Before the modern day “ghost hunters” and urban myth busters of today, there were a breed of characters whose knowledge of science both earthly and other worldly captured our imaginations. The Occult Detective springs from the heels of readers’ curiosity of mystery and crime, combined with a keen interest in the supernatural. An excellent early interpretation of the Occult Detective comes from Algernon Blackwood, one of the pioneers of weird fiction, and among one of the genre’s greatest and most well-known practitioners.
Predated by Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, Stoker’s Abraham Van Helsing, and Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Blackwood’s John Silence at first glance appears molded from bits of all three characters. A closer examination reveals Silence to be a much deeper character than mere caricature and homage. He is essentially a distinct individual voice, void of Holmes’ bad habits, Dupin’s deviousness, and perhaps most importantly, Van Helsing’s bias to the supernatural. A better, more modern, reference point would be to think of Silence and an open-minded Dr. Richard Strand from The Black Tapes podcast. The fact that these characters, apart from Dupin, arose around the same time as Sigmund Freud was releasing his own scientific findings is of particular note. The art of scientific deduction springs directly from the need to interpret human personalities, and often there is much ground to cover in examining our fears and nightmares from a systematic standpoint. Silence seems to always find himself associated with strange case studies, yet maintains a rational mind-set throughout, discovering scientific and natural explanations of his weird situations while understanding that our world isn’t always so tidily explained away, never losing his sense of awe and wonderment. To say that John Silence was a fictional version of Blackwood is an understatement, as both the character and the author shared quite similar lives, with a love for the great outdoors and a more than casual interest in science including psychology.
We first meet Silence in a John Silence: Physician Extraordinary, published in 1908. A current version of these tales, edited by S.T. Joshi in 1997, contains one extra Silence story, “A Victim of Higher Space”, and is available online, often part of the many eBook collections available electronically for just a few dollars. The first tale, “A Psychical Invasion” deals with a case study of a writer of comedy who finds himself unable to find humor in anything. All of this appears to be originating from the writer’s home, so Silence pulls a Mike Enslin from ‘1408’ and stays in the home himself, accompanied by his trusty accomplices Smoke, his cat, and Flame, his loyal dog. Curious to note that the ghostly happenings here appear to stem from taking the drug cannabis, which has been known to cause a mild hallucination or two. But Silence does witness a confrontation of sorts through the actions of his animal associates, and determines the writer might be better off staying away from that house.
One of the interesting aspects of the John Silence character is Blackwood’s shifting perspectives. While modern occult detectives are either written in first person, or from the viewpoint of a close third person narration, Blackwood chose for us to see Silence from the outside. The first time we meet the narrator of most of these stories is in ‘The Nemesis of Fire’, featuring Mr. Hubbard, Silence’s assistant. Here the apparitions come from elemental fire, as the focus is on Colonel Wragge. Seems the colonel’s brother died in a fire years ago, and now there are strange fires and ghostly lights tormenting the family. Blackwood brings to this story one of his passions, Egypt and her legends, into the story as Silence uncovers a force that has a mysterious hold over the Colonel. Running over fifty pages, this story is nonetheless a prime example of the best of the Silence tales.
‘Secret Worship’ comes directly from Blackwood’s personal memories, as the main character returns to his childhood school. This merchant soon finds himself out of place with his own recollections, realizing that things are very different than he remembered, that there is just something not right with the place. Blackwood creates a sense of intense dread with the mundane, often with astonishing effect. A powerful tale, it is interesting to note that Silence doesn’t take the stage until the end of the story, arriving just in time to save the day and rationally explain everything away.
Silence’s assistant Mr. Hubbard takes full center stage in ‘The Camp of the Dog’. Blackwood takes the werewolf trope and twists it just a little with this tale set in the great outdoors. Known as quite the naturalist and outdoorsman, Blackwood uses his love of nature to an advantage here, as we see the full effects of man’s invasion on our environments, wildlife, and flora. Interestingly, Silence nearly completely explains the weird situation away, almost rendering the supernatural qualities ineffective at the end.
‘A Victim of Higher Space’ is the shortest of the tales, and the weakest. There’s nothing particularly scary or supernatural about the story, and it feels more like science-fiction than anything else. Here we find ourselves at the intersection of music and dimensions, as a man slips away from this earthly state to another place altogether. Silence now has a new assistant, someone sharper to the psychical aspects of his case studies. It is a dive into the cosmic, but from a Blackwood perspective.
‘Ancient Sorceries’ is one of Blackwood’s most well-known stories, and probably the most powerful of his John Silence tales. As the second story in the collection, it nonetheless sets the stage for the tales to come a little better than ‘A Psychical Invasion’. Here, Silence literally takes a back seat with the narration from the perspective of an unnamed character, who we eventually learn from reading is the aforementioned Mr. Hubbard, with Silence providing a little commentary throughout. The real star of the tale is the perpetually haunted Vezin, a weary traveler who decides to take a detour on his way home on the train. He finds himself in a tiny town, more of a village really, out of the way and very much a place to itself. The longer he stays, the more he notices the townspeople’s strange habits. Seems they are always watching him, yet whenever he notes that behavior, they scurry away to their homes or shops, somehow aware of his observations. Their behavior begins to remind him of cats, and he is unable to shake this thought.
Vezin soon becomes enamored with the mysterious and lovely local girl, Ilsé. Unable to leave, Vezin finds himself madly in love with the girl, held tight by her trance. The dread here builds and builds, yet we cannot look away. Blackwood loved to take his time with his tales, and this one is no exception, and all the better for his patience. Ilsé has many secrets, and holds Vezin spellbound as she tells the man that the very reason he cannot leave is because of their love. Soon Vezin realizes that this love is unnatural, and there is much more to the girl than meets the eye.
“Vezin heard, and yet did not hear; understood, yet did not understand. He had passed into a condition of exaltation. The world was beneath his feet, made of music and flowers, and he was flying somewhere far above it through the sunshine of pure delight. He was breathless and giddy with the wonder of her words. They intoxicated him. And, still, the terror of it all, the dreadful thought of death, pressed ever behind her sentences. For flames shot through her voice out of black smoke and licked at his soul.”
Believing he arrived at the village by chance, Vezin uncovers a sinister design, and knows the longer he stays, the deeper he falls into the web of deceit. Blackwood’s power is in full effect here, and we are pushed deeper into the nightmare. Fortunately, Silence provides us with somewhat of a rational explanation that neither fully satisfies us with an answer while opening even more questions of what happened. This is the essence of weird fiction, to find that while questioning our reality we come to realize we may never know the truth.
Readers considering the origins of the Occult Detective will find much to work with in the John Silence stories. Not the first, as that honor may be from Fitz James O’Brien’s Harry Escott character (1855) and Sheridan Le Fanu’s Dr. Martin Hesselius (1869), and certainly not the last, Blackwood’s John Silence stories present us with a well-rounded and thought-out character portrayed in ever-shifting manifestations. Though the perspective changes through these tales, Silence himself remains consistent, forever challenged by the supernatural world around him and constantly questioning reality from a scientific standpoint. These collected stories are a great starting point for those wanting to discover the origins of the modern-day occult detective.