In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews Kipling’s foray into the mystery genre with a psychic detective story
Previously, I’ve blogged about the intriguing micro-genre of the psychic detective story, a crossover short story genre which fuses the ghost story or weird tale with the mystery, or detective fiction. Arguably beginning with the Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1869 story ‘Green Tea’, the form was pioneered by the late Victorian writing team of E. and H. Heron with their Flaxman Low stories, but became really popular during the Edwardian era, with characters such as Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence and, shortly after this, William Hope Hodgson’s Thomas Carnacki and Alice and Claude Askew’s Aylmer Vance.
The genre never exactly attracted a plethora of writers, in the way that the out-and-out detective story did, following the phenomenal success of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. But it did attract the attention of some more famous and talented writers than the ones already mentioned. Perhaps the most famous of them all was Rudyard Kipling.
Kipling knew the Sherlock Holmes creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Kipling’s 1909 story ‘The House Surgeon’ might be regarded as an affectionate tribute to his friend, as well as Kipling’s one foray into the crossover genre of the psychic detective story. Indeed, the name of the (possibly) haunted house in the story, Holmescroft, is an obvious nod to Conan Doyle’s great sleuth, who is even mentioned by name by the narrator of Kipling’s tale:
I am less calculated to make a Sherlock Holmes than any man I know, for I lack both method and patience, yet the idea of following up the trouble to its source fascinated me. I had no theory to go on, except a vague idea that I had come between two poles of a discharge, and had taken a shock meant for some one else.
Mr Perseus, the narrator of ‘The House Surgeon’, also admits to being ‘more bewildered than any Doctor Watson at the opening of a story’. Yet when he meets L. Maxwell M’Leod, of Holmescroft, on board a steamer, and the two men strike up a conversation, Perseus finds himself drawn into a case of mystery and the paranormal, or so it seems. Holmescroft appears to be possessed by some sinister force which instils a deep sense of depression in anyone who lives in, or even just visits, the house. Perseus sets about befriending Mr Baxter, the lawyer who sold M’Leod the house, and discovers that the previous family who occupied the house included three sisters, one of whom is supposed to have committed suicide by throwing herself from the bedroom window. But is this what happened, and if so, is this tragedy the cause of the strange feeling pervading the house?
Kipling was interested in such things. Although a sceptic, he had a lifelong interest in the supernatural (much like his contemporary, Thomas Hardy); Kipling often referred to the spirit of his own houses, writing, for instance, of Batemans, the Sussex house he bought in 1902: ‘We entered and felt her Spirit – her Feng Shui – to be good.’ In doing so, Rudyard Kipling was nearly a hundred years ahead of the trend, in 1990s Britain, for obsessing over the ‘Feng Shui’ of one’s house. In some respects, he was a Very Modern Man.
But ‘The House Surgeon’ appears to have been inspired by a less favourable experience with Feng Shui, at Kipling’s old house in Torquay. Kipling had had a bad feeling about his home, Rock House: as Andrew Lycett reveals in his biography Rudyard Kipling, Kipling ‘looked to his Far-Eastern travels for an explanation’. Kipling decided, as he later put it: ‘It was the Feng-shui – the Spirit of the house itself – that darkened the sunshine and fell upon us every time we entered, checking the very words on our lips.’ Kipling would later learn that there had been a suicide at Rock House some years ago, so it’s clear that Kipling’s own experiences fed directly into ‘The House Surgeon’.
‘The House Surgeon’ is an entertaining story, not as demanding or as sophisticated as some of Kipling’s other supernatural tales (or his downright baffling ones: ‘Mrs Bathurst’ I’m looking at you). Mr Perseus’ disavowing of any inherently ‘detectivish’ qualities also makes him a refreshing change from all of the sleuths and professional paranormal investigators found in other psychic detective stories from around this time by Hodgson, Blackwood, the Askews, and others.
Kipling’s ‘The House Surgeon’ is available in a bumper collection of Kipling’s short fiction, The Mark of the Beast And Other Fantastical Tales (FANTASY MASTERWORKS).
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.