No, this blog is not about a new modestly priced genre for the middle-aged, middle-gendered, middle-brow reader. This blog is about stories built around the figure of the professional medium. Because I’ve just read a cracking good one, and realised that it’s a subject I bump my nose on every few years. I don’t always like them, as you will see, but they often give me that little kick of electricity which means I never quite forget them.
The Book that started this is All that Was Lost, by Alison May, published last Thursday.
The main character is, indeed, a professional medium. Very professional. One doesn’t entirely trust her but there is something oddly reassuring about her, though she clearly has some well-buried issues. She grows in stature throughout the book. Indeed, as in so many relationships, the reader alternately engages and retreats. I was 100% on her side by the end, though.
I found this a page-turner, intriguing and consistently engaging – and quite unlike anything else I have read this year. A refreshment to the jaded palate indeed.
Mediums and Me
I found out that there was such a profession as part of those family stories you inhale as a child. My mother had a sister who died before she was born. Years later, when my mother had a serious job at the BBC, her father persuaded her to attend a public séance. He wanted a message from that other daughter. (I’m not sure of her name. It may have been Vera, or possibly Wanda.)
My mother remembered it being held in the Kingsway Hall, Holborn. It held 2,000 people and my mother said it was full. Her father told her, “This is the religion of the future.”
She didn’t believe him. “Some people were very upset,” she told me. “I thought it was unkind. The so-called messages were so general, they could have been from anyone. If people hadn’t wanted so much to believe, they would have seen through the chicanery.” A good word that. She liked words, my mother.
So that was me, a cradle sceptic.
And then I went to work in the third important library in my life in the University of London’s Senate House, where they held the Harry Price Collection.
Harry was a very queer fish indeed, a mate of Houdini, a great unmasker of fake mediums, but not above a bit of chicanery on his own account. Scepticism confirmed.
The Medium on the Make
There seems to have been an explosion of commercial Mediumship in the twenties and thirties when Harry Price was most active. But he was not alone. Indeed, he set up a rival investigative body to the, by comparison, rigorous Society for Psychical Research, with whom he fell out, big time. That had been set up in 1882.
But even before that, my beloved Browning was writing his most vicious dramatic monologue, Mr Sludge, the Medium. There is no doubt that Browning shares my mother’s opinion of the profession and he is angry. Mega angry.
Published in 1864, it was a lightly disguised attack on a real and fashionable Scottish-American medium, Daniel Home.
Unlike her husband, Elizabeth Barrett Browning seems to have been convinced by Home.
When she was a teenager her brother Edward had been drowned while staying on for an extra week with her while she convalesced after a spinal injury. Maybe she wanted to believe.
After the séance they attended, Browning wrote to the Times “the whole display of hands, spirit utterances etc., was a cheat and imposture”. It clearly wasn’t enough to relieve his feelings. Mr Sludge ensued.
The Medium and the Investigator
The psychic investigator is such an obvious hero – rigorous researcher, protector of the vulnerable from charlatans and predators – that there are loads of them in popular fiction.
I know I’ve read several but the only one I remember, other than the seriously unheroic Jonathan Creek, is Paul Gallico’s Alex Hero in Too Many Ghosts and The Hand of Mary Constable.
These are quite old books, which I found on the shelves of an aunt and a devoured over a wet Sunday. They are exciting and entertaining but the hero is, frankly, a randy, arrogant pillock. (There’s a very entertaining rant on the subject, with which I fully concur.) What I remember, and I have not read them since, is the ingenuity of the fraud in Mary Constable and a truly startling moment when a pleasant but self-confessed manipulative medium has a momentary flash of genuine paranormal insight. That little electric shock is still with me.
The Medium and the Novel
Again there are many novels in which one of the characters is a medium, often deliberately playing on the fears and other feelings of the gullible, occasionally self-deluded. But they are not often centre stage. However, over the last ten years I have read two books, both memorable, in which the Medium is both the protagonist and genuinely, sometimes painfully, gifted.
The first is by Hilary Mantel in her pre-Wolf Hall incarnation. Called Beyond Black it is currently being serialised on BBC radio. They describe it as blackly comic.
OK, I’ll put my hands up to a sense of humour failure here. I read it. I finished it because I thought I ought to. My scepticism, I am ashamed to report, did not protect me. I remember some very nasty bits which gave me nightmares for a long time. That presumably means it was well-written. Right?
I’ve managed to forget most of it, after much effort. For which I am grateful. It has gone from my bookshelf.
But my second toe in the psychic pool was a delightful experience.
This book was first published by Susan Hill’s Long Barn Books in 2006, when I bought it. I have read it a couple of times since, always finding something new and rewarding.
The Extra Large Medium by Helen Slavin is also beautifully written. Its protagonist is philosophical, kind, practical and an all round sweetheart. Many of her encounters are very funny. She skirts disaster but her common sense and sheer good-heartedness save her and many others. There is a mystery, too. It is solved, with emotional truthfulness, compassion and justice. This is a world it is not too difficult to recognise and characters whom one is delighted to know.
Well worth the detour from scepticism. Just like the novel with which this blog kicked off, in fact.
Interesting. My mother, pre Alzheimer’s, was a clairvoyant and palmist. Her gift was quite genuine and startling in her ability to see things that had happened to relatives of those who came to see her. She didn’t foretell the future and I might not agree with all her advice to people but she was clearly telepathic. But it is an area fraught with potential for scammers.
How interesting, Liz. I have had a couple of encounters which impressed me – though I think they may be explicable by empathy and have psychological origins, rather than be messages from the Great Beyond.
Courtesy of a very good friend on a profound spiritual quest I also encountered a group which took psychic phenomena very seriously. I felt they were all perfectly genuine but very likely there was a lot of wish-fulfilment involved.
But, as you say, the whole mediumship thing must be a gift to the scammers, as Harry Price and Houdini both seem to have demonstrated rather successfully.
When I was very young my parents were members of a spiritualist church. Apparently, my mother had “the gift” and my father “healing hands”. It didn’t last. From the age of about 7 I remember my father in particular being quite vicious in his condemnation of the whole caboodle. However, I must have retained a sneaking admiration for psychic abiliity, as I endowed one of my characters with an intermittent and unwanted gift. Mind you, when my son was young and a member of the Young Magic Circle, we all got interested in the whole Victorian aspect, especially Florence Cook. I shall definitely read Alison’s book, and the Extra Large Medium.
It is a fascinating area, isn’t it, Lesley? There are more thing in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy.
An unwanted gift is absolutely the stuff of dramatic tension. I’ve got something quite close to that in my current book, now I come to think of it. How strange.
I absolutely concur that All That Is Lost is brilliant. I absolutely devoured it.
I have similar themes in my next book, albeit approached totally differently. My hero is a paranormal investigator and total sceptic, my heroine can see ghosts and would really prefer not to. She doesn’t work as a medium, but communicating with the dead is like talking to a living person for her. I suppose it’s such a fascinating theme because we all deal with grief and loss, and we all do it differently.
Weirdly enough, I live within walking distance of an international spiritualist college—the Arthur Findlay College, where I’ve always wanted to have a look around (but they are pretty private and don’t even have open days).
Much look forward to that book, Kate. Has it got a title yet? Or a publication date?
Hah, yes finally I settled on Little Haunting by the Sea. It’s out on Hallowe’en…when else!
Good choice of date. Have now ordered and much look forward to reading it.
A strange coincidence…I finished the current book on the Kindle, and guess what came up next? Mr Scarlatti’s Ghost, the first in Linda Stratmann’s Victorian psychic investigator series!
Yes, that’s the sort of thing that brings up the hair on the back of your neck, isn’t it, Lesley?