Ringing the Changes

Richard Dawkins, who famously doesn't believe in God, paranormal doings or understatement, once got into a fearful tizzy about The X-Files. His complaint was that – at least in the first series – every one of Mulder's and Scully's investigations turned out to have a weird or alien solution. This, Dawkins raged in a subtly loaded analogy, was like a police procedural series which regularly offers a black suspect and a white one ... and every single week it's the black guy who turns out to be guilty.

Exaggerated, yes, but there is a little artistic point lurking here. If any series falls into a repeated pattern, it makes sense to wake up the audience by leaping out of the rut once in a while. One of the best-loved original Star Trek episodes was "The Trouble with Tribbles", whose most famous scene blasphemed and did the unthinkable by playing Captain Kirk for laughs. John M. Ford's comic Trek novel How Much For Just The Planet? likewise sends up Kirk something rotten.

Of course you can overdo the surprises. Ray Bradbury's recent Driving Blind contains three supernatural stories out of 21 – three changes of pace in a "mainstream" collection. Unfortunately the UK publishers, Earthlight, naughtily slapped a "fantasy" label on the whole book. Fantasy-lovers don't so much get three surprises as eighteen let-downs. Tut, tut.

Getting back to occult investigation, William Hope Hodgson kept readers nicely off-balance in Carnacki the Ghost-Finder (1913) ... in which supernatural horrors investigated by Carnacki are sometimes real, sometimes clever fakes, sometimes a mixture. Sax Rohmer of Fu-Manchu fame put a different spin on this in The Dream-Detective (1920), where psychic sleuth Moris Klaw likes to snooze at the scene of the crime and pick up evil-doers' astral thought-impressions. Magic detection, but the actual crimes are wholly mundane. Except just once ...

Wrong-footing the reader works in non-occult detection too. Classical crime fiction had a strict rule (in the oath sworn by members of the Detection Club) that apparent supernatural doings must be explained away. A specially silly example is Agatha Christie's seance photo showing glowing ectoplasm emerging from a woman's mouth – revealing to Hercule Poirot's little grey cells that she was poisoned with phosphorous, giving her luminous breath ... But rules are there to be bent. John Dickson Carr's The Burning Court (1937) offers a logical, material explanation – exactly to Scully's taste – for every detail of an "impossible" locked-room murder. But then comes the final chapter, which drops us through a trapdoor back into haunted Mulder territory. Howls of outrage from crime-fiction purists!

Dorothy Sayers neatly undermined the anti-occult regulations in a story where Lord Peter Wimsey, encountering a ghastly phantom coach drawn by headless horses, deduces it to be a fake because his own steed – which goes crazy with fear in a "real" haunted place – doesn't turn a hair at the dodgy apparition. That's logic, that is. Another, almost forgotten detective, Ernest Bramah's blind sleuth Max Carrados, occasionally bumped into X-Files cases. My favourite involved evil psychic emanations from an ancient plague pit that leak into an electricity generator, travel along the wiring, and exude unpleasantness from a socket in the victim's bedroom. Occult power at 50Hz.

One thriller writer who particularly enjoyed sf/fantasy surprises was Leslie Charteris, creator of Simon Templar – the Saint. Over the years, the Saint met many con-men selling miraculous gadgets ... and once in a blue moon, the amazing contraption would actually work. He exposed countless criminal hoaxes, but also had nasty experiences with real voodoo, the Loch Ness Monster and (in one deeply surreal adventure) being trapped in another man's dream world. You could never be quite sure whether a Saint story would be a straight thriller.

Never, that is, until one insanely helpful editor picked out all the oddball tales for a 1982 collection called The Fantastic Saint – calculated to enrage Richard Dawkins, since in every single story you know from the book's title that the fantastic solution will be the correct one. It's another example of what I once christened the Vampire Effect. This happens when some staidly mainstream author shocks the readers by introducing a real vampire into just one story. After which a fantasy editor comes along, reprints the tale, and wonders why it somehow seems to lack punch in an anthology titled Fifty Great Stories In Which The Heroine Turns Out To Be A Vampire ...

By way of astonishing variation, this month's column was written by the vampiric Eva D. Fanglord.