Occult Detectives Rock!
My first exposure to the “occult detective” genre (although nobody was calling it that back then) was in 1977, when I stumbled upon a made-for-TV movie called “Spectre.” It features a criminologist (played by Robert Culp) and his physician friend/assistant, who are called in to investigate a case of possible demonic possession in England. My reaction, when it was over: “This is sooo cool!”
I’d always been a voracious reader, and my diet was heavy on mystery, with some leavening provided by both fantasy and horror. It had never occurred to me that you could combine these genres. And since I usually get more pleasure from reading than from TV, I looked to see if anyone was writing this stuff -- and they were. There were a number of occult detective series, in paperback original, being written in the Seventies. Looking back, I can say they weren’t very good -- but I read ‘em anyway. And the upside is that they led me to writers who were good, and their occult detective heroes. I made the acquaintance of Thomas Carnacki, John Silence, and Jules de Grandin, among others. But good contemporary occult detective stories remained hard to find.
Then, in the 1990s, three figures made their appearance in popular culture. Two of them were named Scully and Mulder. The third was a lady named Anita Blake. The rest, as they say, is genre fiction history.
“The X-Files” (itself inspired by “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” of 15 years earlier) showed the cultural appetite for paranormal investigators (another term for “occult detectives”), and the success of Laurell K. Hamilton’s “Anita Blake” books demonstrated that this interest extended to fiction. Thus was the occult detective reborn.
I define “occult detective” pretty broadly, to include any fictional character who regularly contends with the supernatural. For me, the term includes actual private detectives specializing in the paranormal (Vicki Nelson, John Taylor, Cal McDonald, Angel), government investigators (Scully and Mulder, Frank Black, Bureau 13) reporters (Kolchak), bounty-hunting witches (Rachel Morgan), wizards-for-hire (Harry Dresden), dedicated idealists (Buffy and crew), freelance exorcists (Morgan Kingsley) and a slew of others. These days, occult detectives fall under the heading of “urban fantasy” and, in my opinion, constitute its most dynamic sub-genre.
So, what explains the continued popularity of this shadowy figure, whose origins lie in the 19th Century and who yet flourishes in the 21st?
The occult detective brings order to chaos. He/she is the expert who understands the supernatural and can use that expertise to help, even save, the innocent who fall into the clutches of the dark side. Like the shaman in almost all societies, the occult detective plays a mediating role between humans and forces they cannot comprehend.
So, if you’re an ordinary Joe or Jane, and weird shit starts happening in your life, who you gonna call? You know the answer, same as I do.
As a writer, I didn’t make a conscious effort to write about occult detectives, or even to Commit Urban Fantasy. I write the kinds of stories that I like to read -- and I like to read about occult detectives. My novel “Black Magic Woman” teams Quincey Morris, great-great grandson of the Texan who died in the shadow of Castle Dracula, with Libby Chastain, a practitioner of “white” witchcraft. They’re a formidable team -- and they’d better be, considering the cases they’re asked to handle. In “Black Magic Woman” they fight to save a family from a deadly curse that dates back to the Salem witch trials. But in “Evil Ways,” (due out in January) they’re not expected to do much, really -- just save the world. The third book in the series (due in 2010) is called “Sympathy for the Devil.” I’ll let you figure out what that one deals with.
As long as there are things that go bump in the night (to borrow from the first Hellboy movie), humanity will need those with the skill and courage to “bump back.” And that’s where occult detectives come in. Have Wolfsbane, Will Travel.
Justin is giving away a copy of "Black Magic Woman." To enter the giveaway, just leave a comment here answering this question: Who is your favorite occult detective and why?
Winner will be posted Friday evening.