Victorian Occult Detectives: A Warning to the Curious
My new book is a romance (long, sometimes difficult, ranging over twenty years) between Simon, a Victorian occult detective, and his companion Robert, a journalist and writer. What do I mean, a Victorian occult detective? Ah, well, I’m glad you asked me that.
The Victorian era is famous for its incredible technological progress. This was a century that went from sail power and horses to a massive rail network and steamships capable of crossing the Atlantic. 1819 was the last full year of the Regency; by 1899 Marconi was sending radio across the English Channel, the paperclip had been invented, the theory of evolution was widely accepted, and we’d had the first motorcar companies and indeed the first fatal car crash. “Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change,” wrote Tennyson, who lived 1809-1892, and must have been pretty damn confused by it all.
Because it was scary. Evolution upended many accepted ideas about Biblical accuracy, chronology and how creation happened. It displaced God from the centre of many people’s world view, leaving a hole that had to be filled with something. There was a religious revival, spreading a peculiarly joyless Evangelical faith of the kind people often associate with the Victorians, but there was also an explosion of belief in dissenting sects, cults, and the supernatural. This was the great era of table-rapping, ectoplasm, séances.
…the religious and scientific strands of the century [were] closely intertwined. Every scientific and technological advance encouraged a kind of magical thinking and was accompanied by a shadow discourse of the occult. For every disenchantment there was an active re-enchantment of the world. (Roger Luckhurst, excellent article.)
It was easy to confuse miracles of nature with the supernatural. The occult started to be presented as if it were a new branch of science, subject to rules and study and investigation. And, honestly, why not? If telegraphy could send words whizzing through wires, why shouldn’t telepathy send words whizzing between brains? If magnetism could somehow produce electricity that made light, why couldn’t animal magnetism (aka mesmerism) produce a current that caused healing?
The occult detective was a response to this baffling period of grasping for belief, and confronting new science as it remade the world. It brought the old Gothic tradition together with the exploding genre of detective fiction, to show us people confronting the mysteries of a scary and unknowable world with the tools at their disposal. Thomas Carnacki, ghost-finder, uses an Electric Pentacle to keep evil at bay, and half of his cases show him detecting human fraud rather than supernatural activity. The good guys in Dracula attempt to save a vampire victim by means of blood transfusions. Plenty of the detectives didn’t go to occult school to be called Mr: we have Dr Hesselius, Dr Taverner, Dr Silence, and the boss of them all, Professor van Helsing, with a string of letters after his name. And even when the occult investigators are amateurs, they are very often academics. Most of MR James’ stories centre on scholars, using their powers of research, big libraries and intelligent questioning to solve the central mystery of what the hell is going on.
The occult detective says: the world is big, unknowable and terrifying, but we can get a grip on it with courage, by applying our knowledge, using our heads, working together. It stands up for human potential. If you have a heart, some books, a brain, and preferably a loyal assistant, you can take on whatever dark horrors the Gothic past throws at you and win.
That’s where romance and the occult detective meet. They’re both, fundamentally, about how people find light in a dark and scary world, about what the human brain and heart can do. And that’s why I wrote my occult detective stories as a romance, or possibly why I wrote my romance as occult detective stories. Either way, it worked for me.
KJ Charles is a Rainbow Award-winning romance writer and freelance editor. She blogs about writing and publishing, spends too much time on Twitter, and has a Facebook group for book chat and sneak peeks. The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal, a Victorian occult m/m romance, is out now from Samhain.
A story too secret, too terrifying—and too shockingly intimate—for Victorian eyes.
A note to the Editor
I have been Simon Feximal’s companion, assistant and chronicler for twenty years now, and during that time my Casebooks of Feximal the Ghost-Hunter have spread the reputation of this most accomplished of ghost-hunters far and wide.
You have asked me often for the tale of our first meeting, and how my association with Feximal came about. I have always declined, because it is a story too private to be truthfully recounted, and a memory too precious to be falsified. But none knows better than I that stories must be told.
So here is it, Henry, a full and accurate account of how I met Simon Feximal, which I shall leave with my solicitor to pass to you after my death.
I dare say it may not be quite what you expect.