Foreign Devils, by Andrew Cartmel

Andrew Cartmel – Foreign Devils
Telos, 2002, 112pp, £25, 1-903889-11-1

The latest Dr Who novella from Telos has some major strengths and a couple of glaring weaknesses. For the strengths, there’s a classic, dream ticket Who line-up (the Doctor, Zoe and Jamie); settings well described and brought alive; and strong, well drawn characters, with one particular stand-out. The greatest strength is that this is really William Hope Hodgson’s little known foray into media spinoffery: it’s a deliberate, and successful, pastiche of one of his haunted house stories (with a touch of Agatha Christie) and his character Carnacki the Ghost-Finder appears as a major player. He and the Doctor get on like a house on fire.

In 1800 Canton, opium trader Roderick Upcott falls foul of the Chinese Imperial Astrologer, who places a time delayed curse on Roderick’s dynasty. A century hence, at a house party in Kent, his descendants start dropping like flies. (There is a logic to the time delay, though given that Roderick has been dead for years by the time it kicks in, the logic is tenuous.) And this is where the problems with the story start. Our heroes first land in Canton in 1800: Zoe and Jamie are transported by a spirit gate to Kent in 1900. But why does the spirit gate work like that? Who put it there? What purpose does it serve? This is never really resolved, and the story could just as easily have begun with the crew arriving in Kent by TARDIS.

The other biggest problem with this novella is that the set-up and denouement are unashamedly supernatural. Hodgson played straight with his supernatural universe and Carnacki tackles the problems he faces with the same empirical methodology as a detective would take on a real-world crime. Yet it is still supernatural. Dr Who is not. Throughout Who history, the supernatural has never applied: there has always been a scientific basis to the story. It might be weird and whacky science: psionic aliens, telepathy, the Loch Ness Monster. It might be so way out that Clarke’s Law kicks in, but it is nonetheless, at heart, strictly material. The Doctor starts the right way by suspecting the spirit gate of harbouring a teleportation device, but before long he is blithely accepting Carnacki’s supernatural explanations without putting in a single word in favour of reason and science. The two simply do not mix.

As added value, one of Hodgson’s own Carnacki stories — “The Whistling Room” — is included at the end. I hadn’t read any of these before but have every intention of doing so now, so it alone is probably worth the price of admission — at least, if you buy the “standard” £10 novella. Maybe not the “deluxe” £25 one.