A Ghost’s Story, by Lorna Gibb

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‘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.

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