The Spirit Engineer – seances, spiritualism and unreliable narrators

The recently renovated (and to an award-winning standard) Retreat at Elcot Park was the elegant setting for the latest author event organised by The Retreat in conjunction with the Hungerford Bookshop, on 29 October 2022. Halloween being the season, spookiness was the theme: and this was provided by AJ West talking about his debut novel The Spirit Engineer.

The book’s main theme is not the seasonal one of ghosts and witches, of the dead rising from their graves to fulfil some dark and ancient prophecy, but spiritualism. This immediately takes us into a world that’s perhaps even more fraught with ambiguity.

The spiritualist movement had its heyday between about 1850 and 1930. In some ways it was just another evolution of Protestantism, part of the never-ending search for an increasingly personal relationship between man and God. It soon changed into something very different, largely independent of and often in conflict with Christian orthodoxy. Spiritualism brought the afterlife directly into people’s living rooms and at the same time provided eye-catching entertainment. Most importantly, it also offered direct communication with loved ones who had died. It was a perfect fit for societies which were becoming more sceptical of organised religion, which had seen massive technological advances that seemed to be taming nature itself and which were searching for new frontiers and challenges. It’s therefore perhaps no surprise that the movement proved particularly popular among the middle and upper classes in Britain and the USA.

As the author pointed out in his talk, spiritualism’s popularity enjoyed a powerful Indian summer in the years immediately following WW1. The usual explanation for this is the massive level of bereavement caused by the war and the Spanish flu that followed it. He suggested a more interesting reason; that this marked the point when there were no more terra incognita in the world. All the gaps in the maps had been inked in and there we no longer places marked “here be dragons”. Mysteries therefore needed to be sought elsewhere.

There was money to be made from spiritualism. This attracted the unscrupulous, whose work was made easier by technological advances. Artificial lighting, photographic editing, mechanical devices and the use of phosphorescent chemicals were fairly new. All could be used to deceive an audience in ever more effective ways.

There were certainly plenty of props that could be used. Ectoplasm, the gauze-like substance which seemed to emanate from every orifice of the medium, could be fabricated with a combination of mundane materials including potato starch, cheesecloth, egg white and butter muslin. Wires could move objects, cut-outs of photos could create the illusion of faces and lighting could be both dim enough to obscure what was really happening or, at certain times, bright enough to provide a distraction. This was all in addition to the usual manipulative techniques of the fortune teller, such as making vague remarks or asking leading questions. The plausible fraudster with the right equipment was, then as now, in a strong position.

There was also the overwhelming human imperative, born from centuries of religious doctrine, to believe that the souls or spirits existed and that there could be a way of communicating with them. If so, the contemporary logic might have run, who better than than the empire-builders who had conquered a quarter of the world to be the first to experience this? As AJ West suggested, even if the techniques were forged, that doesn’t prove that the mediums were not genuine. The whole issue straddles the blurred line between objective and subjective experience and between the competing views of religious convention and rationalist progress.

The movement had a number of high-profile adherents. Probably the most notable was Arthur Conan Doyle (see illustration above), whose interest was perhaps intensified by the death of his son in WW1. I know the Holmes canon well and can think of no instance when spiritualism appeared in any of the stories (though it did in the Professor Challenger ones). This demonstrates an almost super-human self-discipline. Surely he might, just once, have been tempted to have had his supremely rational hero outwitted by a paranormal intervention of the kind that he so strongly believed in.

It never happened. Indeed, in one of the most famous scenes in one of his most famous tales, published in 1901, the phosphorescence of the Baskerville hound was shown to have been a malevolent fraud. Conan Doyle was clearly aware of the effect such deceptions could have on a susceptible audience, even if he did not admit that spiritualists could themselves be guilty of perpetrating them.

Another person fascinated by spiritualism was Harry Houdini, although his increasing obsession with exposing frauds – and who would know better than him when a deception or sleight of hand had been practised? – led to a falling out with Conan Doyle in the early 1920s. Thomas Edison, Mae West, William Thackeray, Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling, Queen Victoria and Christina Rosetti were also among the movement’s adherents. Others, including Charles Dickens, Alfred Tenyson, Anthony Trollope and Michael Faraday were less convinced.

The subject also intruded into many works of fiction, not necessarily because the writers believed in it but because it was then regarded as a normal if slightly esoteric part of life. One of the earliest examples is The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1852), which is set in what we might see as the very modern backdrop of a commune.  In The Diary of a Nobody (1892), the hapless Charles Pooter gets unwillingly involved in a spiritualist experience during a visit to a fashionable and intellectually pretentious friend of his wife. In Anthony Powell’s panoramic 12-volume novel A Dance to the Music of Time, the spiritualist Myra Erdleigh is a recurring character, particularly in a pivotal scene in The Acceptance World (1931) which involves two accurate prognostications.

Even now, in an age that is supposedly supremely rationalist, a fortune-teller’s tent or a pack of tarot cards still casts a strange spell. We tell ourselves that it’s all rubbish or just a bit of fun: but as we offer our palm or watch the fall of the mysterious and sinister cards, it’s hard not secretly to hope that the experience will provide a fleeting glimpse beyond the curtain that separates us from infinity. To these atavistic urges our forebears of a century ago were just as much in thrall, the more so because of the novelty of the experience.

It’s against this backdrop that AJ West’s book is constructed. (I haven’t read it yet as we only picked up our copy at the event and Penny has been hogging it since then). It’s set about a hundred years ago in Belfast and is based on the life of a real man, with real shortcomings of which he was well aware, who finds himself involved in this spiritualist world. Aside from the uncertainty about the validity of spiritualism, the novel contains two other levels of ambiguity: whether the medium he gets to know is genuine and whether the narrator himself is reliable. As the critics seem to agree, this triple level of uncertainty is one the author seems to have pulled off. Derren Brown, himself no stranger to theatrical illusions, called it “a fiendishly clever tale of ambition, deception, and power.” I look forward to reading it.

The extract from the book he read during the event reminded me of The Mist in the Mirror by Susan Hill (this is a conventional, and very effective, ghost story). Many other novels also deal with spiritualism on one level or another. Aside from the ones mentioned above, the only one I’ve read and can immediately recall is Muriel Spark’s superb The Batchelors (1960). Another I have not read but want to is Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel.

I can, and in due course shall, order this title from the Hungerford Bookshop. Even if it doesn’t have it stock, it can get it in within a day or so. One book that it certainly does have on its shelves is the above-mentioned The Spirit Engineer by AJ West. Click here to order it.

Brian Quinn

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