Many aspects of horror tread the fine line between frightening and absurd. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the figure of the spirit medium, as portrayed in literature and film, should prove no exception to this rule. Depictions range from the fraudulently comic, such as Mrs Haddock in The Durrells, to truly haunted individuals like Elise Rainier from the Insidious franchise.
In researching for my novel The Shape of Darkness, I found the real-life men and women who practised this spooky trade during the Victorian era were an equally varied bunch. Some were blatantly out to deceive, others appeared deluded, while a small proportion suffered supernatural experiences that changed the course of their lives.
For me, the fascination lay in exploring a character poised between two worlds, belonging to neither. Although the medium could be a “star” such as Florence Cook in the 1870s, her real purpose was to disappear from the room altogether. Rather than being wanted, she was a mere gateway that even the spirits suffered as an inconvenience. Nineteenth-century medium Elizabeth d’Esperance wrote in her memoir Shadow Land, “I feel very much like reminding [the ghost Anna] that she ought to be obliged to me, and take some notice of me sitting there, instead of sweeping past in so unceremonious a fashion.”
D’Esperance’s quote illustrates the paradox at the heart of the spirit medium’s life: while she apparently possessed a power, she needed to become passive to exercise it. She spoke with a voice of authority, but that voice was not her own.
My thoughts about these contradictions found expression in my character Pearl, a shy young girl held at the mercy of her “gift”. The following books helped me to bring her to life on the page – if you will excuse the pun.
1. The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England by Alex Owen
In a scholarly yet accessible work, Owen explores the role played by women as mediums, healers and believers during the late 19th century, detailing how the spiritualist movement subverted gender norms. An excellent selection of source material and astute commentary not only evoke the period but help the reader to engage with it.
2. Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel
No one writes about the dead better than Mantel. She breathed new life into the bones of Thomas Cromwell and the Wolf Hall Trilogy was full of gothic touches, but this earlier work is on another level. It tells the tale of spirit medium Alison and her toxic relationship with her manager, Collette, who inhabit a drab, threadbare life very like a ghost land in itself. They jazz up the concept of life after death to make it more palatable for their audience, however, the real fiends haunting Alison are obscene and bleakly horrific.
3. Affinity by Sarah Waters
There are some books that leave a lasting mark upon your heart, and this is one of them. The narrative follows recently bereaved spinster Margaret into Millbank Penitentiary, where she volunteers to visit the prisoners. Margaret finds herself drawn to and increasingly obsessed by Selina Dawes, a medium whose last seance left one woman dead and another deranged.
4. The Seance by John Harwood
This book is enormous fun as both a reverential pastiche and a compelling mystery. Recognising that the word “seance” also applied to mesmerism, it includes a captivating doctor with hypnotic eyes as well as spirit mediums. The main story focuses on Constance Langton, who becomes involved in spiritualism in order to help her grieving mother, but her efforts result in further tragedy. When Constance inherits the reputedly haunted Wraxford Hall, she finds herself reluctantly agreeing to dabble once more.
5. Shadow Land or, Light from the Other Side by Elizabeth d’Esperance
I’ve already made reference to this memoir written by “celebrity” medium Elizabeth d’Esperance, which is a fascinating, uncomfortable read. Whatever one’s own opinion on the supernatural, there can be little doubt that d’Esperance believed in what she was experiencing: shadowy figures of the dead occupying her childhood home, a ghostly boat stalking her holiday cruise and later spirits who wrote through her hand.
6. Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
Danny Torrance is not a typical spirit medium, nor is seeing the dead his only gift – if gift it can be called. But in this sequel to King’s famous horror The Shining, we gain a believable glimpse into the psychological toll such power would take upon its host, driving him to alcohol and drug abuse. Despite dark subject matter and thrilling action, this is ultimately an uplifting read, and the angle of Danny helping palliative care patients to pass more easily to the afterlife is an original one.
7. The Goddess and the Thief by Essie Fox
After the death of her parents in India, Alice moves to Windsor to help her Aunt Mercy stage seances with the dead. Their efforts attract the patronage of Queen Victoria herself. But while Mercy is a sham, Alice is developing powers of her own that seem to link both her native and adopted countries. As always, Essie Fox provides a historical novel rich with mystery and period detail. The contrast of damp, eerie seances in Windsor drawing rooms with the heat and colour of India is particularly effective here.
8. The Lost Village by Neil Spring
This is Spring’s second novel to feature real-life ghost hunter Harry Price and his assistant Sarah Grey, this time investigating paranormal mysteries in the abandoned village of Imber. Although Harry is an infamous sceptic, he is soon unsettled by the events that take place – along with the reader. The seance scene in this book is a standout for creepiness, and it was interesting to read it from the point of view of a meticulous researcher trying to prove fraud. Sarah is also a fascinating character, haunted by her past and possibly touched by psychic ability.
9. Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz
Another unconventional medium, the aptly named Odd works as a cook by day and shares a friendship with the ghost of Elvis Presley. But Odd does not just see the dead – he can predict disaster. When he meets a man swarming with “bodachs”, creatures that foretell imminent death, he sets out to stop the catastrophe he knows will occur. Exciting, poignant and full of lovable quirky characters, this story is a firm favourite in our household.
10. The Quickening by Rhiannon Ward
A seance first took place at Clewer House in 1896, when a medium announced that all the sons of the family would die. By the time the first world war ended more than 20 years later, her prediction had sadly come true. Grieving for her own losses, Louisa Drew arrives at Clewer on a photography assignment, but is surprised to hear the mistress plans to recreate the infamous seance with as many surviving guests as possible. A suspenseful read, inspired by a real-life occasion.