This Week’s Prompt: 68. Murder discovered—body located—by psychological detective who pretends he has made walls of room transparent. Works on fear of murderer.
The Resulting Story:Dr. SuSan and…
The prompt this week brings us to something of a genre these days: the detective with supernatural or near supernatural capabilities. Pysch, The Mentalist, Monk, the BBC’s Sherlock, and so on. All these shows feature uncanny detectives who pretend to have psychic or unnatural powers, or in the case of Monk, Columbo, and Sherlock they use less conventional modes of thinking to achieve similar ends. The detective in reality possesses only human faculties, but these faculties are exaggerated to the point of unfailing power.
From a literary perspective, this prompt reminds me of one particular story by Edgar Allen Poe: The Tell Tale Heart. Poe’s influence on Lovecraft as a horror author is indeed vast and in need of reconciliation. Here the fear of the murderer is the greater force. The noise of the imagined heart still beating in the floor boards drives the murderer to madness and compels him to confess his misdeeds to the officers of the law. This story likewise plays on the fear of discovery—of more than the murder, of course, since the body is located early on. The detective must suggest that he has seen more by making the walls transparent then merely the body.
From the perspective of folklore and other traditions, the detective has an intreasting lineage. A common capabillity of sorcery and magic is the location of the unseen or the lost. The abillity to find and retrieve missing objects or to ascertain unseen causes can be found in various places around the world, often as the cause of illness or despair. For instance, among the !Kung, shamans locate unseen arrow heads that cause illness among the living. Shamans of the Netsilik deal with invisible casues of illness as well, from extra souls sapping life force to the strange tupilaqs.
More elaborate attempts are also recorded. The Key of Solomon supplies one spell, which deploys the rope of a hanging and sieve to locate a thief that has made off with an object. The Lesser Key gives three demons who can find those things lost or hidden (Foras, Kimaris, and Vassago, pictured below). The Book Pow-Wows or Long Lost Friends is a grimoire of more recent origin in the United States which supplies ways to imoblize thieves and compel them to return stolen goods, as well as locating hidden treasures beneath the earth such as water and iron.
The detective interacts in a similar way here—despite the fact that his magic is a farce, he is playing off the world of the unseen. While fear has physical symptoms, feelings and experiences, they are rarely considered the root of the emotion. Like a shaman or magician, the detective plays off the hidden world to reveal things about this one. Psychology’s connection isn’t that far fetched—the term quite literally refers to the science of the soul after all—and so might be an intentional allusion here. Especially in the era Mr. Lovecraft was writing in, psychology’s exact meaning and fate were contested.
For instance, the spiritualist movement we discussed before was a significant part of psychology for a period of time. The science of the soul for a time included things that now are frankly the occult—the sort of beliefs that are more akin to New Age than clinical psychology. We can include here the works of Sigmund Freud and his camp, who’s school of psychoanalysis may not be as credited now as it once was, as well as works such as Mesmerism which sought to use powers of the mind to affect the body—for instance to work healings. Mesmerism and other hypnotists engaged in occult experiments as well, in some cases attempted to glean information on other worlds or past lives from the hypnosis. These ideas often hinged on vitalist theories of life—that there was a cosmic and measurable life energy that permeates the cosmos. This energy is often associated with heat, electricity, and other phenom on. Other examples of vitalism include Odic forces, which produce bio-eletric fields and is referenced in dowsing(and were delightfully used in an Atomic Robo story here); elan vital, which contains the bedrock for consciousness and gives rise to evolutionary changes; and Orgone, which is past Lovecraft’s time, but which supposed that everything from illness to weather could be effected by these internal forces of the body.
Other works that blended the understanding of the body and the soul, to unfortunate results, was phrenology and race “science”. The discredited field tried to explain the nature of the soul by examining physiological differences in skull size. Given Mr. Lovecraft’s proclivities and racism, we can throw it on the heap of more bizarre uses of psychology.
I pursued this line of reasoning further, as the field of pseudo-science and strangeness is interesting to me. According to Wikipedia—a good resource for my cursory research—there are a number of pseudoscientific theories I was unaware of: graphology, the analysis of handwriting to determine the psyche of an individual; primal therapy, the idea the individuals are most effected by prenatal experiences; and the law of attraction, that by thinking on a thing we draw it closer. These various pseudosciences and discredited theories do place the idea of a psychological detective as essentially supernatural or magical detective as plausible or believable.
So, with all this in mind, how should our story proceed. The prompt has the detective deduce the murder, but drive the criminal to confession by pretending to be magical. We thus begin the first act with the discovery of the body. We would then go on to examining the house searching for evidence. Three instances, I think, of ‘finding’ hidden evidence and then the confrontation. Now, I think this particular drama could end one of two ways. Either it ends with the murderer and the police being lead to where the detective found the body, and thus the murderer confessing. Or, the murderer is driven by fear to lash out against the authorities and attempt to flee or kill them. Either ending could work, and I’m not sure which is better in this case.
I recently concluded that our psychologist might not be the best character to take as a point of view–rather, a more interesting character would be an associate of his. A Watson, a character who like the audience is unsure of what is coming and going, but nonetheless curious. As written, it seems our detective knows the murderer, and that seems far less entertaining of a story then one where the audience and one of the characters is partially in the dark as to the proceedings.
Now I know this is normally the end of things, but today I’d like to draw your attention to the Patreon account we’ve created. If you would like to help support our excursions into horror and folklore, are interested in our work in RPGs that we’ve alluded to, or are generally in a good spirit, we encourage you to donate here.