A Doctor, Darkly

I believe the entire natural world is but the ultimate expression of that spiritual world from which, and in which alone, it has its life.

– Dr. Martin Hesselius

Doctor Martin Hesselius was dead the first time Sheridan Le Fanu put pen to page and began writing the first piece in his 1872 collection, In A Glass, Darkly. Hesselius was dead and buried, with only his carefully jotted notes for the reader to judge him by.

It’s an interesting way to introduce a character, to say the least. He’s the ghost of a memory, his faint handwriting spider-scrawled across battered notebooks, detailing over 243 cases of supernatural mischief and malice; the ghost-breaker as ghost, in a sense.

It’s a shame Le Fanu documented only five of those hundreds of cases, and only one that Hesselius was actually physically present for. It’s these five cases that make up the collection in question.

Introduced as a German medical doctor with an extremely open mind and a more than abiding interest in the occult, Doctor Hesselius is first mentioned in the introduction to the aptly titled “Green Tea”.

According to the narrator, Hesselius is an avuncular man, blessed with easy circumstances. Well-off enough to fund his travels, it’s obvious from his notes that he’s travelled the width and breadth of Europe and possibly Asia.

He’s depicted as an enthusiastic spiritualist, immensely knowledgeable about both medicine and the occult. To Hesselius, it is obvious that the natural world and the spirit world are inextricably linked.

He’s said to have published numerous papers in his career, including ‘Mortis Imago: An Essay on the Drugs of the Dark and Middle Ages’ and ‘The Interior Sense and the Conditions of the Opening Thereof’. Le Fanu includes some reference to one or more of these essays in every one of the Hesselius stories, bringing them into the same realm as Lovecraft’s various obscene grimoires or Hodgson’s Sigsand Manuscript.  

The introduction to the character is a posthumous one, as mentioned above. Hesselius, a man of advanced years, has passed on only recently according to the prologue of “Green Tea”, though we’re never told exactly how. The introduction is made by an unnamed narrator, ostensibly Hesselius’ assistant and the executor of his estate.

We know that this assistant was a surgeon himself, though his career was cut disastrously short by an accident involving a scalpel and his fingers. And he claims that it was Hesselius who helped him overcome his disability. Other than that, we have only his obvious, Watson-like devotion to Hesselius to judge him by. A phantom biographer for the phantom fighter, in other words.

Of the five stories in the collection (“Green Tea”, “The Familiar”, “Mr. Justice Harbottle”, “The Room in the Dragon Volant”, and “Carmilla”), Hesselius appears onstage only in the first, his involvement in the others being limited to pre-and-postscripts with his analysis and thoughts on the phenomena described.

However, it’s that very analysis that gives us a window into Hesselius’ character. For Hesselius, the occult is a science. He is a rational man in an irrational world, attempting to make that which he studies fit into its proper place. The unnatural explained as natural.

That said, Hesselius doesn’t do much in the way of face-to-face confrontation with the unnatural. He only investigates the proceedings after the fact, acting less as an investigator, and more a dedicated archaeologist of the extraordinary.

This image of Hesselius as the curious practitioner dominates the brief glimpses we get of him in Le Fanu’s writing. In “Green Tea”, the story is told in epistolary form, via Hesselius’ letters to a colleague on the strange events surrounding the opening of a hapless country vicar’s ‘third eye’ and the demonic incursion that results.

Hesselius approaches the case as a medical issue first, then, later, as a psychological one. Despite his belief – or perhaps because of it – that an infernal force is at work, Hesselius contends that the problem can be dealt with as easily as any other physical or mental ailment. With the right type of treatment, even demonic possession can prove curable.

It is this belief on the part of the character that truly sets him apart from other occult investigators. For Hesselius, spirits, demons, vampires, are all merely categories of disease, albeit of the soul, rather than body or mind, and can be combated as such.

Hesselius strips the glamour from the supernatural, rendering it natural, and thus no longer frightening to either its victims or the reader.

The style in which Le Fanu composed the Hesselius stories does much to add to this sensation of the unnatural as natural. There’s a particular dryness to the stories, as if they were being recounted from a distance, by a disinterested third party.

The supernatural occurrences are given full shrift, but never amplified. Le Fanu, and by extension Hesselius, was seemingly less interested in chilling the reader’s marrow, as merely making them aware of the happenings themselves as points of intellectual curiosity.

While this has the effect of limiting the visceral excitement of the stories, this approach also makes Hesselius and his strange cases seem altogether more credible. Unlike other, later occult investigators, Hesselius never gives the impression that he views his world in terms of good and evil. Rather, merely in terms of health and illness.

That makes him a more comforting figure than his literary descendants. If Van Helsing and his ilk are the paladins of night’s shadowed reaches, fearlessly plunging into the dark to combat the horrors therein, then Hesselius is the kindly old man who thinks to merely bring a torch and show the reader that things aren’t really as bad as all that, after all.

*Author’s Note: This essay originally appeared in 2011, at Black Gate Magazine.*