What is an Occult Detective?

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The simple definition of an occult detective story is merely 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 it has become a staple of literature, movies, television, and comics.

From Blackwood’s John Silence to Wellman’s John Thunstone to 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.

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.

My Top Ten Favorite
Literary Occult Detectives


 

10. Harry Dresden (Jim Butcher)
A somewhat hard-boiled private investigator who hangs his shingle in Chicago. Of course, that shingle reads — Harry Dresden, Wizard. He’s also a consultant with the Chicago PD.

9. Charles St. Cyprian (Joshua Reynolds)
St. Cyprian is the Royal Occultist, defending the British Empire against a variety of nasty monsters, secret societies and eldritch occurrences.

8. Derek Adams (William Meikle)
Another hard-boiled PI, Adams stalks the shadowy byways of Glasgow with the same cynicism one might find in Sam Spade…if he had to deal with witches and water demons.

7. Harry D’Amour (Clive Barker)
With a body covered in tattoos to ward off evil, D’Amour is a hard-boiled private eye who comes into constant conflict with the forces of darkness.

6. Levi Stoltzfus (Brian Keene)
An ex-Amish magus and occult detective who travels the highways with his dog Crowley in a magical Amish buggy, drawn by a horse named Dee, and armed with a magical grimoire called The Long Lost Friend? There’s a reason why I call Brian The New Voice of the Mountains.

5. 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.

4. 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.

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:

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

My 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. 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.

5. 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.

4. 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.

3. 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.

2. 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.

1. 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.

My Top Ten Favorite
Occult Detective TV 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. 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.

7. Millennium
A former FBI profiler with the ability to look inside the mind of a killer begins working for the mysterious Millennium Group.

6. The X-Files
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.

5.  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.

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

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

2. 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.

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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14 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.

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