being the Experiences of Flaxman Low, via The British Library on Flickr.