30 Days – Day #13: A Fictional Book

Note carefully: not a fiction book. A fictional book. So I’m going to talk about the Sigsand Manuscript.

The Sigsand Manuscript features in the stories of Carnacki the Ghost-Finder by William Hope Hodgson, one of a few works published roughly contemporarily with Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes that I like almost as much.

The Sigsand MS, as it is generally referred to in the tales, is one of the devices that Hodgson uses to ground the tales in reality, which is sort of why I wanted to talk about it, because at first sight that sounds absurd – how can something fictional be used to ground something in reality?

Obviously, some of it is just that it’s part of the internal reality of the tales, but the greater part of its function rests in the way that it is referenced. Where Lovecraft and his inheritors tend to refer to their many, many fictional texts (and this was very nearly a piece on the cultural importance of the Necronomicon) in tones of hushed dread, as rare and special things whose secrets were enough drive men mad, Hodgson’s characters refer to the Sigsand MS as common knowledge, at least among themselves – talking of it’s contents like “The Saamaa ritual” as things that they are all familiar with the detail of. While it contains information that is obviously fantastic, information on how to deal with the supernatural, it is always referenced in terms that make it seem as if all the characters already know this information, and whenever Carnacki is called upon within the stories to draw on it’s contents, it is always in the sense of falling back on a familiar set of tools. Even in extremity, when Carnacki is in great peril, and an unknown agency recites the most secret of the lore in the MS “The unknown last line of the Saamaa ritual”, the description of the consequences given is:

“Instantly the thing happened that I have heard once before”

Even the ultimate secret is something Carnacki has felt before. This is a known, if impressive and fearsome quantity.

Further, its contents are not entirely presented as mystic, but as something that can be employed as reliably as any scientific method, and often within the trappings of science – Carnicki uses an electric pentagram, and develops a thing he calls “the spectrum defense” – bands of projected colour – as a means of combating the supernatural.

There are Carnacki stories in which his science fails him, but invariably in these stories he turns out not to be fighting the supernatural at all, but rather the monster or haunting turns out to be a hoax.

And so it grounds the works in a reality, where laws and the scientific method apply, and indeed triumph of legend, myth and the irrational. And in the process, Hodgson takes his place toward the head of an entire cannon of fantastic literature, where the fantastic is treated as just another science, with rules and principles that can be taken from one form, and reapplied in another – one can draw a line from the likes of Hodgson and Carnacki, right through to Mieville and the biothaumaturges and punishment factories of his fantasy world of Bas-Lag. And this is important, because it’s this willingness to treat the fantastic are very real, rather than a thing to wondered at in and of itself that allows for the better brand of fantasy that is used, like the best SF, as a tool to examine our present condition, as opposed to looking back, in the manner of Tolkien, or Lewis, at some pastoral idyll, or religious mythology.