Carnacki: The Watcher at the Gate and Other Stories
Dark Regions Press
I didn’t really know what to expect when I picked up a copy of Carnacki: The Watcher at the Gate a few weeks ago. I knew it was an anthology of stories written by William Meikle, so obviously it was going be enjoyable; and I could see from the magnificent piece of cover art, produced by my absolute favourite illustrator M Wayne Miller, that at least one of the tales inside would involve a young Winston Churchill and Carnacki fighting off what looked to be demonically-possessed hounds. But apart from that I really had no idea, only being vaguely aware of the character of Carnacki and his creator, William Hope Hodgson. I took it upon myself to undertake a little bit of research online to look up Carnacki and Hodgson, in order to understand the background of the character, and the type of story that I could expect, but deliberately refrained from reading any of the original Carnacki stories, which can be found for free online.
While I understand that Hodgson’s tales are held in quite high regard, I didn’t want to go in with any preconceptions – after all, even if a piece of fiction is based on another writer’s characters and setting, it must still be able to stand on its own qualities, good or bad. I’m quite firm on this principle, and it’s why I often get quite annoyed when I read reviews that are needlessly critical of writers who have written stories in another writer’s canon – be it Sherlock Holmes, say, or Lovecraft’s Mythos – because there seems to be an attitude amongst a certain breed of reader and reviewer that unless the chosen canon is replicated flawlessly in terms of style and without deviation of plot, then it is unworthy of their support and is at best damned with the faint praise of ‘being a pastiche’. This is patently nonsense – as long as a story written in another’s canon retains certain key qualities (what these are will obviously change from canon to canon) then the new writer is free to do what they want, and cast the characters in whatever situations they wish.
With those thoughts I mind I turned to Carnacki: The Watcher at the Gate and dived straight into the anthology. Consisting of 12 short stories, the majority of them original to this collection, they all follow the same general pattern (which I understand is also thematic to Hodgson’s original writings): a group of Carnacki’s friends attends his house in London in the evening, where they have dinner, and then Carnacki regales them with a tale of his latest occult adventures. It’s quite an interesting format, as it allows interruptions during the story to break-up the first-person narrative from Carnacki with questions and drink breaks, and also makes you debate the nature of whether Carnacki is a reliable narrator. While this might not have been the intention of Mr Meikle (or Hodgson in his original canon), after reading a few of the stories in the anthology, I rapidly came to some interesting conclusions about Carnacki and his adventures.
Certainly, from my point of view as a neophyte to the character and his stories, to me Carnacki comes across as little more than a gifted amateur, someone who can spin an elegant tale, supplemented by superb food send alcohol, but who is above all extremely lucky. His only strategy seems to be to enter whatever occult situation he is approached with, draw a pentagram to stand in, recite a few Latin or Gaelic phrases, and if all else fails – jab the ghosts and ghouls and spirits that surround him with his electric pentangle, which invariably explodes at least once per story. Frankly it seems amazing that Carnacki is actually able to survive some of these situations, given that at least in two of the stories in the anthology he is completely surrounded by possessed china dolls, or a pack of demonic hounds, and is only able to escape through sheer luck. It put me in mind somewhat of the character of Harry Flashman, from George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman Papers, a supremely unreliable narrator who also manages to escape from entirely improbable situations, and I was quietly bemused by the end of a few stories.
To move to the stories themselves, they’re a great collection of tales that have a variety of geographical locations and occult foes, including the genuinely unsettling story The China Dolls, which sees Carnacki facing off against an army of possessed dolls and results in some very claustrophobic encounters that genuinely had me a little short of breath at times.
Mr Meikle also manages to include another character from Hodgson’s other writings in several of the stories – the impetuous, treasure-hunting Captain Gault. But he’s another character who also manages to get himself into potentially deadly situations, and all of the stories he’s featured in consist of him begging Carnacki for help. All of the Gault tales are set at sea, one way or another, and I liked the change in setting – as always, Mr Meikle has a deft way of creating an atmosphere, something I felt was particularly put to good use in The Blue Egg, where Carnacki and Gault hunt for a fabled blue-hued jewel in the Mediterranean that almost kills them in the process.
I must also admit that as someone who has a deep fascination with the great, but flawed, character of Winston Churchill, his appearance on the anthology cover art, and the fact that he features in several of the stories, led to this collection going to the top of my ‘To Read’ pile. I’m always interested in seeing how Churchill is portrayed in fiction, and how an author can try and translate that incredible personality into a story; it can often go quite wrong, Churchill reduced to a two-dimensional character that fails to catch some of his subtleties, but I’m happy to report that this is not such a case. As the Carnacki stories take place primarily prior to The Great War, we see Churchill here in one of his earlier roles as Home Secretary, an office that is ideally suited to becoming involved in occult and secretive affairs; and if there is any politician of that age who would have been likely to believe, or at least tolerate, the notion of ghosts, spirits and demons then I believe it would have been Churchill.
Churchill appears in three of the stories (Treason and Plot; Mr Churchill’s Dilemma; and The Watcher at the Gate), and each time that he appears, Mr Meikle has been able to portray the young Churchill quite effectively and indeed realistically; he captures the pent-up energy and great intellect that Churchill possessed, as well as the personal bravery that was also part of his character; in Mr Churchill’s Dilemma, Churchill accompanies Carnacki in his attempt to foil a German spy from unleashing chaos in London, and stands with him to fight the demonic hounds portrayed on the cover art. But, crucially, Meikle also highlights the less savoury elements of Churchill’s personality – his arrogance, his need to dominate any situation, no matter how minor, and finally the sheer ruthlessness that he could display at times. It’s a balanced portrait, and one that Mr Meikle returns to, with great effect, in his other writings; and I would love to see some kind of Churchill-centric occult novel written by Mr Meikle in the future.
Finally, the illustrations by M Wayne Miller are to his usual high standard, really supporting and enhancing the Carnacki tales, and the writing is of the same quality. I really enjoyed this collection of short stories, and you can tell that Mr Meikle enjoyed writing them as well, as they shine with a confidence and assurance rarely seen when a writer adopts another’s source material and characters. I’m looking forward to reading and reviewing the other two Carnacki anthologies from the author.