What is an Occult Detective?

investigatetheunknown

OCCULT DETECTIVES WALK AMONG US

When most people imagine an Occult Detective, they think in terms of fiction, in which a story is told, regardless of medium, that combines the tropes of traditional detective stories with those found in supernatural horror. Occult Detectives, however, are more than just fictional characters.

Occult Detectives are investigators who immerse themselves in all things strange and unusual. More than just “ghost hunters”, occult detectives are well versed in all manner of occult and magical traditions; in the beliefs, denominations, cults, and sects of traditional and fringe religions; in folk and shamanic practices; in conspiracy theories of all stripes; in ancient aliens, alien abductions, ufology, cryptozoology, altered states of consciousness, ancient history and archaeology, cryptoanthropology, psychic phenomena, and other Fortean matters; in climate change and geopolitics; in secret societies and political structures. And more… so much more.

Occult detectives have a diverse skill set that ranges from the scientific to the fantastic and all points in between.

Both words in their description have equal weight.

oc·​cult | \ ə-ˈkəlt, ä- \ not revealed; not easily apprehended or understood; hidden from view; of or relating to the occult (astrology, palmistry, card reading, etc); not manifest or detectable by clinical methods alone; matters regarded as involving the action or influence of supernatural or supernormal powers or some secret knowledge of them —used with the.

de·​tec·​tive | \ di-ˈtek-tiv \ fitted for or used in detecting something; of or relating to detectives or their work; one employed or engaged in detecting lawbreakers or in getting information that is not readily or publicly accessible

Occult detectives are problem solvers. It’s just that the problems they encounter tend to be of the exceptional kind.

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OCCULT DETECTIVES IN FICTION

As stated earlier, an occult detective story is one in which the tropes of the traditional detective story are combined with those found in supernatural horror fiction. The sub-genre got its kick-start as early as 1840, in Henry William Herbert’s short story “The Haunted Homestead”, according to the pain-staking research of Tim Prasil. Since then the genre has become a staple of literature, movies, television, and comics.

From Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence to Manly Wade Wellman’s John Thunstone to Alan Moore & Company’s John Constantine, the Occult Detective as a storytelling device has stood the test of time, proving that when it’s done right there is an audience hungry for a paranormal mystery. One need merely take a cursory glance at the current “Urban Fantasy” and “Paranormal Romance” markets to see that the Occult Detective is alive and well in the 21st Century, if not somewhat tempted by modern sensibilities.

What follows are lists of my personal favorite contributions to the genre. Your own opinion might vary, but if you’re looking to take a peek into the dark and sinister worlds that Occult Detectives feel right at home in, these are as good a place to start as any.

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TOP TEN FAVORITE OCCULT DETECTIVES IN LITERATURE

10. Steve Harrison (Robert E. Howard)
Hard-boiled PI Steve Harrison is the prototypical private eye, of the sort that guys like Spillane would churn out later, and Howard brings this square jawed tough to life as few others can. But what really makes these stories sing is that underlying supernatural threat that makes them solid occult detective tales, and the frightening figure of Erlik Khan, one of the great pulp villains.

9. Holly Gibney (Stephen King)
Holly, a private investigator trained by the late Bill Hodges, suffers from OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), synesthesia, sensory processing disorder, and she’s somewhere on the autism spectrum. Despite this, she’s very observant, refreshingly unfiltered, and unaware of her innocence.

8. Thomas Carnacki (William Hope Hodgson / William Meikle)
Thomas Carnacki is a ghost finder, an Edwardian psychic detective, who investigates a wide range of terrifying hauntings armed with a camera, his Electric Pentacle, and various ancient tomes on magic,

7. John Silence (Algernon Blackwood)
“Rich by accident and a doctor by choice, John Silence took only those cases which interested him.” Luckily for us, his interests were of a supernatural nature.

6. Simon Iff (Aleister Crowley)
Based on an idealized version of the author, Iff possessed a keen insight into human psychology, and was a brilliant magician, mystic, and detective.

5. John Kirowan and John Conrad (Robert E. Howard)
Professor John Kirowan, a reluctant hero, once traveled the world seeking greater knowledge of the occult but became sickened by what he learned and renounced this knowledge, but was later drug back into that world by cthonic forces. His ofttimes companion, John Conrad, is a dedicated occult aspirant, hunting for lost lore and engaging in magical folly as Kirowan himself once had.

4. Duke De Richleau (Dennis Wheatley)
A globetrotting adventurer and occultist, the Duke appeared in 11 novels including the Devil Rides Out (which featured another Crowley-inspired villain, Damien Mocata), Strange Conflict, and Gateway to Hell.

3. John Thunstone (Manly Wade Wellman)
A scholar and playboy who battles the forces of evil armed with a silver cane-sword inscribed with the words “Sic pereant omnes inimici tui”, Thunstone is a classic man-of-action, and his primary antagonist, the Crowley-inspired sorcerer Rowley Thorne, is the quintessential pulp villain.

2. Sir Adam Sinclair (Katherine Kurtz & Deborah Turner Harris)
Master Huntsman, scholar, nobleman, physician, and detective, Sinclair prowls the  ‘Dark Roads where the black magicians travel’ in order to protect the world from their devilishness.

1. John Constantine (Alan Moore, Jamie Delano, etc)
Constantine’s a real piece of work. As much a con man as a conjurer, John’s cynical, smart ass personality ruffles angel feathers and demon wings alike.

So, book recommendations? Here are a few instant classic occult detective stories written this century:

The Amulet by William Meikle, The White Chapel Demon by Josh Reynolds, Black Magic Woman by Justin Gustanis, Hitmen by Greg Mitchell, Personal Demons by Gregory Lamberson, Help for the Haunted by Tim Prasil, Ghost Walk by Brian Keene, Love is the Law by Nick Mamatas… or, you could always check out Descendant by some guy that runs this occult detective website you might have heard of.

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TOP TEN FAVORITE OCCULT DETECTIVE MOVIES

10. Dark Intruder
TV Movie/Pilot
(1965) Directed by Harvey Hart
Starring Leslie Nielsen

Brett Kingsford, a playboy sleuth and occult expert, becomes embroiled in the mysterious murders of several women in San Francisco.

9. The Norliss Tapes
TV Movie/Pilot
(1973) Directed by Dan Curtis
Starring Roy Thinnes as David Norliss
&Angie Dickinson as Ellen Sterns Cort

A reporter, researching a book debunking the occult and paranormal phenomena, goes missing after stumbling upon a group of modern-day vampires. The only clues left behind are a series of audio tapes from his investigation.

8. Night of the Demon
(1957) Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Starring Dana Andrews as Dr. John Holden &
Niall MacGinnis as Dr. Julian Karswell

Adapted from M.R. James’ classic Casting the Runes, the story follows an American psychologist as he investigates a murderous satanic cult.

7. In the Mouth of Madness
(1995) Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Sam Neill as John Trent &
Jürgen Prochnow as Sutter Cane

An insurance investigator is tasked with looking into the disappearance of a best selling horror novelist.

6. Cast A Deadly Spell
(1991) Directed by Martin Campbell
Starring Fred Ward as Harry Lovecraft &
David Warner as Amos Hackshaw

A hard-boiled detective, named Harry Philip Lovecraft, investigates the theft of a mystical tome in a world where magic is real and everybody uses it… except for Harry.

5. The Night Stalker
TV Movie/Pilot
(1972) Directed by John Llewellyn Moxy
Starring Darrin McGavin as Carl Kolchak &
Barry Atwater as Janos Skorzeny

An investigative reporter stumbles onto the story of a lifetime — vampires are real and one is stalking the streets of Las Vegas. Trouble is… no one believes him.

4. The Ninth Gate
(1999) Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Johnny Depp as Dean Corso &
Frank Langella as Boris Balkan

A rare book dealer is hired to search for an authentic ancient tome that purportedly contains the secret to magically summoning the devil. Three are known to exist, and he must authenticate which is real and which are forgeries, procuring the original for his employer.

3. Spectre
TV Movie/Pilot
(1977) Directed by Clive Donner
Starring Robert Culp as William Sebastian &
Gig Young as Dr. Amos Hamilton

A criminologist and his physician are hired to to investigate a prominent business man when his sister begins to suspect that his fortunes are being made through the use of black magic.

2. The Devil Rides Out
(1968) Directed by Terence Fisher
Starring Christopher Lee as Duc de Richleau &
Charles Gray as Mocata

Christopher Lee’s favourite of his films, in which he plays a French/Russian aristocrat who must rescue a close friend’s son from a devil-worshiping cult.

1. Angel Heart
(1987) Directed by Alan Parker.
Starring Mickey Roarke as Harry Angel &
Robert DeNiro as Louis Cyphre

A hard-boiled detective is hired to find a crooner who is believed to have faked his death and disappeared after World War II.

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TOP TEN FAVORITE OCCULT DETECTIVE TELEVISION SERIES

10.The Sixth Sense
Dr. Michael Rhodes, a professor of parapsychology, with his assistant Nancy Murphy, attempts to solve supernatural crimes and mysteries.

9. Angel
The vampire Angel, cursed with a soul, moves to Los Angeles and aids people with supernatural-related problems while questing for his own redemption.

8.  Supernatural
Two brothers follow their father’s footsteps as “hunters” fighting evil supernatural beings of many kinds including monsters, demons, and gods that roam the earth.

7. Lucifer
Lucifer, bored and unhappy as the Lord of Hell, resigns his throne and abandons his kingdom for LA. Now a hedonistic club owner, he finds himself drawn into working with the LAPD, solving murders alongside a mysterious female partner.

6. The X-Files / Millennium
Two FBI agents, Fox Mulder the believer and Dana Scully the skeptic, investigate the strange and unexplained while hidden forces work to impede their efforts. / A former FBI profiler with the ability to look inside the mind of a killer, Frank Black, begins working for the mysterious Millennium Group.

5. True Detective
The lives of two detectives, Rust Cohle and Martin Hart, become entangled during a 17-year hunt for a serial killer in Louisiana.

4. Black Spot
Police Captain Laurène Weiss is the head of the Gendarmerie in Villefranche, a small, isolated town surrounded by forests where many strange and unusual occurrences take place.

3. The Dresden Files
A Chicago-based wizard works as a private investigator.

2. Constantine
A working class magician and conman seeks redemption while confronting “the coming darkness”.

1. Twin Peaks
An idiosyncratic FBI Agent investigates the murder of a young woman in the even more idiosyncratic town of Twin Peaks.

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TOP TEN PARANORMAL REALITY SERIES

10. Paranormal State
The program followed the Pennsylvania State University Paranormal Research Society, a student-led college club as they investigated various hauntings. The show introduced us to Ryan Buell, Katrina Weidman, Michelle Belanger, Eilfie Music, Heather Taddy, and Chip Coffey. The show also included Lorraine Warren on occasion.

9. Ghost Lab
Brad and Barry Klinge lead Everyday Paranormal as they visit the most haunted places in America to uncover evidence and test new theories to probe the existence of the afterlife using fringe-science.

8. Ghost Stalkers
The series follows two paranormal investigators, John E.L. Tenney and actor Chad Lindberg, who each went through a near-death experience. During their investigations, they experiment with trying to find naturally occurring gateways or wormholes which may connect our reality with alternate realities or differing dimensions.

7. Paranormal Lockdown
Ghost Adventures alum Nick Groff and Katrina Weidman investigate the paranormal by locking themselves inside the locations for 72 hours.

6. Destination Truth
The program follows paranormal researcher Josh Gates and his team (including Erin Ryder and Jael de Pardo) around the world to investigate claims of the supernatural, mainly in the field of cryptozoology.

5. Kindred Spirits
Ghost Hunters alums Amy Bruni Adam Berry, along with medium Chip Coffey (and sometimes assisted by Greg & Dana Newkirk) visit people who believe their homes are haunted. They attempt to contact the spirits and obtain evidence of a paranormal presence.

4. Haunted Highway
Two teams of paranormal investigators (Jack Osbourne & Dana Workman / Jael de Pardo & Devin Marble) out on the road…alone. No camera crew. No backup. Searching for things…that don’t want to be found.

3. Portals to Hell
Jack Orbourne and Katrina Weidman (and later Heather Taddy) lead investigations looking for paranormal hot spots with a sinister as they try to uncover spiritual gateways to the spirit world with the help of Michelle Belanger.

2. Hellier
Hellier follows a team of paranormal investigators led by Greg and Dana Newkirk as they stumble down the rabbit hole while searching for goblins in Kentucky.

1. In Search Of…
In the late 70s, Leonard Nimoy hosted the definitive show about the strange and unusual, covering Ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot, Past Lives, Witchcraft, and a whole host of other fascinating subjects.

 

22 Responses to “What is an Occult Detective?”

  1. It’s always a pleasure to know someone else who reveres “Spectre,” the TV movie that first got me interested in this whole “occult detective” thing. Pity that it was never picked up as a series.

    • I had a sneaky suspicion that you were a William Sebastian fan. Roddenberry slam dunked this pilot. I’d have given anything to have seen it go to series. It was tailor made for my 11 year old self and the 45 year old version still thinks it’s about as good as it gets.

  2. Bob, I don’t remember how I found your site, but I’m really glad I did -I love this stuff! A propos occult detectives, in case you’re not familiar with her, Dion Fortune (early 20th century British occultist with some association to Crowley, and herself a writer of very highly regarded books on magick and the quabalah) also created an occult “detective” – like character – Dr. Taverner in one or more of her novels. I’ve never read any of her novels, but given her reputation as an occultist, I would imagine they make a good read. Her book the Mystical Quabalah is a masterpiece.

    Thanks for sharing your work!

    • Good call. Been a fan of Ms. Firth’s works for years. Loved The Secrets of Dr. Taverner, as well her other fictions (such as The Demon Lover, The Sea Priestess, & Moon Magic). Of course, as with Crowley, her true gift was in passing on legitimate occult knowledge and technique, but the fiction is top notch and inspiring to boot.

      Cheers.

  3. Junior HIgh? You, my friend, were a precocious reader! In junior high I was probably still reading children’s books. While in the 8th or 9th grade a neighbor (grad student) loaned me “Animal Farm” to read to see what I could get from it. As I told my son, my primary conclusion was that the book was foolish because “animals can’t talk”. I was decades away from finding out the book was a parable against totalitarianism. So, no, I wasn’t ready for prime time at that age. Compliments to yourself for being already a mature reader!

    Seriously, your list of Hardy Boys books did make me envious. I started getting them for Christmas and birthdays when I was about 8 (1955 for me); I would read them over and over. I never liked the later ones from the 70’s as much – I was surprised to discover in a schoolmate’s collection once that they had continued to be written long after I had ceased reading them – as they didn’t have the same haunting atmosphere as the first ones in the series (written evidently in 1927). Only much later I read – I think in a New Yorker article – that there had been many different authors for that series over the decades under the pseudonymn Franklin W. Dixon. I do have the first three volumes (Smithmark 1999 edition) but its possible that I have a few from the 1950’s in the basement as well. But who has time for nostalgia! I get so engrossed in Wikipedia nowadays, I can hardly get out of it once I start following its links! There’s just so much to read now. I’m grateful to people like yourself who take the time to put out original material.

    Happy Holidays.

  4. Dig these lists which frame and focus and inform. Thank you!

  5. […] — Bob Freeman […]

  6. What about Thomas Carnacki? Did I miss something? He was one of the original occult detectives.

  7. […] Dresden Files, though: it’s about a dearth of lady occult detectives. Let’s look at this list to get started. This is a list of the author’s favorite occult detective books, movies, and […]

    • A.M. Pietroschek Says:

      I can only agree! So few females, even with Witchcraft originating as a female occult secret… And there are formidable female detectives, real world, roleplay, and fiction.

      • No qualms with that at all. In my own fiction, I write of several female occult detectives. Definitely under-represented, but these are issues you run into anytime you have a “favorites” list. Heck, I went to High School with Anita Blake author Laurell K. Hamilton and she didn’t even make the cut.

      • A.M. Pietroschek Says:

        Perseverance in authors, a lesson I myself found haunting many of us… Still, my best wishes!

  8. A.M. Pietroschek Says:

    First of all thanks, Bob Freeman, for the solid listing and honest words!

    The following link is not placed to hype my stuff, though reviewers & customers are always welcome, of course! I place it to invite you, and all readers (independent of any religious, sexual, political, or national allegiances) to contemplate joining to sell your own free fiction or short stories! Seriously.

    http://www.drivethrufiction.com/product/236956/The-simple-twist

    Due the closeness I place one more, though that one, contrary to the first, is specifically about the product ‘Vampire the Masuqerade’ by White Wolf Inc. (creators are informed how to add their own, of course): https://goo.gl/Cdi2Pc

    I hope to see some of you storming into the contextual top 10 of the genres and flavors! ;-)

  9. This is a great list! I am way behind.

  10. […] have UPDATED the “What is an Occult Detective?” page, addressing real world paranormal sleuths like myself, as well as restructuring my Top […]

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