In Fighters of Fear (Talos, Feb.), Ashley has assembled the definitive anthology of occult detective short stories.
Your introduction refers to the occult detective becoming popular around WWI. Can you elaborate on why that was?
I think there are two threads here. The detective story had been growing in popularity since the success of Sherlock Holmes, but there’s always a need to be inventive and push the boundaries. The success of Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence stories in 1908, followed by William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, saw the genre grow in Britain. At the same time, we should also recognize the growing interest in spiritualism and psychic research, especially since the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was established in 1882. The horrors of the first world war and the dreadful loss of life meant relatives were searching for answers and many turned to spiritualism after the war. All these factors helped popularize the occult detective theme.
Was that popularity a uniquely British thing?
Yes, chiefly because the SPR was British and the leading authors were British. Even the earliest occult detective stories published in America were by British writers. It did not really take off in the U.S. until the specialist magazines, such as Weird Tales, provided a market for such stories, notably the Jules de Grandin adventures by Seabury Quinn. There are plenty of brilliant weird tales from other countries, particularly France, and the French did create some detectives of the weird and occult, but these were all novels.
Do occult detectives work better in short story format?
I think they do, because it’s not easy to sustain a true atmosphere of dread and uncertainty at novel length. Novels need to introduce various themes and threads and this dilutes the shock element. But they can work well. For example, Phil Rickman’s series featuring Merrily Watkins, an exorcist, is very enjoyable.
What have been the trends in the subgenre?
The trends are similar to those in the wider field of supernatural fiction. Unfortunately, these days weird tales tend to get more violent, though the occult detective doesn’t reflect the violence of physical horror in the wider field. I think that’s because in many cases new writers like to pay homage to the earlier writers—the atmosphere works better that way. But I have noticed that a number of occult detective stories of more recent years have introduced a vein of humor which can work, but needs to be used with caution. I could have included plenty of current or recent writers—maybe that’s another book!