Arguably, this story, the subject of this week’s discussion by the Deep Ones group over at LibraryThing, is an early occult detective story. I don’t recall ever seeing it talked about in that context, but I may have missed it, and I don’t read a lot of history about that sub-genre.
Review: “The Haunted and the Haunters: Or the House and the Brain”, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1859.
You know Bulwer-Lytton, or, at least, some of the phrases he coined: “pursuit of the almighty dollar”, “the great unwashed”, and “the Watcher at the Threshold”. He’s also mocked for the line “It was a dark and stormy night”.
Anyway, this is a ghost busting story before that term was invented. It goes on too long. It has too many coincidences, but it has its good points.
Yet, it shares some features with H. P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Though it does not seem to have directly influenced that work, both stories bring up palingenesis. Both have long-lived sorcerers. It also was a story we know Lovecraft liked.
Our narrator, hearing about a haunted house from a friend, looks up its owner. It seems nobody who rents the house lasts more than three days in it. Everyone, that is, except the old housekeeper who the owner inherited along with the house when his uncle died. The housekeeper actually lived in the house once, fell on hard times, and had to sell the house. When it was purchased, she was hired, after some years, as help. However, the woman died recently, just after the narrator’s friend met her when he rented the place.
Armed with pluck, some weapons, a courageous servant, and a dog, our narrator sets out to investigate.
There are footprints in the cellars, strange sounds, doors locking and unlocking by themselves, and a couple of letters from a former resident. However, our narrator is stalwart and, when he gets too rattled, reads Maccauley’s Essays to settle his nerves.
However, there are disturbances too great for the formerly stalwart servant. He bolts. The dog dies of fright.
The narrator stays put to see hands coming out of a desk, ghostly forms coalesce, and a great shadow with red, serpentine eyes. Coupled with the letters he found and read, he deduces a sinister past of murder and adultery for the former inhabitants.
He goes back to the owner and learns more rumors about rumors about the past inhabitants. The narrator, of course, has a theory about all this – after all, he seeks out haunted houses.
The owner and narrator go back and find a hidden room and the identity (well, multiple identities really) of the house’s past owner. At times, he’s been an American pirate, a French consultant to an Indian Raj, and an English ex-pat in the African desert.
The coincidences really start flying thick and fast hurry towards the end. The narrator actually sees the former owner outside the house and, later on, at his club.
There is a long and interesting discussion about the uses mesmerism can be put to and what a great, preternatural will can do to influence others and prolong life. We even get mention of the recently started Spiritualist movement and the Fox sister.
The narrator tells the serpent-eyed man his suspicions about him. We even get a prophecy about the eventual fate of the sorcerer.
But that will happen off stage and in the future. The sorcerer hypnotizes the narrator into silence for three months so he can make his escape. After that, he writes the account we just read.
I liked this story despite its length and coincidences. I suspect I was primed to like it because I had just finished Brian Stableford’s final novel in his August Dupin series, Yesterday Never Dies. That series also deals with mesmerism quite frequently and shares the contention of this story’s narrator: there’s no such thing as the supernatural, just rare natural phenomena not explained yet.
If you’re patient and have an interest in the speculations of the occult minded Lytton, it’s worth a look.