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I am of a mixed mind on the detective short story format. On one hand it offers a setting and characters that are (in theory, at least) enriched and expanded through each successive narrative, enabling the reader to develop an intimate relationship with the writer’s cosmos. On the other hand, the genre leans towards repetition: rigid patterns of investigation emerge and crystallize, leading to a procession of repetitive and predictable mannerisms1. Moreover, the detective archetype reeks with the spirit of modernity, idealizing personality aspects and attitudes like cold rationality, suppression of emotion, and mind over matter, as well as de-contextualising crime and normalizing societal law-enforced norms.
So, I was a bit skeptical about Mark Valentine’s Herald of the Hidden, knowing that it was about an investigator of the paranormal, an occult detective. Though the premise sounded interesting, I was afraid that the occult aspect could easily degenerate into a “monster of the week” kind of uninspired content. Thankfully this is not the case.
Herald of the Hidden was my second encounter with Mark’s pen, the first being Secret Europe. In the latter book I enjoyed almost all of his stories (a thing that, alas, I cannot say for most of John Howard’s ones) which I think realized the secret, occult, aspect of the title, hinting at clandestine layers running beneath the skin of the old continent. The subtlety of that book (as well as that supposedly permeating the corpus of Tartarus Press catalog) had prepared me for something along similar lines; I expected that in the Herald’s stories the supernatural would be ambiguous at best. I was pleasantly surprised to discover, even from the first story, that this was not the case here.
The book contains material mainly from Mark Valentine’s early writing years; specifically, there are ten occult detective stories and six others (also supernatural in hue). The main protagonist’s name is Ralph Tyler; he is apparently based on classic occult detectives like John Silence (Algernon Blackwood’s) and Carnacki (William Hope Hodgson’s), with some twists (like him not having a wealth of resources, connections and influence). Unfortunately I have just a passing contact with John Silence (and none whatsoever with Carnacki), so I cannot really make any comparisons. Still, the detective friend and companion’s first person narration obviously brings into mind Sherlock and Watson. The stories’ setting is mostly pre-internet, late 20th century English rural suburbia, small villages and countryside, with a strong emphasis on the remnants of tradition.
Mark Valnetine’s lyrical language may be ornate and baroque but on the same time it is very much enjoyable, eloquent and in the end feels modern – it does not put a toll on the reader. The same goes for the structure of the stories – they are well-paced, offering enough lore to satisfy yet not so much to weigh down the narration.
As aforementioned, the first story (St Michael & All Angels) dissolves any notions about the subtlety of the supernatural – it is very real, even for most of Tyler’s clients. Unfortunately, this particular piece of fiction is not the book’s strongest, reading a lot like a trite ghost story. But the situation is rapidly improved from the next one (The Folly) forwards with the discarding (or even inversion at certain points) of some common (ghost story) tropes. With Ralph Tyler the supernatural is rarely seen as a one-dimensional adversary; occasionally it does not even fall to the category of a curiosity riddle (a thing common with the Other in detective fiction) though the investigation obviously tends to have an intellectual aspect. The supernatural is approached quite empathically, as something that can be interacted and reasoned with, as something deserving of communication attempts. The entities themselves are revealed to be multi-layered and dynamic (see the exemplary The Hermit’s House), the uncanny integrated in the setting and never reduce to thrill fodder. From ancient gods to spirits from the Far East and genius loci, these pages contain well-crafted aspects of the other-than-human.
As for the detective, despite his intellectual mien and emotional modesty, he does not discard emotion. And how could he, being well-versed in occult both theory- and practice-wise? Also, he seems to have a rather strong moral compass, which does not always align with the socially expected. In several of the stories he does not strive to drive away or make the supernatural “move forward,” but rather to intertwine it with the (human and/or geographical environment. This embracing of the Otherness is more than welcome.
The genre’s trappings are not completely absent. Despite his somewhat unpolished image (from the decrepit attire to his beloved foul-smelling cigarettes) Ralph Tyler retains at his core several of the characteristics of the quintessential detective: he is male, cool-headed, relies on intellect (though thankfully this intellect is not only the pure rationality of Sherlock but rather a love of knowledge and the wisdom stemming from it, with the unavoidable deduction thrown in); his first response to a new case is going to the library and he is obsessed with mental exercises in the form of board games. His house is the archetypal sanctuary where the team retreats to ponder, as well as a symbol of the detective’s love of reclusiveness. When facing the supernatural Ralph Tyler is cool-headed and modest, perhaps a tad too much. There is also the typical infuriating silence concerning any hypotheses and ideas about the situation before each case’s resolution (a literary need perhaps, but still something that has not aged well). Moreover, his friend, the nameless narrator, is rather caricature-ish, personifying up to a degree the voice of common sense and the common man (having for instance an inherent fear of abnormal situations and a seemingly magical distaste for taking initial, especially as far as investigation is concerned).
Finally, the six last (non-Tyler) stories read as interesting supernatural fiction. Of special note is Tree Worship, which unravels the hollowness of modernity’s obsession with security, control and individual isolation, as well as the compartmentalization of age groups, leading to an exultation of Nature in a most pagan way.
Despite embracing the environmental and aesthetic trappings of the detective and ghost-story genres, Herald of the Hidden breaks away with them at crucial points (there is more than a hint of imperialist anthropology critique in The Guardians of the Guest Room, and an ecological ethos permeates many of the stories) in an innovative and fresh (if not modern) way, all the time retaining the essence of a cozy candle-flame read.
Favourite stories: The Folly (for the memorable, Lovecraftian depiction of nature’s well-deserved vengeance), William Sorrell Requests… (for its plain weirdness and spooky atmosphere), The Hermit’s House (for its celebration of divine devotion), Herald of the Hidden (for its almost cosmic scale and its hint of the Willows), The Almanac (based on an excellent idea), The Guardians of the Guest Room (for its anti-imperialist and anti-commodification hues), Tree Worship (for reasons explained above).
PS: Knowing about the existence of another occult detective book by Valentine (The Complete Connoisseur), while reading Herald of the Hidden I was under the impression that Ralph Tyler would also be the protagonist there, something that apparently is not the case. I am very curious to see the differences between the two Valentine occult detectives.
Get the book here
This is of course not necessarily a bad thing – there is much to be enjoyed in the reading of a predictable well-written story with a setting and characters that you are intimate with, for it blends the merits of rereading with the freshness of new strokes over a familiar canvas. ↩