Does a night like this fill you with vague longings? Do you yearn to discover the secret of the universe-to know more than is good for man to know-perhaps to peer into the future?– Aylmer Vance
Aylmer Vance made his first appearance on the nightmare stage in 1914. The creation of husband-and-wife writing team Alice and Claude Askew, Vance appeared in eight consecutive issues of The Weekly Tale-Teller between July and August.
The stories ranged from grotesque to gentle, and are, by and large, of a slower pace than those featuring Vance’s contemporaries, such as Carnacki. Only one of the stories has been regularly anthologized (“The Vampire”), with the rest languishing in obscurity until the release of recent collections by Ash-Tree Press and Wordsworth Editions respectively.
Like John Silence, Vance inhabits an England of soft spiritual influence, where elementals, ancient memories and ghostly manifestations cling to the unseen corners and visit just long enough to inject the mundane with a booster shot of the strange. The apparitions that Vance faces are utterly human in their aspect, if not their motivation. Death is no barrier to the desires of the flesh or the dreams of the determined, and it is when these elements intrude on the hard-won peace of the Edwardian mind that the Ghost-Seer must intervene.
The majority of the Vance stories are told at a remove, with Vance himself narrating these tales after the fact to his companion, Dexter. A humble barrister, Dexter provides an identifiable viewpoint character for the reader. However, he does manage to get in on the action once or twice, most notably in “The Vampire”, where he is instrumental in rescuing an innocent victim of the eponymous monster.
Vance is often late to the party when occult oddities rear their head, unable to effect a solution or worse, inadvertently causing the very misfortune he sought to prevent. In “The Invader”, for instance, his efforts lead to the death of a friend and the spiritual disembodiment of the man’s unfortunate wife. And in “The Fear”, Vance can only recommend the absolute destruction of the client’s castle in order to quell the haunting – a favourite method of ending spectral threats in the Vance stories.
Indeed, compared to a character like the dynamic Shiela Crerar, poor Vance is a bit of a wet noodle when it comes to the occult. He shows all the knowledge of a dedicated opponent of the more malevolent forces of the supernatural world, but displays a distinct lack of gumption. The only exception to this is in “The Vampire”, where Vance functions as a traditional occult detective, puzzling out the gruesome mystery to a man’s recurrent anaemia, and effectively ending the threat of the blood-sucker in question.
There’s a strange sort of fragility to the character of Vance. A tenderness that brings tears to his eyes when he recounts the sad fate of the doomed couple in “The Invader” or the determined final walk of the young would-be bride in “The Indissoluble Bond”. Other, contemporary, occult investigators display a gruff professionalism in their business. They are sympathetic, but not so empathic to the almost embarrassing degree that Vance displays.
Indeed, Vance is less an investigator than an apologist in some respects. He treats supernatural beings as a naturalist might treat wild animals, seeing them not as opponents, but as fascinating subjects of study and wonder. That they become involved in the business of humans is, to Vance, a distressing prospect.
Such softness of outlook might be explained by the events of “Lady Green-Sleeves”, where Vance’s first (and only) true love is revealed – perhaps unsurprisingly – to have been a ghost. Regardless of its origins, this softness of spirit hampers his abilities as an occult investigator.
Vance is more apt to throw himself down on a bed of rushes and watch the majestic spin of the stars in the night sky than he is to face down a hungry horror from beyond the veil. Indeed, in at least two cases (“The Stranger”, and “The Fire Unquenchable”), he withholds his knowledge and aid from the afflicted in order to facilitate the desires of the supernatural entities in question.
Still, despite being largely ineffective and occasionally downright unhelpful, Vance does his best to try and aid those he deems to be truly in danger. The ever-faithful Dexter at his side, he offers gentle counsel and advice, trying his best to steer his clients, friends and companions out of the murky, dangerous waters of the occult world. He faces the creeping fear of Camplin Castle and the blood-thirsty horror of Blackwick with neither hesitation nor recrimination.
There is more to this dichotomy, perhaps, than weak characterization. Vance displays a similar otherworldliness to John Silence, acting as if he is privy to secret things which colour his judgement in certain moments; a superior sense of the spiritual, which forces him to act not just as protector, but as mediator and facilitator. A keeper of some esoteric balance which is visible to none but Vance himself.
Perhaps the Ghost-Seer simply knows more than he’s telling.
*Author’s Note: This essay originally appeared in 2011, at Black Gate Magazine.*