Carnacki: The New Adventures edited by Sam Gafford, Ulthar Press, p/b, £9.46/Kindle, £3.55, Publisher’s Website
Reviewed by Dave Brzeski
This is yet another of those books that I bought on the day of release, and am finally finding the time to read and review a year later! Sam Gafford is an acknowledged expert on the works of William Hope Hodgson, so a collection of new Carnacki tales edited by him is always going to be an essential purchase for Hodgson fans.
What better way to open such a collection than with a story by William Meikle, the author who has written more new Carnacki tales than any other? I reviewed his Carnacki collection—‘Carnacki: Heaven and Hell’, here. His story in this volume, ‘Carnacki: Captain Gault’s Nemesis’, has William Hope Hodgson’s other series character seek him out for help with a cargo, which has been causing him serious trouble since he picked it up in Corfu. William Meikle is very adept at writing Lovecraftian stories, while avoiding name-dropping various books, races, or entities most regularly associated with the Cthulhu Mythos. This is just such a tale. An excellent start to the collection.
I recently suggested to both William Meikle and Josh Reynolds that they should collaborate on a story telling how Carnacki came to pass on the mantle of “Royal Occultist” to St. Cyprian—Josh Reynolds’ own occult detective creation. Little did I realise at that time that Josh Reynolds had already detailed the first meeting between the two in ‘Monmouth’s Giants’—the second story in this collection. It’s not all that uncommon for heroes to start out anything but heroic, only to be set on the right path by a traumatic event, and this is pretty much what happens to young Charles St. Cyprian here. It’s only the beginning, though, and I’m sure Messrs. Meikle and Reynolds might have more to tell us about the meeting of these two men.
‘A Gaslight Horror’, by P.V. Ross was an interesting idea for a story, which owes a lot to ‘Casting of the Runes’, by M.R. James. I liked it well enough, but felt it could have been slightly more substantial, especially when you consider that the first page and a half simply detail fairly irrelevant events that occurred before the traditional dinner and storytelling at Carnacki’s home.
I liked Robert Pohl’s ‘Carnacki and the President’s Vampire’ a lot. While I found the idea of a group of Native American Indians, in full regalia, knocking on Carnacki’s door a little unlikely, this was the era when Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show hit London, so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility. I found the character of Fire Dog, a very well-educated Native American who speaks perfect English, fascinating and found myself wondering if Robert Pohl might have written other tales featuring this unusual character. I rather hope he has. The story itself involves a meteor and is full of references to the works of Herbert George Wells, who also makes an appearance in the story.
‘The Spar: A Story of Carnacki’ by Fred Blosser, like William Meikle’s story earlier in the book, ties in William Hope Hodgson’s non-Carnacki work. This time it’s a sequel of sorts to ‘The Ghost Pirates’, as a piece of the ill-fated cargo ship, Mortzestus, finds its way into a humble shop in Bow Street.
There’s some deliciously creepy imagery in Robert E. Jefferson’s ‘The Braes of the Blackstarr’. I will not soon forget the scene where a man opens the shadow of a window with the shadow of his hand. It would make a very creepy TV play. Some of the technology referred to gave me pause, but I checked and the author has done his research; there’s nothing in the story that didn’t exist in that period. On this occasion, Carnacki is limited to finding out what happened, rather than taking an especially active role, and is more of an “occult detective” for it.
‘The Magician’s Study’, by Buck Weiss is one of my favourites in the book. A magician’s wife calls in Carnacki when her recently deceased husband makes his presence once again known. There’s a nice twist in the tale here.
On that seemingly endless list of authors, whose work I was aware of, but had yet to read, was one Charles R. Rutledge. I know the man through Facebook, in fact he helps me run a Facebook group dedicated to classic ghost stories, so I was very interested indeed to find he had contributed a story to this anthology. ‘How They Met Themselves’ turns out to be a very worthy addition to the Carnacki canon. While, on the one hand, the author dispenses with the usual framing sequence of the gathering of Carnacki’s friends to hear his stories, he does actually remember an idiosyncrasy of Carnacki’s, in the way that he periodically checks if the people he’s talking to grasp his meaning. A Druid circle, doppelgängers and even a sly reference to Manly Wade Wellman’s occult investigator, John Thunstone—what more could you ask for?
Considering the quality of some of the authors in this collection, it’s really saying something when I claim, at this point, that Jim Beard, in ‘The Haunting of Tranquil House’, possibly captures Carnacki’s character and mannerisms better than most. I was especially intrigued by the fact that Carnacki, having sorted out the problem at hand, has some concerns about something he saw while in a death-like trance, that could just possibly indicate that Jim Beard has more Carnacki tales in the offing.
Amy K. Marshall’s ‘The Ghosts of Kuskulana’ is on the one hand a well-told, scary ghost story, but on the other hand, I found myself questioning whether, or not it was a Carnacki story. I felt that it must take place early in Carnacki’s career for several reasons. Firstly, he tells the story to friends over drinks, but it’s not his usual group of friends, and they’re not at Carnacki’s house. We never get to hear the name of the host, but he refers to Carnacki by his Christian name, which would again suggest he’s not one of the regulars. Secondly, Carnacki blindly enters a case, with absolutely no preparation, and while he does discover the facts behind the problem, he doesn’t actually do anything, other than give himself a severe fright. I did like the story, but I’d probably have liked it better, had it been a stand alone ghost story, with no Carnacki involvement.
I could easily have assumed by this point, that I’d already read the best story in the book, but Robert M. Price managed to prove me wrong. His capturing of the style of the original tales, and the quirks and idiosyncrasies of Carnacki’s character and speech are flawless. In ‘A Job For Carnacki’, the author makes good use of his knowledge as a professor of biblical criticism to craft a tale of a beleaguered priest. Those familiar with Robert M. Price’s work will not be surprised that there’s also a hint of the Lovecraftian about this story. This may well be my favourite ever Carnacki pastiche.
M.J. Starling doesn’t stoop to mere hints. His contribution has the words, ‘(after William Hope Hodgson and H.P. Lovecraft)’ right there, under his byline. I use the word “contribution”, rather than story, as ‘An Audience With the Ghost-Finder’ is in the form of a script for a play. I’m generally not too keen on reading such things, but I have to admit I really enjoyed this one. The Lovecraftian element isn’t really any more pronounced than in several other tales in this collection—there are none of those name-dropped entities, or tomes—which many modern day Lovecraftians tend to view as laziness in the authors of many modern pastiches—but the theme of a family, preyed on for generations by an entity from beyond our reality is very much in the territory of H.P. Lovecraft. I read in the author biography that this play has actually been performed a couple of times. I’m sorry I missed it. Perhaps another opportunity will present itself.
All in all, this is an excellent collection. I was especially pleased that one of the stories, and I’m not going to say which one, turned out to have no genuine supernatural involvement, which is in keeping with Hodgson’s original canon. Most modern authors appear to be disinterested in writing Carnacki stories that turn out to have a mundane explanation, but I’ve always felt that trying to guess whether the explanation for the events of a particular story will be turn out to be genuinely supernatural, or not, is an important element in the enjoyment of a good Carnacki tale.