To call Sherlock Holmes a “literary sensation” may be the greatest understatement in history. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle decided to kill off the character, which he decried as a burden that kept readers away from his more serious historical fiction, the good people of Britain wore black armbands in mourning. They refused to believe that the Great Detective had been bested by Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls, and their public displays of grief eventually convinced the curmudgeon Conan Doyle to revive the character, albeit almost a decade later.
In the interim, or rather the interregnum between the demise and resurrection of the king of ratiocination, a new genre of detective fiction emerged to satiate the starving masses. Taking cues from not only the Sherlock Holmes tales but also the era’s interest in spiritualism and the supernatural, the occult detective genre became a staple of Edwardian era (1901-1910) magazines. The predominately British sleuths included Algernon Blackwood’s Dr. John Silence (debuted 1908), William Hope Hodgson’s Thomas Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder (debuted 1910), and Sax Rohmer’s Morris Klaw (debuted 1920). Although the genre had roots that stretched back to the nineteenth century, with J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Dr. Martin Hesselius being arguably the first occult detective in the 1872 short story collection In a Glass Darkly, the occult detective genre really came alive during the Jazz Age, especially in the pulp magazines. Even in Weird Tales, where H.P. Lovecraft’s transformative cosmic horror and Robert E. Howard’s sword and sorcery tales debuted, the occult detective stories of Seabury Quinn often proved more popular with readers.
You see, by that point, the occult detective genre had found its formula. The “ghost breakers” all fit the mold first shaped by Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin—gentlemen of leisure who filled the space usually occupied by remunerative work with their amateur interests, namely the paranormal. And like Sherlock Holmes, these detectives received clients in their well-tended sitting rooms, where they and their Dr. Watson-like partners listened intently to stories of ghostly apparitions, demonic oppression, and the like. The formula rarely wavered. Every occult detective came from the same well-to-do class: Dr. John Silence is a physician with psychic powers, Carnacki is an inventor and antiquarian who moonlights as a private investigator, and Quinn’s Jules de Grandin is a French anatomist and former intelligence agent whose life in rural New Jersey is somehow full of ghouls, ghosts, and vampires.
This formula would hold until the 1970s. By then, owing to the massive social upheaval of the 1960s, as well as America’s full literary break from British conventions, occult detectives began to change. Indeed, to put it bluntly, they began to tumble down the social ladder into the blue-collar world. Some of the new occult detectives, like Harry Picard in Les Whitten’s criminally underrated Progeny of the Adder (1965) or Lieutenant Kinderman in William Peter Blatty’s Legion (1983), are actual detectives with city police forces. Others, like Carl Kolchak in Jeff Rice’s unpublished The Kolchak Papers (1970) and Willian F. Nolan’s David Norliss in the made-for-television movie The Norliss Tapes (1973) are professional writers who stumbled into the world of the occult by accident. By the end of the 1970s, occult detectives could be found across several different mediums, including film, television, as well as the printed page.
Two more groundbreaking occult detectives arrived on the scene in 1985-1986, and this time the medium was comic books. The first in the chronology, John Constantine, is a Liverpudlian warlock and investigator who looks like Sting but speaks like a Harry Enfield character. Constantine, whose essence Keanu Reeves failed to capture in the 2005 film, contains much of the consciously transgressive qualities that creator Alan Moore, a self-proclaimed chaos magician and political anarchist, loves to inject into comics. Constantine is a cynic who speaks like a sailor. He is also bisexual and a conflicted humanitarian who nevertheless exemplifies Moore’s anarchistic worldview. Although Constantine’s popularity is niche, he is at least better known in the Anglophone world than the superior occult detective who debuted after him in 1986.
Created by writer and artist Tiziano Sclavi, Dylan Dog is a lot of things all at once. In some ways it harkens back to classic occult detective yarns. The titular character is a private eye without any visible means of income, he lives in the heart of rainswept London, and his cases always see him up against the wall with few friends (or believers) in the world. In other ways, the Dylan Dog series exudes postmodernism and political leftism. Dylan Dog calls himself a “nightmare investigator,” and as a result many of his cases have a nightmare logic that can be hard to follow. Owing to his past abuse of alcohol he is a teetotaler. He is also a vegetarian and someone who supports animal rights. He loves heavy metal, jazz, and horror movies. He lives along London’s Craven Road, which seems to be downtown in the city. This is despite the fact that he is broke and seemingly uninterested in money. He and his friend Felix (who looks and acts exactly like Groucho Marx) do their jobs for pizza, for Scotland Yard, or for love. The latter quirk is fitting given Dylan Dog’s origins in Italy, specifically the Italian author and illustrator who created him.
The Dylan Dog series is a continuation of the golden epoch of Italian pop culture that began in the 1960s. Directors like Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and Lucio Fulci stamped crime and horror pictures with their distinctively Italian sensibilities, while comics creators like Hugo Pratt provided a more adult alternative to America’s superhero-centric fare. Scalvi’s creation has all of these things, as the black-and-white comics frequently include nude women, gore-drenched zombies, and the latent left-wing politics that came to the fore among artists during the Years of Lead. Dylan Dog is also far more intellectual and surreal than most occult detective characters. Take for instance the high strangeness of the story “Morgana,” where Dylan’s greatest love is a woman who lives in several dimensions at once (and who may or may not be undead at any given moment). Also consider the chief villain of the series, Dr. Xabaras, an evil scientist who is revealed to be the demon Abraxas. Complicating matters is the fact that Xabaras and Morgana turn out to be Dylan’s parents, thereby increasing the Oedipus quality of the stories to astronomical levels.
Dylan Dog is also a wide-open love letter to genre fiction. Sclavi modeled his detective, who always wears a red shirt, black sports coat, blue jeans, and chukka boots, on British actor Rupert Everett. Everett would return the favor by playing the role of Francesco Dellamorte in the 1994 film adaptation of Sclavi’s novel, Dellamorte Dellamore. Also, in the first story of the series (“Dawn of the Living Dead”), Sclavi namechecks George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and 1950s pulp tale, “The Specialty of the House” by Stanley Ellin. Sclavi and the Dylan Dog perform the type of small meta-narratives that French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard spoke of in the 1970s—most, if not all of the stories, are homages to horror fiction, with references and memes designed to make horror hounds happy. Dylan Dog himself is drawn as an archetypal horror fiction fan, even down to his slovenly appearance and slacker attitude.
But Dylan Dog is more than just a nerd’s orgiastic fantasy. Sclavi is a fantastic writer. His stories, and the stories in Dylan Dog written and inked by others, are full of humor and occasional pathos. Dylan Dog is a sarcastic and handsome scoundrel, while Felix is just a scoundrel. The stories contain a fair amount of sociology as well, with some of the 1980s stories touching on then contemporary topics like punk rock and IRA terrorism in England. Through it all, Dylan and Felix usually best the baddie, and Dylan rarely fails to bed the blond or brunette. This latter fact alone marks Dylan Dog as different from the typical fictional PI, as most, including the famous Philip Marlowe created by Raymond Chandler, are hardboiled but abstinent. Dylan Dog is exemplary storytelling. It is also a continuation of the occult detective genre, which rarely gets the respect it deserves despite being so popular. Without Dylan Dog, there is no Hellboy. And while the 2010 Hollywood film failed miserably to capture the aesthetics of the character, Dylan Dog will always be a boot-shaped shadow lingering over the genre from here to eternity.
Umberto Eco had a point when he said, “I can read the Bible, Homer or Dylan Dog for days on end without ever feeling bored.” Dylan Dog is damn good fun. You should be reading it. If you do, you’ll be cooler than all your friends, dig?
- In a Glass Darkly is also notable for the short story “Carmilla,” which is a vampire tale with homoerotic overtones set in the darkened forests of Central Europe. The story likely influenced Bram Stoker, who also came from the exact same Irish Protestant milieu as the Dublin-born Le Fanu.
- Rice’s character would debut on TV with the movie The Night Stalker in 1972. Following the massive success of that movie, as well as the sequel The Night Strangler (1973), ABC greenlit the television show Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Although the show lasted just one year between 1974 and 1975, Kolchak: The Night Stalker and the films provided big breaks for actor Erik Estrada, screenwriter David Chase, and filmmakers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. The X-Files creator Chris Carter has also repeatedly name-checks the show as a major influence.
- “Years of Lead” is the phrase used in Anglophone countries for Italy’s period of civil insurgency and political terrorism between 1969 and 1985.
— Arbogast is a poet with a blog. You can purchase his poetry collection, “Nocturnes”, here.