Carnacki: Heaven and Hell
Dark Regions Press
I have often found it to be the case that when it comes to collections of short stories involving a well-known literary character that there is very little sense of continuity between each of the stories in a collection, particularly if multiple authors are involved. An excellent example would be Sherlock Holmes – as a public domain figure, the marketplace is swamped with collections of Holmes stories, and more seem to get published every week, each anthology collecting together dozens of stories that involves Holmes, Watson, Moriarty and every other conceivable character ever mentioned by Conan Doyle in the canon stories. The quality of these publications varies enormously – for every good collection there seem to be half-a-dozen that fail to understand the basic building-blocks of a Holmes story; and even when a collection does gather together high-quality stories, there is usually a complete lack of continuity. Now of course I’m well aware that Conan Doyle’s original tales were hardly error-free, and often contained significant continuity lapses (how many wives did Watson have, exactly?), but they were at least stable in their depiction of the characters and their motivations.
As such, it can be quite a relief to me to find a collection of stories that feature such a well-known character like Holmes – or in this particular case, Carnacki the Ghost Finder – represented by an author who has a sustained and consistent narrative voice. William Meikle has published dozens of stories featuring Carnacki – a character originally invented by William Hope Hodgson – and it has become quite obvious from reading these tales that Mr Meikle has developed an innate understanding of how and why that character works. After reviewing the second collection of Carnacki stories written by Mr Meikle (Carnacki: The Watcher at the Gate and Other Stories) I found that I had enjoyed it so much that I purchased the other two Carnacki collections he has written – and decided to start by going back to the very beginning, with Carnacki: Heaven and Hell, once again published by Dark Regions Press.
In my review of that second collection, I remarked that the Carnacki presented in its stories was essentially a dilettante, an incredibly lucky amateur who only had a few tricks up his sleeve to deal with the occult dangers that he inevitably came face to face with. He almost seemed reckless at times when dealing with the various supernatural foes he came face to face with, and as such I was curious to see how Carnacki was portrayed in these earlier stories – would he be exactly the same, or would there be some character development that explained his stance and characterisation? By the time that I had finished Heaven and Hell, I had rapidly come to the conclusion that the latter was by far the case: in the nine short stories and one novella that make up the collection, Mr Meikle slowly but surely weaves a narrative that subtly but unmistakably changes Carnacki and his views on the occult.
In the first few stories presented in the collection, Carnacki is a calm, rational and thoughtful occult detective, with an emphasis on the latter part of that description. In the first story, The Blooded Iklwa, Carnacki is at pains to investigate every possible reason – occult or not – that a Zulu spear could be animating in the dead of night and trying to kill a retired British Army officer. He looks into the history of the spear, investigates rumours about the weapon and its current owner, and only when all other leads are exhausted does he come to the conclusion that the matter is an occult one. And even then he has to adjust his frame of view when the true force behind the weapon is revealed, showing him not to underestimate the occult, or how personal rage and anger can cause problems. As the stories progress, Carnacki becomes more and more aware of the powers of the occult and how wide-ranging and terrifying they are; in The Larkhill Barrow he is shown how powerful those forces are, and how easily their cages can be shattered, and in The Sisters of Mercy he is forced to make use of new technology to try and defeat the mysterious figures killing off elderly patients in a local hospital – and even then is only saved by the assistance of another, more powerful occultist. The Hellfire Mirror demonstrates just how insidious the forces of the Outer Realms can be, with a shocking example of the risks of dealing with these forces without an innate understanding of how to protect against their influence, and The Lusitania – which I think is by far the most powerful tale in the collection – seems to give Carnacki the first major blow to his esteem and his demeanour, as he is shown a grim glimpse of the future and the disaster due to come for the ocean liner. By the time that the reader reaches the end of the final tale in the collection – The House on the Borderland – Mr Meikle has irrevocably changed Carnacki, shattering some of his preconceptions about the occult and the Outer Realms, and showing him just how powerful and all-encompassing they are. By the time that novella ends, it is easy for the reader to see how the Carnacki of future collections has come to pass, and it’s easy to sympathise with the man.
The stories in Heaven and Hell are truly excellent, with some very imaginative plots and twists and turns that wouldn’t seem out of place in an original Hodgson or Conan Doyle story, and by the end of the collection Mr Meikle has managed to give a great deal of depth and characterisation to Carnacki – and even his dining companions, providing each of them with a little bit of personality to ensure that they aren’t just the featureless placeholders they seem to be in the original canon tales. Accompanied by some vivid illustrations by M Wayne Miller, including a very striking piece of cover art, Carnacki: Heaven and Hell takes the original Hodgson canon and deftly and confidently builds on it in order to make it Mr Meikle’s own original (and, dare I say it, superior) creation.