By Orrin Grey
Meikle, William. Carnacki: The Watcher at the Gate. Dark Renaissance (2015). Paperback: 228 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1937128753.
The pastiche is not an approach to writing that gets a lot of respect, even while more and more people are practicing pastiches, especially of writers like Lovecraft. But the pastiche – like any other pursuit – is one that can be done better or worse. Few people excel at it, especially when it comes to the Pulps and other Weird fiction writers from around the turn of the century, more than William Meikle. While Meikle has also made a name for himself with his own Weird works, it is for his pastiches of past masters that he is perhaps most well-known. In this companion piece to his previous collection of Carnacki stories Carnacki: Heaven and Hell, Meikle once more turns his talents to creating more adventures for famed Occult detective Thomas Carnacki: the Ghost Finder.
Originally created by William Hope Hodgson, one of my favorite authors of Weird fiction, the stories of Carnacki were unique among the annals of Occult detectives for a handful of reasons that all make them ripe for the pastiche treatment. In The Watcher at the Gate, Meikle emulates the voice, tone and structure of those original Carnacki stories almost perfectly, all the while taking them in directions that the original tales never went, including teaming Carnacki up with a young Winston Churchill, as well as another William Hope Hodgson character, Captain Gault. The stories often take on tones that could be called Lovecraftian – as in tales like “Treason and Plot” or the titular “Watcher at the Gate” – and at least once delve overtly into Chambers’ “King in Yellow” mythos. None of which feel particularly out of place amid Carnacki’s other cases, since Hodgson was writing cosmic horror before there was any such name for it.
The stories in The Watcher at the Gate vary far afield when it comes to subject matter, but are always structured with the same format that the original Carnacki stories had – our narrator arrives for dinner at Carnacki’s house along with several other friends, then the narration switches over to Carnacki as he tells them of his latest adventure. This means that the tales are best enjoyed with a little bit of space in-between, as reading them all in order can lead to an uncomfortable sense of repetition. Though Meikle would be hard-pressed to match some of the fantastic descriptions of monsters at which Hodgson was so adept, the best stories in The Watcher at the Gate manage to go beyond the simple pleasures of the cozy pastiche and offer genuinely shudder-worthy moments. Perhaps my favorite for that was “The Black Swan,” which also comes with a particularly creepy illustration.
Perhaps my only real complaint with The Watcher at the Gate could be construed as something of a spoiler. I think that one of the stories should have concerned – as a couple of the original Carnacki stories did – Carnacki foiling a completely human Scooby Doo villain who was merely faking a supernatural occurrence. While these stories are not exactly favorites of Carnacki fans, I think they serve a vital function that would have been well-used here, which is that they break up the rhythm of Carnacki’s tales and keep you guessing as to what the solution will be, rather than knowing that it will almost always be Carnacki in his electric pentacle against some denizen of the Outer Darkness. (Not that we don’t all love that.)