OR: Calling the Spirits

A review that originally appeared on the Case Notes blog at the TTA Press website on 2/2/22:-

Recognised as a leading authority on all things Halloween, award winning horror writer Lisa Morton now casts her non-fiction net that bit wider with Calling the Spirits: A History of Seances (Reaktion Books hb, 351pp, £15.99).

While the longest chapter (over a hundred pages, and undoubtedly the beating heart of the book) concerns the Victorian age when mediums had something like rock star status, Morton is at pains to put the phenomenon of spiritualism in historical context. And so we have examples of necromancy from the Bible and earlier times, from Greek and Roman myth and literature. From there we move on to the Middle Ages and the Elizabethan age, with Doctor Dee and Edward Kelly, Cagliostro and the Comte St Germain, the invention of the phantasmagoria, which popularised ghosts by making them a form of entertainment. Next up, we have the Victorians and the modern séance as devised by the Fox sisters and then developed by diverse hands. Morton gives us potted histories of séance superstars like D. D. Home and Palladino, among many others, introduces us to true believers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and sceptics like the magicians Houdini and Maskelyne, related movements such as Theosophy and Spiritism. And finally we reach the modern age, with the science of parapsychology, mediums in books and films, television series like Ghost Adventures and Most Haunted.

My summary gives only the briefest of outlines of Morton’s exhaustive study, dealing with a belief system that is as wide and deeply rooted as the human heart, and in the last chapter of the book she tackles directly our need for proof of life after death, the human yearning that contact with the dead feeds into, by way of explaining the continuing popularity of our search for proof of an afterlife and the gift of communication with those who have passed on. Morton is obviously well read on the subject and skilled in disseminating her knowledge to the general reader. Her writing is informative and enlivened by moments of wit, an engaging approach that allows for never a dull moment. And although the book consists mainly of the facts and nothing but the facts, you can’t help but notice her scepticism creeping through on occasion, as with the observation that no medium (at least during the Victorian age) has ever escaped the charge of cheating/fraud.

With illustrations, both in black & white and colour, references, index and bibliography, this is a comprehensive study that will leave the reader knowing much more about an occasional prop of the horror genre, and which does an excellent job of placing the phenomenon in a broader context. For those with literary ambitions and a leaning towards horror fiction, it may well prove an invaluable aid to credibility, and possibly a source of inspiration.

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