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 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.