Victorians, Steampunk, and Séances
by Colleen Gleason
The second book in my young adult steampunk and adventure series, The Spiritglass Charade, has a plot that revolves around a popular Victorian pasttime: séances and spirit-talking. Gathering around a table in a pitch-black room and calling the spirits, usually via a medium, was all the craze—and not just in Victorian England, but also in the United States. In fact, two of the most famous mediums—the Fox sisters (who, by the way, later confessed to be frauds)—were American.
While the first book in this, the Stoker & Holmes series, featured another Victorian interest (Egyptology), I decided it would be utterly fitting to combine my cog-filled, mechanics-driven steampunk world with that of the spiritualism fad. It made a lot of sense, and the more I researched Victorian England, the more I realized how absolutely perfect a fit this was.
Start with the two protagonists in my series—Mina Holmes (niece of Sherlock) and Evaline Stoker (sister of Bram, descendant of vampire-hunter Victoria Gardella). They are so different, I knew they’d approach the idea of attending a séance from completely different perspectives. Mina, of course, would be filled with the need to explain the rapping sounds and ghostly writing on a slate, and Evaline (being a hunter of supernatural creatures) would have a much more open mind and be willing to take whatever comes.
As the book progresses, we shift from the perspective and opinion of one to the other—seeing Mina’s pragmatic point of view, and then understanding why Evaline argues the opposite.
And then there’s the fact that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who was great friends with Bram Stoker—how’s that for a coincidence?) had a life-long belief in spiritualism and séances. He was fascinated by the idea of the after life and other worldly life, and spent much of his time attending séances. In fact, he and Harry Houdini (who was firmly in the opposite camp, and spent his time debunking spirit-talkers) were very close friends for many years until they had a falling out over this very subject. Doyle strongly believed in the afterlife, and Houdini had spent so much of his life conducting the very tricks false mediums used during their events that he couldn’t believe in it at all—although he truly wanted to.
It made sense to me to feature séances with fraudulent mediums…and perhaps not-so-fraudulent mediums…in this story. I learned about all of the ways the (mostly women) spirit-talkers conducted false examples of spirit-talking—from learning how to crack their toe and knee joints loudly enough to sound like ghostly rapping—to sleight-of-hand tricks to do ghostly writing on slates or table-shifting, etc. Initially, I thought it would be necessary for me to use the steampunk element of fancy gadgets and amazing devices in order to create the effects of a false séance, I soon learned from my research that it wasn’t necessary: the Victorians had it covered with their own creativity and simple mechanisms.
Yet during my research I also found examples of mediums who were never debunked, even through the Society for Psychical Research (directed by Harvard professor and William James)—including Mrs. Nellie Titus and Leonora Piper. (For excellent reading on the subject, try Deborah Blum’s Ghost Hunters.)
So did I “take sides” in the debate in The Spiritglass Charade? Hmmm…no comment from me! Whether or not there are truly ghosts and spirits that talk to people is up to you to decide…
Courtesy of Chronicle Books, I have a copy of The Spiritglass Charade by Colleen Gleason for one (1) lucky winner!
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