Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch


Anyone knowing how the author’s name has become a byword for masochism and expecting something racy, along the lines of The Whippingham Papers (1888) or Sadopaideia (1907) perhaps, will be disappointed by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 exploration of the pleasures and pains of abasement.  No one here says anything like ‘Oh, you naughty boy, won’t I make your arse tingle for this!’ (The Whippingham Papers); the tone is much more elevated.  Severin von Kusiemski is a young man of a somewhat aimless disposition who falls for the wealthy Wanda von Dunajew, a widow from Lemberg who is staying in the apartment upstairs at a Carpathian resort.  Severin has a bit of a fetish for being enslaved and having pain inflicted on him, not merely as role play but in earnest, something he sees as an aesthetic experience, a pagan freeing from rigid Christian morality.  His libidinal urges are dressed up in an intellectual covering.

Severin and Wanda become close and contemplate marriage.  There is interminable discussion between them as Severin puts his point of view, and after initial resistance and repeatedly asking if that is what he really wants, she eventually agrees to give his domination a go during the year-long engagement she has stipulated so they can see how they suit each other.  He even signs a contract which in part says that Wanda can kill him is she sees fit, and a supplementary document that is a suicide note.  He associates his pleasure with seeing Wanda in fur, and as he has identified her with the goddess Venus, she becomes his Venus in Furs.

What follows is the epitome of being careful what you wish for, as he finds he has bitten off rather too much.  Wanda becomes extremely enthusiastic and tests the limits of what he expected.  He finds that fantasy is one thing, but the practice is rather more sordid as they travel around and he is treated as a lackey.  Cleverly (and cruelly) Wanda keeps him guessing about her attitude towards him by flipping between being solicitous and being a bitch, but instead of enjoying it he finds her behaviour disconcerting.  When he realises the game is getting out of hand, no longer moving in a direction that suits him, he accuses Wanda of being ‘common’ and is affronted, thereby confirming he is a mere dilettante.

Unfortunately for Severin, Wanda cannot love a man who places himself below her.  Severin fantasises about being mistreated by Wanda while she belongs to someone else, but when it happens he can’t handle it.  In the end she breaks off her engagement to Severn and runs off with Alexis, a Greek officer so beautiful he could pass for a woman, and had when dressed as one and breaking male hearts.  The reader surmises that despite his own little sexual proclivity he is able to give Wanda more than Severin can.  But these Greeks can be jealous and Alexis severely whips tied-up Severin before he and Wanda depart forever; you didn’t expect that in your little scheme, eh Severin?  Wanda decides she needs a real man and her love for Severin has become contempt.  And why wouldn’t it, when Severin has objectified her and made her the tool of his fantasy.  There is a line between having a healthy consensual sex life and a single-minded compulsion which leads to narcissism.  Severin in his obsessiveness crosses it, and worse becomes a bore, as Wanda realises.

Fetishists on this showing are made, not born; Severin acquired his interest from an aunt who severely disciplined him as a youth – while wearing fur, naturally.  But what of Wanda?  Is there some innate desire within her which Severin elicits, or does he mould her to his will by constantly entreating her to mould him to hers?  Either way, Severin considers women to be ‘the enemy’, making his craving for Wanda’s domination ironically misogynistic rather than a form of female liberation.  He thinks that, the way society is at present constituted, love can never occur between equals, but one must be above the other.  However, if the woman is above, it is only because the man puts her there.  Severin still sets the agenda even as he claims to give it up to Wanda.  Paradoxically the greatest punishment Wanda could have served him would have been to ignore his desires, punishing by not punishing.

This was a brave book for the period and brought out a hitherto hidden aspect of private life, but Severin was not much of a role model, for anyone except Sacher-Masoch himself that is; an appendix contains a couple of contracts, very similar to those Wanda drew up for Severin, which Leopold signed in real life.  Even with this blurring of life and fiction Sacher-Masoch seems aware of Severin’s limitations, and the end of the novel shows Severin apparently cured of his predilection: the ‘suprasensual fog has dissolved’ as a result of Wanda’s antidote (i.e having taken him at his word rather than his thought).  Now he thinks he should have whipped her.  Or is he just saying that?  It is easy to say one is cured of an addiction, but proving it is another matter.  Perhaps now he can do something useful with his life, but who knows how he will react when the next Wanda comes along dressed in fur.

Before we get to Severin’s grandly titled Confessions of a Suprasensual Man about his relationship with Wanda, the central core of the book, there is an introductory section.  This is an account of a dream experienced by a friend of Severin’s, which is only made clear later.  The dream section ends with the friend being woken by a servant because it is time to go to Severin’s for tea.  Amusingly the book the friend had been reading when he fell asleep was by Hegel, so slumber was perhaps an unsurprising outcome.  Severin’s memoir is certainly more entertaining than the dour German philosopher’s oeuvre.

Margaret Bourke-White: A Biography, by Vicki Goldberg


Photographer and writer Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) was a larger-than-life personality, and Vicki Goldberg’s detailed 1986 biography delves into her many achievements and draws out her complex personality.  Margaret was always ground-breaking, pioneering photography as a career for women while ready to take risks in her own practice (to the extent she earned, and justified, the nickname at Life magazine of ‘Maggie the Indestructible’) as she pushed herself and her cameras to their utmost limits.

Her father was a brilliant and focused engineer and inventor, her mother a strong personality, and through them she absorbed a need for perfectionism.  In addition to a fascination with technology Margaret inherited an interest in photography from her father, and she soon saw it as a way to earn money and be independent.  She had a deep love of the natural world, and her first ambition was to be a herpetologist, but she decided she did not have the necessary aptitude.  Initially seen as a summer job to make extra money, her photographic activities became her central focus, initially influenced by the Photo-Secession – her first camera had a cracked lens but for the sorts of soft-focus images she was taking it hardly mattered.  She soon moved to a more realistic mode however.

She took a set of architectural photographs for the student yearbook when studying herpetology at the University of Michigan.  That was also where she met her first husband, and there is much on her disastrous early marriage to Everett ‘Chappie’ Chapman from 1924 to 1926 which shaped her attitude to future relationships.  Leaving Chappie (and his ghastly mother) she moved to Cornell University, from where she gained a B.A. in 1927, and more importantly where she started her career in earnest, taking photographs around campus for the student newspaper.  The same year she added the Bourke, her mother’s maiden name, to her original surname of White, essentially to sound classier.

After a spell back in New York she moved to Cleveland, specialising in architectural and industrial photography.  She quickly showed promise, and the lengths she went to in order to secure images for the Otis Steel Company indicated her determination, enduring harsh conditions using technology not really yet up to the job.  Her results established her reputation.  She was taken on by Henry Luce for Fortune magazine in 1929 to work on industrial subjects, where she stayed until 1935.  While with Fortune, on the strength of her depictions of industry she was allowed to photograph in Germany and more significantly in Russia, where she went three times, a tremendous feat for an outsider during that period.  She attained the status of a celebrity in the process, as the number of product endorsements she did testify.

In 1936 she joined Life, the publication she was associated with for most of the rest of her career, tackling a vast array of assignments.  She took the image that was used for the first cover, Fort Peck Dam shot to look like mediaeval fortifications, but expanded her range when shooting human interest stories for Life such as the displaced in the Dust Bowl and flood victims.  In 1938 she toured central Europe as war was looming.  She married the well-known writer Erskine Caldwell in 1939 after they had worked together and he had subsequently harassed her extensively by telegram while she was abroad.  The marriage turned into a pain, and she threw in the towel in 1942.  He emerges as a needy, insecure and difficult man who would have tested the patience of a more tolerant woman than Margaret (interviewed by Goldberg, he died the year after the book was published; one wonders what he thought of it).  But then she must have been difficult to live with herself, her absorption in her work prioritising her needs over others’.

During the war she came into her own: she was in Moscow as it was bombed; she was embedded with US forces in North Africa and Italy; she came under fire, was torpedoed in the Mediterranean (possibly the inspiration for Hitchcock’s Lifeboat); and finally went into Germany, where she visited Buchenwald and photographed Nazi families who had committed suicide.  She later wrote Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly: A Report on The Collapse of Hitler’s Thousand Years about her experiences there.

After the war she worked extensively in India and South Africa.  During her lengthy stay in the former she photographed a number of political leaders, notably Gandhi, including just a few hours before his assassination; to be allowed into the presence she had had to demonstrate her ability to spin, which may indicate that Gandhi had a sense of humour after all.  Typically she caused outrage by trying to photograph his corpse when she had been expressly forbidden.  For her, the assignment transcended social obligations; a contradiction Goldberg brings out well is Margaret’s social conscience in the abstract but her willingness to exploit individuals for her own ends, overriding their feelings if necessary.

She had to have a tough carapace, as witness the unflinching way she recorded Germany’s disintegration at the end of the war, and later the genocidal horrors of the India/Pakistan partition.  Lee Miller returned from the war shattered, whereas Margaret was able to close the horrors in a room and shut the door, as she had with failed relationships.  That is not to say she was not affected, but she was able to transcend the experience and continue working, using her camera as therapy (though she did indulge in modish psychoanalysis as well).

Unsurprisingly she was caught up in the McCarthy red-baiting hysteria as a result of her trips to Russia and her espousal of left-wing causes, some of which may have been Communist fronts (the FBI had started a file on her in 1940).  The disquiet about her loyalties among conservative journalists was heightened by her access to sensitive military technology; even a crash in the Chesapeake Bay while a passenger in a naval helicopter didn’t seem to count much in her favour.  In response to attacks in the press she covered the conflict in Korea to in order to affirm her democratic credentials, and incidentally showing she had lost none of her nerve and eye for seeking out a new angle on a story.

She was more than a photographer, honing her skills as a writer through a series of illustrated books on her travels beginning with the collaboration with Caldwell before they married, You Have Seen their Faces (1937), on deprivation in the American South.  Eventually she worked out a system that dovetailed assignments with speaking tours and books.  Her later life was marked by Parkinson’s disease, the first symptoms appearing in 1951 and diagnosed in 1954, an appalling disease for anybody, especially so for a photographer, but an affliction she bore, like all other travails, with fortitude.  By 1957 though, her professional career was over.  Thereafter she lived quietly, publishing an autobiography, Portrait of Myself, in 1963, undergoing two brain operations in an attempt to halt the progress of the disease, and attempting to stave off the worst effects by vigorous exercise and sheer will power.

Goldberg highlights the conflict Margaret experienced in negotiating her personal and professional lives.  The latter always won, but Margaret eventually found a balance that allowed for relationships (quite a lot of them it seems, some more transient than others) though never at the cost of her independence.  Loneliness was a by-product, yet she was incapable of making the sorts of compromises necessary for the two spheres to complement each other.  She was conscious that in a man’s world she had to work twice as hard.  What is less admirable is how she used her sex to her advantage.  She tapped into the expertise of men, their willingness to help her, in a manner a man could not have.  She faced discrimination, but being a woman did often ease her path.  When necessary she was not above crying to get her own way.  Even so she saw work as her religion and a factor to her success was the amount of time she was willing to invest, spending months or even years on a project, obsessively over-shooting to get what she wanted.

A large number of people were interviewed for the book, and mention should be made of the unfettered access Margaret’s brother gave to her private and family papers in his care.  All too frequently biographers are refused the right to quote or reproduce documents and photographs, but Roger White laid down no conditions, for which he is to be commended.  Some witnesses, particularly sexual partners, gave interviews on condition of anonymity, but the length of the acknowledgements testify to the number of people who were willing to talk about Margaret, and what comes out, despite her sometimes imperious ways, is the enormous affection they harboured for her.

Goldberg assesses judiciously but with compassion Margaret’s strengths and weaknesses, her brilliant eye for composition and her tenacity, but also occasional technical limitations and a certain distance from her subjects that saw them as types rather than individuals.  Margaret’s life is contextualised in the social and political movements she lived through, and also the technological developments in photography and its mass reproduction of which she was always aware and which enabled her images to be seen by millions of people in the heyday of the illustrated magazine.  This is a superb tribute to an astonishing woman, and anyone with an interest in photojournalism, or the turmoil of the twentieth century, should read it.


The Fascination of Evil, by Florian Zeller


In Florian Zeller’s 2004 short but complex novel, a French author living in Paris is invited by his embassy in Cairo to speak at a book festival in the city.  A fellow invitee, Martin Millet, is naively obsessed with emulating Flaubert’s sexual adventures in Egypt.  Unfortunately for him, times have changed and Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt is not the sexually liberated place of his imagination.  Looking for ripe eastern sensuality he discovers instead repression both sexual and political, and veiled women unavailable to a frustrated Westerner.  The only prostitutes (or possible prostitutes) in town are not Egyptian but Moroccan and Lebanese.  Sadly for Martin they will only sleep with wealthy Saudis, whose hypocrisy comes in for criticism: ultra-orthodox at home and decrying Western decadence, but licentious abroad.

Islam is of course shown to be entirely repressive towards women.  The narrator has an incident on the plane taking him to Egypt, full of pilgrims going on to Mecca, when a man objects to him sitting next to a veiled wife.  Their proximity is an affront to some kind of idea of modesty, but the ridiculousness of the posture is subsumed by concerns over cultural sensitivity and everybody changes seats in order to avoid an unpleasant situation.  (Later, reinforcing the sense of entitlement, a large number of passengers get up and start praying in the aisles, ignoring pleas to return to their seats when the plane hits some turbulence and oblivious to the inconvenience they are causing non-Muslim passengers with the noise and congestion.)

The narrator muses on how such a sexually repressed society can function healthily, and the ultimate answer is that it doesn’t.  Martin keeps wanting to go ‘behind the scenes’ in Cairo, by which he means he wants penetrative sex with a woman, despite being told repeatedly it can’t be found in modern Egypt.  There are clip joints certainly, of varying degrees of seediness full of local men grateful for not much, but Martin’s goal of meeting someone willing to have sex with him remains a mirage.  Flaubert certainly had an easier time locating the fleshpots when he visited the country.

Zeller does not just explore retrograde attitudes towards sexuality within Islam.  Martin notes that its texts express violence towards anyone who does not share its ideology, such as ‘the suras calling for the extermination of infidels’.  He argues that assertions of Islam to be essentially peaceful and its violence merely ‘a certain interpretation’ are made by those who have either not read the Koran or who appreciate that their justification is bogus but are afraid of saying the wrong thing.

Islam’s dour principles are directly counterposed to the liberal values of Western democracies.  Martin and the narrator find at the book fair that the vast bulk of the volumes are religious, with literature occupying a tiny part of it; an Egyptian writer claims Islam and ‘real literature’ are incompatible.  Egyptians, the visitors are told, don’t read much fiction.  The newspapers in Egypt are state-controlled, in the narrator’s eyes making their philistine critics, who speak of the necessity for literature to be ‘moral’, by which they mean Islamic, no better than civil servants and their opinions on the matter consequently of no value.  ‘Criticism’ and ‘cretinism’ are not, the narrator decides, too far apart here.  You do have to wonder at the largesse of the French culture ministry that they can afford such a futile exercise as funding these two minor novelists to give a couple of talks to indifferent audiences.

This is a country where the Thousand and One Nights is banned and Madame Bovary considered alien to the moral life of Egypt.  But more, Flaubert is used by Egyptian commentators to condemn Western standards generally and, Martin maintains, the rot is spreading to Europe itself.  The narrator considers Flaubert’s description of his encounter with a prostitute, censored by his niece, and the danger of assuming one has possession of the truth and it is the only truth which counts: ‘In this respect, Flaubert’s niece was as dangerous as the Sheikh of Cairo.’  The analysis given during a talk that the novel form represents modernity with its freedoms, complexities and ambiguities, which is why Islam, rooted in a pre-modern worldview, has a problem with it, unsurprisingly has a frosty reception.

Even so, The Fascination of Evil takes aim as well at archaic notions of Orientalism, satirising Martin as he blunders about propositioning women he assumes are ‘whores’ while he explains away his lack of success as being the fault of Saudis with deeper pockets.  Somehow assuming the Egypt of 2004 to be roughly the same as the Egypt Flaubert had experienced in 1849, Martin, in his self-absorption seeks his goals without thought for others’ sensibilities, echoing the way Western governments and their citizens have behaved in the past.

Partway through, the book changes tack and Martin’s backstory becomes important.  As an unattractive youth, he had been snubbed by a girl, and he thinks she is now on the embassy staff but hasn’t recognised him.  He manipulates the narrator to be the vehicle of his revenge on her.  This part is less successful because the mechanism for Martin’s plan is arbitrary as there are numerous ways events could have developed otherwise.  It feels forced, but Martin’s chequered romantic history allows Zeller to make the point that while Islam may have a repressive attitude to sex, European freedoms can have their own downside when it comes to interpersonal relationships and the fulfilment of sexual desire.

Also towards the end you get an inkling the narrator is not necessarily reliable.  Martin gets a black eye while out on his own looking for sex, but later, during a tussle, the narrator thinks he may have given it to him.  There are occasional indications that the narrator’s memory may not be dependable, and words like hallucination and apparition suggest his perceptions are off-kilter.  There is a disclaimer at the beginning which states: ‘This book is fiction: the majority of what is said in it is not true the rest, by definition, isn’t either.’  Possibly not, but in what follows we learn not to trust what we are told, so there is no reason to believe that this statement is accurate either.

It gets even stranger because six months after the end of the trip the narrator receives a book apparently written by Martin using a different name (but Martin Millet wasn’t his real name either) called The Fascination of Evil, published the same year as Zeller’s book and recounting the trip Zeller has just described in his The Fascination of Evil, though with some differences.  Despite having heard it all at first-hand previously, the narrator considers the descriptions of Islam, and the gradual Islamisation of Europe Martin’s book predicts, to be ‘defamatory and insulting’ to countries towards which he himself harbours an attraction.

Amusingly Zeller (or rather the narrator) quotes a fictional article which characterises the book – i.e. Martin’s, but by extension Zeller’s – as ‘bad’, and describes the search for the writer’s identity being conducted, after dismissing Michel Houellebecq, among the ‘less important authors’.  While continuing to deny responsibility Martin is eventually outed, generating accusations of Islamophobia against him among those quick to be offended.  Martin points out very reasonably that taking issue with religious doctrine is a philosophical act having nothing to do with its adherents, and to accuse a critic of being racist, and inciting racial hatred, is dishonestly conflating the two.

Zeller has to stress that fiction does not necessarily represent the views of its creator, something it shouldn’t be necessary to spell out but is for people who tend not to read novels unless looking for something to complain about; there is a reference to the Salman Rushdie persecution which highlighted the clash between Enlightenment values and those holding to a more rigid ethos.  Zeller’s may be a cake-and-eat-it strategy but that does not diminish the danger of rational debate being stifled by lazy charges of Islamophobia and the fear of violent overreaction from those who are adamant their views take precedence over others’.  It sounds as if Zeller has Rushdie in mind when charting Martin’s tribulations, but as it happens Rushdie was luckier than Martin, who meets his fate at the hands of an extremely severe opponent of his right to express opinions without being murdered.  Zeller implies that if we in the West fail to defend our culture, as symbolised by the freedom of the novel form, then we deserve everything we get.

A Case to Answer, by Edgar Lustgarten


These days Edgar Lustgarten (1907-78) is better known as a television personality and true crime historian than a novelist but his first novel A Case to Answer, published in 1947, has its merits.  It follows the trial for murder of Arthur Groome, accused of killing a Soho prostitute.  A family man with a loving wife, Groome had formed an unhealthy attachment to Kate Haggerty, a woman from Liverpool who had moved to London for better prospects but who had been reduced to streetwalking.  When she is found in her room bludgeoned, stabbed and partially dismembered, reports of his jealousy at her refusal to abandon her lifestyle and his occasional outburst of violent speech make him a prime suspect.  His account of his movements between leaving work and discovering the body with Kate’s landlady is unreliable, even suspicious, so it is unsurprising he finds himself in the dock.

But is he really guilty?  There are hints from the start he may not be, and these are strengthened as the case proceeds.  Lustgarten shows how circumstantial evidence can be misleading.  At one point Groome confesses to having lied and says in mitigation that the truth sounds so false it would not be believed: better a plausible lie than an implausible truth when one’s life is at stake.  The defence asks the jury if they have ever been in the position of having a situation misunderstood by a third party.  The prosecution asks if anything Groome has said can be believed.  Unfortunately the volume of indirect evidence, added perhaps to distaste for the relationship with a prostitute which had had a sexual component, is enough to convict Groome, and the ultimate sentence is passed.

However, as Lustgarten indicates, circumstantial evidence is not necessarily the whole truth, and can lead the expert astray when making deductions based on incomplete information.  The prosecution blithely assumes that in a capital crime anyone with relevant information would have come forward, but Lustgarten then shows that such is not always the case, for understandable reasons.  A shady restaurateur who could have given Groome an alibi for the period when the murder took place holds back, as does a dancer who had been a friend of Kate’s and who could have supported Groome’s contention that the penknife used in the stabbing had been in Kate’s possession, as Groome claimed.  They both have their own reasons for not coming forward, mostly to do with not wanting police scrutiny of their own activities, or having old events raked up, so they let it go, putting their own interests above the accused’s.

Not helping matters, the police investigation is woeful.  It is established that the victim was subjected to an attack using three different weapons – a blunt instrument, a small knife, which is recovered, and a sharp thin blade.  The blunt instrument is not referred to at all during the trial and no mention is made of a search for it.  The sharp knife is mentioned in passing but again little is made of it, until the defence barrister points out that as he believes his client to be innocent, the real murderer must still have it (not necessarily of course, it could be in the river).  Forensic analysis is lacking and the defence makes no reference to the fact that far from having a few spots of blood on his suit, which Groome could account for by having knelt by the body once it had been found, he would have been covered in it had he been responsible for such a violent act.  Lustgarten’s interest is on the mechanics of the trial and the individuals involved, not the processes of crime detection, and the treatment of the police and medical participation is cursory.

The major pleasure of the book is the courtroom atmosphere Lustgarten evokes, based on his experience as a barrister, giving the novel a feeling of verisimilitude.  He uses the trial as a framework upon which to examine the personalities of various individuals involved in the proceedings, from the judge and opposing counsels (the prosecuting barrister keen to return to his commercial work) to the press, the spectators, Mrs Groome (an unrealistically devoted spouse considering her husband’s foolishly disloyal actions) and even Kate’s father, an unsentimental man for whom the trial is something of a holiday up in the big city.

Groome is hanged, still protesting his innocence, but there is a twist.  Just as the execution takes place the Home Secretary receives a lengthy statement purporting to come from the real murderer.  This shows the writer to have modelled himself on Jack the Ripper, his aim to conduct a moral crusade against prostitutes and indicating that the prosecution of Groome was an act of stupidity on the part of the authorities.  The Home Secretary dismisses the letter as a hoax, but the novel concludes back in Soho at 9am, as he has finished reading and just as Groome is hanged.  The final words echo the opening, with a door gently opening.

Clearly the killer has struck again so it is only a matter of time before the hapless Groome’s innocence is proved – but too late for him.  This is an anti-capital punishment novel showing how easy it is to arrive at a verdict which seems sound but is based on faulty suppositions.  The procedural aspects may creak, but Lustgarten still manages to convey the pitfalls of returning a murder conviction where there were no eyewitnesses and the evidence is not sufficient to bear the interpretation imposed upon it.  Groome may have had a case to answer in the eyes of the law, but the authorities have an even bigger one in sanctioning capital punishment.

Notes for Investigators of Spontaneous Cases, by A. D. Cornell and Alan Gauld


Before the Society for Psychical Research had an online encyclopaedia it published short handy practical guides to particular topics.  Notes for Investigators of Spontaneous Cases (this new edition from 1968 is completely different to Guy Lambert’s 1955 SPR booklet with the same title) was written by ‘ADC’ and ‘AG’, Tony Cornell and Alan Gauld.  It provides guidance, based on their extensive experience, for the psychical researcher dealing with cases happening outside a controlled setting.  The authors begin by noting that many reported to the SPR turn out to have ordinary explanations.  Of those without an obvious cause, they list the types of ostensible phenomena they consider the most significant: precognition, spontaneous extra-sensory perception (clairvoyance and telepathy), out-of-body experiences, and of course apparitions, with various sub-types, and poltergeists.  Cornell and Gauld indicate how blurred the lines between the last two can be.

After a brief outline of each type they move on to list steps the investigator should follow.  The first is to become familiar with the relevant literature, a fundamental many ‘ghost hunters’ these days ignore.  Having acquired such knowledge, there are procedures to be followed in all cases which may have some paranormal element, such as to interview and assess witnesses, undertake a site visit, and obtain signed statements.  After ruling out, where possible, ordinary causes, the task is to learn more about the phenomena.  This entails ensuring the account has not been exaggerated and testing the validity of the claim, drawing on newspapers and other records as well as witness statements.  On completion a detailed report should be lodged with the SPR.

It is unlikely that evidence for paranormality can be obtained from cases which have ceased and where no records have been kept, so the advice is primarily aimed at dealing with ongoing poltergeist and haunting cases.  Documentation is key, along with attempts to witness phenomena.  The difficulty of the latter should not be underestimated and teamwork is preferable to a solo effort.  Brief guidelines for vigils are given, along with a list of recommended equipment.  A section on the automatic monitoring of a location clearly indicates that as early as 1968 Cornell was thinking of the sorts of apparatus which would eventually be integrated into his SPIDER initiative.  The authors suggest that the use of a medium, or better several working independently whose impressions are compared, could prove useful in generating data.

A series of visits are recommended in gauging the importance of the case and it is vital not to jump to conclusions prematurely.  The authors list examples of natural causes, which are many and varied, including one that happened to me – the creaking of floorboards in sequence because of changes in temperature, which had the unnerving effect of sounding like someone walking across the bedroom above my head while I was alone in the house.  Cornell and Gauld note that some explanations seem obvious when pointed out, but events can be blown up by an imaginative (or nervous) person or as the result of suggestion.  The possibility of hoaxing and practical jokes must always be borne in mind, but also that there could be a mixture of fraudulent and genuine activity.

The booklet ends by touching on the reassuring approach investigators should adopt and the contrast between them, wishing a phenomenon to continue to allow them to study it, and householders, who want it to cease so their lives can get back to normal.  A few words are said about press relations, and finally the need for flexibility in any investigation, a willingness to learn from experience, including mistakes.  ‘The prime requisites of an investigator are patience, humour, an open mind and the willingness to make a large number of fruitless excursions.’

There is much sense in these 17 pages and while to some extent outdated (I’m not sure tying a ‘suspect’ in a person-centred case to a chair with a bag over their head would go down well these days), this booklet, along with others published by the SPR, still have value to the historian of psychical research.  They deserve to be better known and I have argued they should be included in the SPR’s (or rather Lexscien’s) online library.  If those interested in seeing them more widely available were to write to Lexscien perhaps that would stimulate its directors to get their scanner out and expand the online library’s content with these fascinating documents.

A Ghost’s Story, by Lorna Gibb


‘Katie King’ is well known to those familiar with the history of Spiritualism as the name given to an alleged spirit which appeared at many séances, communicating through several mediums, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Lorna Gibb’s first novel takes an intriguing tack: rather than having a walk-on part in other people’s stories Katie has been made the centre, linking the episodes in which she was said to manifest and in effect creating the fictionalised biography of a spirit.  This is not Gibb’s first biographical study – she has written on Rebecca West and Hester Stanhope – but it is the first in which there is no direct evidence for her subject’s existence.  Even so, the non-fiction scaffolding makes it easy to believe one is reading about a real, albeit discarnate, individual.

The ‘biography’ is compiled from a variety of texts stitched together, some said to have been taken down as automatic writing by mediums in different countries and at different times, several composed by Katie herself on a bookshop computer in Italy.  It is full of historical characters: Robert Dale Owen, the Davenport brothers, Alfred Russel Wallace (though Katie refers to him as ‘Lord’ Alfred, so she is not omniscient), Mrs Guppy, William Crookes, Florence Cook, Eusapia Palladino, T. Glen Hamilton, and numerous others drawn from the Spiritualist and psychical research literature.  Adding to the sense that this is a non-fiction analysis, Kate’s fragmented narratives are presented by ‘Dr Lorna Gibb’, who is pursuing academic research; by making herself a character in her own book, Gibb adds a meta-fictional layer which underpins the plausibility of the unlikely events described.  Interpolated between the sections is commentary from a fictional character, the late Adam Marcus, librarian at the Magic Circle who had combined them from their disparate sources to make a coherent narrative, often adding references to real scholarly articles.  Adam had revisited the fragments during his terminal illness and his commentaries indicate how he had moved from scepticism to belief in Katie.

The novel opens with the words ‘I am aware’.  Katie is coming to consciousness, but it could also mark the moment of death of the person she was when alive.  These first impressions are fleeting, but the entity which will become Katie, or sometimes John King depending on the medium, can name the objects she sees, so must have had prior knowledge upon which to draw.  Unfortunately, although she has consciousness, Katie has limited agency and she has to go where she is called, from country to country.  Unable most of the time to interact with the world, her powers are intermittent and inconsistent.  She desires to connect physically, trying with only partial success to influence the environment, and enter the bodies of mediums in order to experience her surroundings vicariously.  Most people have no sense of her presence, but some do, and on rare occasions she can even inhabit a mortal briefly.

While mediumship could be a religious calling, as well as a way for women with restricted opportunities to make their way, it was a form of entertainment, and often a cover to exploit the bereaved.  Gibb brings out the séance’s frequent salaciousness, showing it was not necessarily the ethereal experience of contemporary descriptions.  Sitters had a range of motives, not least a desire to witness mediums apparently in trance acting in a sexual manner and scantily clad materialised spirits happy to be felt to prove their solidity.  Katie can see that a few mediums possess genuine powers of a sort, while some are fraudsters or a mixture.  Ironically sitters and mediums who consider mediumship to be fraudulent actually have a spirit in the room.  Mediums cheat to demonstrate their powers and their feeble performances lead sceptics to debunk them, yet life after death does exist.

Katie’s fortunes are tied to those of Spiritualism’s, and her profile within it.  She observes old haunts change and belief in her recede as fewer subscribe to the movement’s tenets.  As the years pass and people think less and less about Katie, her consciousness becomes increasingly sporadic, and when she is aware can spend decades waiting to be called, often in a cinema (surprisingly being a film buff) or bookshop.  In the end she is reduced to turning up at a ceremony to mark the centenary of Katie’s first public appearance, and keeping Adam company in his last days, given strength to be there by his belief in her even though she is invisible to him.  When the last person to believe in her has gone, will she too cease to be?  Perhaps this is her story’s end, after two centuries, or she could continue indefinitely in a twilight state.

In any case Katie has a greater nebulousness than we might assume, her form influenced by the medium’s imagination.  She is usually regarded as a woman, and the most famous photographs show ‘her’ as such, but has no strong identity as female and cannot recall having been human let alone being called Katie or John King in life.  Questions arise from the novel, such as how she came into being, whether she was ever a human, where she is when not conscious, and whether there are more like her.  Katie never meets any fellow spirits and it is a supremely lonely existence, having only rare moments of direct contact with the living.  She might as easily be an alien intelligence as someone who has passed over.  If this is the hereafter, extinction may be preferable.  Yet despite Katie’s lack of connection to the living there is a love story, detailing her unrequited passion for British-American social reformer Robert Dale Owen whom she believes she saved from death as a child and whose obsession with Spiritualism leads to tragic consequences for which she blames herself.

A Ghost’s Story’s documentary core encourages us to ponder, as we peruse the historical records, what Katie’s afterlife might look like on the assumption she is real, but the discontinuous structure prevents it being an effective novel.  We empathise with her, but apart from Owen, who is a recurrent presence in Katie’s mind and is seen at points from boyhood to old age, most characters are rarely around long enough for the reader to engage with them.  The finished product looks like something that was an excellent idea on paper and it has patches of fine writing, but overall it plods.  Probably it would have been, like Gibb’s previous books, better as a nonfiction treatment of Katie and the researchers who studied her as she comes and goes – in the process charting the séance’s evolution as it developed, passed its heyday, and declined.

Cuba Libre, by Elmore Leonard


Historical fiction from Elmore Leonard may seem a surprising change of direction from his thrillers set in the present, but in a sense it is a return to his roots writing cowboy pulps.  His 1998 Cuba Libre is set in Cuba precisely a century before it was published, just prior to and during the Spanish-American war.  A Cuban peasantry suffering under brutal Spanish oppression and a United States eager to turn the situation to its own advantage constitute the backdrop to an adventure story as Ben Tyler arrives with his business partner Charlie three days after the US battleship Maine sank in Havana Harbour to sell horses to wealthy sugar baron, landowner and entrepreneur Rollie Boudreaux.

Ben had spent a summer on the island when he was nine because his father had managed a sugar mill, so he feels some connection to the place.  For his part, it is useful to Charlie having someone along who knows Cuba and can use his initiative.  That is because horses are not all that Ben and Charlie are importing; Ben works out that Charlie must have a side-line in smuggled guns hidden with the livestock, intended for Cuban insurgents fighting for their independence.  Horseflesh can make a better price in Cuba than in the US, but only if corners are cut on the import duty.  It’s a small margin and the guns achieve a bigger one, as long as one doesn’t get caught.

Tyler is an archetypal Leonard character, a basically decent man who reacts strongly to situations he deems unfair.  Such had been the case when he could not collect money owed to him by a mining company, so he stole, or in his eyes withdrew by force, what he was owed from the company’s bank.  The simplicity of the transaction had rather gave him a taste for robbing banks, though as he discovered there was a downside as it led to a prison term in Yuma.  In Cuba he finds himself in a similar position to the one with the mining company when Rollie, woefully underestimating him, cheats on the horse deal.  Making life further complicated, Ben and Rollie’s mistress, Amelia, fall deeply in love.

Then Ben comes up against brutal Spanish colonialists, the Dons.  He manages to cross ruthless officer Lionel Tavalera, who has been fighting the insurgents and doesn’t have much time for American gun-runners either.  To add to Ben’s problems he finds himself in prison after shooting a trouble-seeking Guardia Civil in self-defence.  While he and Charlie are conveniently incarcerated the authorities vainly try to locate the ship with the guns.  The execution of Charlie does not sweeten Ben’s temper, however he is sprung from prison, falls in with the guerrillas, and becomes part of a hoax kidnapping of Amelia to collect $40,000 from Rollie with which to supply the rebellion.  If possible the plot gets thicker as everybody decides they want the money for themselves while the inevitable war between Spain and the vastly superior US military looms ever-closer.

The characters are fairly standard Leonard fare.  With the possible exception of Ben everyone is mercenary about money – Amelia, members of the business community, the military, even Cubans fighting the Spanish.  Ben is more principled but still happy to go along with Amelia’s plans for her sake.  Their sudden falling in love doesn’t ring quite true; there is a hint that she is enthralled by his bank-robbing past, but the depth of her sudden attachment is hard to credit.  The villains, notably Tavelera, are drawn with greater depth, and the ambivalence of the Cuban patriots towards the coming war, hating the Spanish but mistrustful of the Americans, torn between a desire for independence and self-interest, is nicely brought out.

The historical background is well researched though Leonard often cannot resist shoe-horning slabs of it in, as if to display his credentials as a serious novelist, using Neely of the Chicago Tribune as his mouthpiece.  He does try to set right some of the myths, such as showing that Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders were not quite the efficient military machine of legend but in fact a bunch of hapless amateurs who had to be rescued at San Juan Heights by a regiment of black regular soldiers.  Above all he tackles American cynicism in taking on for its own enrichment a feeble Spain in a fight it couldn’t lose, such as airing the modern-sounding conspiracy theory that the Americans blew up the Maine themselves to provoke the war and take control of Spanish overseas interests.  Whether it was an accident, the Spanish were exceptionally stupid, or it was a false flag operation, it all worked out well for the US, as it does for Ben and Amelia.

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