Following a recent post on John Dickson Carr’s The Lost Gallows over at The Green Capsule, I was reminded of just how much I love a séance in fiction. Now, to be clear, I’m with Charlie Brooker on psychics and other such manipulative awfulness, but have a real love of sleight of hand and up-close magic (as perhaps evinced in my enthusiasm for fair play detective fiction and impossible crimes therein) and a debunked séance is often a great way to explore the little ways a set of circumstances can be misrepresented, and often some fascinating insights come out of it.
So, here are five great séances from detective fiction, alpabetically by author.
Peril at End House (1932) by Agatha Christie I know, right? You’re thinking Well, I would have gone for The Sittaford Mystery, and you’re welcome to do so in your own list. This is only a brief scene towards the end, but I love the way Poirot just casually mentions Hastings’ (fictional) mediumistic abilities without first telling Hastings he’ll be doing so. We don’t learn much about the tricks, but I think this was the first séance I encountered in fiction, and the way Hastings has to ham it up without having any idea what’s coming really stuck with me. [Available from Harper Collins in print and ebook]
The Plague Court Murders (1934) by Carter Dickson Carr didn’t write much by way of séances, at least not as far as I’ve encountered, which given his love of the supernatural seems odd. And technically the expected setup — of people sitting around holding hands while a spirit raps and giggles — is really just the backdrop to the ‘real’ séance which sees a man stabbed in the back in a hut locked inside and out and surrounded by mud that snows not one single footprint. But there’s a great line on Who Was Where When at the point of detection, which exploits the factitious aspect of these undertakings beautifully. [Currently OOP — I know, I know, don’t get me started…]
The Hand of Mary Constable (1964) by Paul Gallico I’m not a fan of Gallico’s writing, nor of his hero Alexander Hero who seems to encounter all women first and foremost in terms of their attractiveness (even a twelve-year-old girl will, we’re told, grown up to be a real beauty…thanks, Paul). But this and its prequel Too Many Ghosts have some great ghostly manifestations, this getting the edge for the ‘unfakeable’ impression of a hand left in wax during a séance and the fact that there’s a combined set of explanations for virtually every ghostly manifestation going in these two books alone. Gallico also wrote The Poseidon Adventure, if you’re curious, and has one of the oddest bibliographies going for the sheer number of genres he hopped around in. [Currently OOP]
Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot This is the positive ne plus ultra of fictional séances, with manifestations, a glowing disembodied face that floats away from our party and — when disbelieved and pursued through the house — disappears in front of several witnesses. But the part that really abides in my mind is the way Rogan Kincaid’s message to his grandmother is read despite being sealed in an envelope that remains unopened by the psychic leading the show. It’s just a nifty little trick, handily exposed as one by Kincaid’s own particular twist on the occasion… [Available from Ramble House in print and, possibly, ebook]
To Say Nothing of the Dog (1997) by Connie Willis I’m out of era here, and it’s not even an impossible crime, but Willis’ time-travelling detective mystery is one of the most gloriously brilliant books I’ve read in the last ten years. With the fraud medium (yes, that’s a tautology) having her séance hijacked for reasons too complex to go into here, this becomes increasingly hilarious as we’re treated to her panic at having apparently actually contacted a spirit while the workings and counter-workings of the séance and the sabotage are gleefully detailed and spiral into ever-more ridiculous heights. [Available from Gollancz in print and ebook]
I didn’t realise how difficult it would be to stop at five — there’s still The Sittaford Mystery for an explanation of ‘forcing’ a séance, and a second method for reading a message in an evelope in Paul Halter’s The Fourth Door, and in fact the jumping-table-when-everyone-has-their-hands-flat-on-the-surface along with the forcing of a message again in Halter’s The Lord of Misrule (are you proud of me? Two chances to mention Halter and I didn’t…), that Joseph Commings story, the Jaccques Futrelle one, plus this same idea explored in TV and radio…well, suffice to say this might be something I return to at some point.
I submit the cover of Peril at End House as part of the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category Spooky House/Mansion, and the cover of The Plague Court Murders as part of the same under the category Cat. Can I do that, two categories in one post? Bev…third umpire needed!