Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Do you like things that go bump in the night?

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!

The Dark, by Claire Mulligan

There is something delicious about being scared witless, when you know it isn’t, or possibly won’t, or likely won’t really happen to you, at least not tonight.  All my life I’ve loved to savour ghost stories, despite my father once telling me that reading about that sort of thing, or even focussing on that sort of thing, could attract spirits from dark places, and that I was much better off to focus my thoughts elsewhere.  I took all this in with huge round eyes, at the age of thirteen, and for the most part listened to his advice.  But every once in a while, I indulge in the scary. 

While this historical novel is about the rise of Spiritualism in the 1800s and the famous Fox sisters, who created the movement but later confessed to being frauds, this is also one spooky read!  

Although the author gives psychological reasons for many characters’ reactions, there are still strange threads left dangling about button holes, and moist clumps of dirt inexplicably soiling well cleaned floors.  

The story largely settles on the middle Fox sister, Maggie, who is old, penniless, and dying in a garret.  Her life has been clouded with guilt brought on in childhood when she and her sister amused themselves by assaulting a pedlar, and on the ghost games they played on their gullible mother, and then the public.  But although we hear about how the girls were technically able to produce sounds to fool their mother, and then a séance, many other dark mysteries surrounding the girls linger to create an atmosphere that is almost suffocating with anxiety.  If the girls weren’t literally haunted by spirits, they were certainly haunted by the consequences of their actions. 

Although historical fiction is often mocked, this novel is told with such cunning and beauty that it deserves to be read.  This is a fascinating study of human psychology, but also of times and traditions long past.  The sisters are initially afraid of the dark, as an adult warns “Here, folks respect the gloaming don’t they? They know it’s God’s signal to shutter themselves in nice and safe.”

The gloaming.  The very word kicks in some kind of cellular memory that instantly raises the hair on my arms.  

When Maggie and Katie assault the pedlar, he curses them fearfully.  This incident is pivotal to the entire Spiritualist movement, and the ruined lives that unfold.  Along with the curse, he calls them “hoyden bitches” an alarming phrase, although it merely means boisterous or high spirited bitches.  Literally I used a dictionary throughout this book, eagerly looking up such phrases as bonny clabber, apple flummery, lambrequin on the windows, jackanapes, tintinnabulation…  Somehow, these old timey words evoked old memories, as though this book bridges the gap from ancient to modern.  A world where “nasty littles” in shadow grey skin give way to gas light on front porches, and ultimately electric light glowing in every room, allowing people to stay up, and even stay outside for as long as they please, fearless of the spirit infested dark that terrorized earlier peoples. 

The rise of Spiritualism took place when Victorians were celebrating death fashions, plaiting hair of recently deceased loved ones, to be worn as jewellery by the living, taking pictures of corpses that had been arranged to look as though they were merely sitting and reading a book.  

Maggie’s husband (a cad) proposes to her by taking her to a cemetery, and pointing out the grave she will one day share with him if she agrees to be his wife.  The husband is Elisha Kane, the famed explorer who tried to find the lost Franklin expedition.  

You just know the relationship will end badly when he tells Maggie, just before she is about to pour out her heart to him: “You’re so wonderously mysterious, Tuttlie, promise you will always stay so.” 

Humor arises throughout the book, unexpectedly.  At the death-bed wedding of their much older pragmatist sister Leah to a poorly suitor, young Maggie and Katie busy themselves making ‘rum-flips’.  Many puns arise around the word “spirits”.

Unfortunately, the elder pragmatist Fox sister wonders “Has there ever been a woman who has not once worn a cloak made of modesty and manners and piety? Soon the cloak hardens into a shell, which is quite useful, as it keeps one from screaming.”  The time frame is not that far from the Salem witch hunts, and the Fox sisters themselves nearly lose their lives on several occasions when angry mobs swarm, intending brutal murder, enraged by the women’s “ blasphemies”.

The father’s advice to his daughters is powerful:  “The world is God and the Glory is God and everything of flesh and everything of green and God is not one thing, but everything holds its position.”  

He has suffered his own traumatic experiences with alcoholism and ghosts, and finally turns to spirituality, something the girls are quite blind to.  He is powerless to help them.

I will warn this book is long.  The author insists on immersing us in this recently passed world.  There is a fascinating and detailed description of the canal transportation system in Upstate New York, not to mention the cultural shift from heavy drinking to tea-totalling.  Appalling cruelties are everyday stuff, liquor is given to babies, laudanum is prescribed to middle class women.  Slavery is debated and rationalized.  Despite the length, the book is well worth reading, especially if you’re looking for a few chills on a warm summer evening.  Just don’t read it out on your porch, after the sun has set.  Recall Leonard Cohen’s line while reading this, “magic loves the hungry”.  The girls were hungry, in every sense, and the ghosts did oblige.

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