Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Occult Files Of Francis Chard

Yet more occult detective tales! I do seem to be a bit obsessed by this odd genre. The slim volume The Occult Files Of Francis Chard includes ten such stories by A. M. Burrage (1889-1956).

Burrage is a writer whose entire literary output, produced over the course of a 50-year writing career, consists with one exception entirely of short stories. That exception was his memoir of his experiences in the First World War. That memoir achieved a modest success but much to Burrage’s disappointment it did not bring him the kind of recognition he had hoped for.

Burrage started publishing stories at the age of seventeen and he quickly discovered that he could produce the type of fiction that magazine editors wanted, and could produce it in immense quantities. He wrote enormous numbers of light romance stories but such reputation as he has today is based on his highly regarded horror stories. 

Burrage found that writing short stories for the magazine market was an easier way to make a living than attempting to break into the hardcover market. While it paid the rent it also seems to have frustrated him since it meant abandoning the idea of achieving literary respectability. This may have exacerbated another problem, his fondness for alcohol.

Francis Chard is one of the less colourful fictional occult detectives. We learn very little about him until the final story in the collection, The Girl in Blue, which reveals him to be a somewhat lonely character.

Like any good literary detective he has his Dr Watson, an equally colourless character by the name of Torrance.

These stories rely on mood and suggestion rather than terror. Indeed some are not the least bit frightening, nor were they intended to be. This is low-key suggestive supernatural fiction. The first story in this volume, The Hiding Hole, is very much in the mould of the traditional English ghost story, with its setting in an ancient country house and with the horror being rooted in events of the distant past. It’s a reasonably good story of its type.

Other stories are more interesting. The Soldier is, as Chard points out, a case of a haunted couple rather than a haunted house. They are haunted by a ghost who has pursued them from house to house, from place to place. It’s also a rather grim tale. The Protector on the other hand is the story of a ghost who is not merely benign but benevolent.

The Woman with Three Eyes may be the first example of the suburban ghost story, and the first ghost story to feature a ghost who employs modern technology, in this case the telephone. It’s one of several stories in this volume that show Burrage moving towards stories featuring modern ghosts in modern settings. 

Burrage was not a wealthy man nor did he come from an old and distinguished family. In stories such as this he writes about the sorts of ghosts that might be expected to haunt the houses of the lower middle classes, or even the working classes. These are not the ghosts of wicked noblemen, they are the ghosts of everyday people. If these ghosts committed crimes during their earthly lives they are likely to have been commonplace crimes. If they suffered great wrongs they were probably rather prosaic and even sordid wrongs. Some of his ghosts want revenge but most are simply lost souls.

Francis Chard does not hunt ghosts with gadgetry and he does not appear to base his ghost-hunting on any coherent theories of the occult. His main weapon is his understanding of people and his compassion. While his compassion is undeniable that is not to imply that he is, in the parlance of today, non-judgmental. Crimes have to be punished and sins have to be paid for. Burrage was raised as a Catholic and whether he remained a practising Catholic or not his Catholicism is clearly a major influence on his writing. Redemption is possible, forgiveness is possible, but these things do not come without a price.

These stories reveal Burrage as an important figure in the development of the modern ghost story. That is not to say that they are modern ghost stories - they are a fascinating blend of the traditional and the modern. Highly recommended. 

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