March 01, 2004

The Great Occult Detective

by Alan Beatts

One of my favorite sub-sections of the horror / fantasy genre has always been the "occult detective" -- the normal (or at least mostly normal) man or woman who find themselves constantly dealing and/or combating with the supernatural or paranormal. I think my first exposure to this sub-genre was Manley Wade Wellman's Silver John stories but I went on to enjoy Algernon Blackwood's John Silence and Seabury Quinn's Jules de Grandin stories. Borrowing liberally from both a world of folk tales and myths and from the great tradition of literary detectives, these stories enchanted and intrigued by turns and were one of the many factors that influenced my choice of profession and specialty. I think that the cardinal reason that these stories appealed to me so much was that "mainstream" mysteries don't have enough of the fantastic to really interest me but much of recent supernatural or horror fiction lacks the kind of structured series of clues leading to a final revelation that I relish.

So, it was with interest that I noticed a few months ago that there seems to be quite a movement to reinvent the "occult investigator" for the 21st century. A number of major New York publishers have one or more series of novels featuring characters cut from much the same cloth as their predecessors of the first half of the last century, with a few changes to reflect the different sensibilities of our century.

From Ace we have Simon Green's Nightside novels (beginning with SOMETHING FROM THE NIGHTSIDE) and his part-human, part-other John Taylor who has the uncanny (and unnatural) ability to find _anything_. Set in the Nightside (the supernatural underbelly of modern London where it's eternally 3 am), Green's series has a dark, moody quality that reminds me ever-so-slightly of some of Neil Gaiman's work. For my money, it's the pick of the litter.

Roc has presented us with two contributions to this sub-genre. Jim Butcher's (that must be a pen name) Harry Dresden series, starting with STORM FRONT, features a "consulting wizard" reminiscent of a less classy and confident version of Dr. Strange (from the Marvel Comic book universe) with a large dose of Dashiell Hammett thrown in for good measure. The setting is our world and that's where Butcher lost me. Magic works, wizards advertise and consult with the police, and yet the world remains exactly like the one we live in without _any_ noticeable changes in society. That - thump - sound you hear is my "willing suspension of disbelief" falling to the floor.

Roc's other series, the Weather Warden books by Rachel Caine, has just begun with ILL WIND. Similar to the Dresden Files above, the setting is a slightly altered version of our world in which the ramifications of the existence of magic don't seem to have been clearly thought out. However, the characterization is good and, like all the books in this sub-genre, the plot moves along quickly. It tells the story of Joanne Baldwin, a weather warden, who, along with the other members of her association, is responsible for magically limiting the destructiveness of mother nature. The book starts with her on the run for murdering another warden and provides the backstory in a series of flashbacks.

Harper Torch is poised to jump on the bandwagon with DEAD WITCH WALKING by Kim Harrison. Slated for an April paperback release, this series seems aimed at Laurell K. Hamilton's readership not only by its content (female private investigator, supporting character is a vampire, strong erotic themes) but also by it location on the shelves. It does avoid one of the pitfalls of this type of series by positing an alternate universe where terrible plagues decimated "normal" humans and prompted all the supernatural beings (who were immune) to come out of hiding to keep some type of social order operating until humanity could recover. Hence, society is very different from our own.

And finally, we can't forget either of Laurell K. Hamilton's series, the Anita Blake books (starting with GUILTY PLEASURES and published by Berkeley) and the Meredith Gentry series (starting with A CARESS OF TWILIGHT published by Ballantine). Geared respectively to the horror and fantasy markets, Hamilton has been a very strong seller across the usually inviolate genre line (fantasy readers don't do horror and vise versa).

Surveying the field, it is interesting to notice a few common qualities and trends. While the early "supernatural investigators" were almost exclusively normal human males with perhaps a small amount of occult power, the new breed are in all cases either not quite human and/or powerful witches or sorcerers and they are often female. Another significant difference is that, in the early stories supernatural entities were almost without exception evil, as was anyone with a great deal of occult power. Now, not only is occult power a typical quality of the protagonist but supernatural beings are often loyal friends and supporting characters. Finally, the supernatural has changed from an aberration in a mundane and predictable world to a day-to-day occurrence in recent fiction.

Sweeping conclusions are a quick route to equally sweeping errors but I think that it's safe to say that the current crop of supernatural investigators embrace a far more multi-valued world view that the strict good-and-evil, black-and-white world of 50 and more years ago. However, by not confining themselves to secret stories set in the "real" world and not using as their basis classic cultural myths, today's authors have made an already difficult task -- making the reader _believe_ that the fantasy is real (at least until the end of the story) -- even harder.

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