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Stranger Than Fiction

Book review: Spirits of Desire


Published April 6, 2005 at 4:00 a.m.

What becomes a legend most? Anything to do with ghosts, you might conclude after reading Greg Guma's mysterious new debut novel, Spirits of Desire. But you'd be only partly right -- the part that sees the obvious and either marvels or snorts at it.

This is the central tension in Guma's book, the theme that allows it to rise above the usual run of "ghost stories." Now a contributing editor at the weekly Vermont Guardian, Guma is best known as a political commentator and activist. He is also the author of The People's Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution, Uneasy Empire: Repression, Globalization, and What We Can Do, and Passport to Freedom: A Guide for World Citizens (with Garry Davis).

Spirits of Desire is a fictional account, "based on a true story," of an astonishing family of professional mediums in rural Vermont, and the equally astonishing people who sought to endorse, or expose, them during the 19th-century "spiritualist" craze.

I call it "craze" because that's what it was: If you weren't crazy before you entered it, you were sure to be considered so later. Spiritualism -- or "spiritism," as it's sometimes called -- originated with the Swedish scientist and philosopher Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), who claimed that he could communicate with the dead and "travel through the spirit world." He also claimed "to have developed skillful powers of clairvoyance and psychic ability," according to the University of Virginia's "Religious Movements" website.

"The idea that spirits actively help people and that mediumship can prove the existence of an afterlife was developed by Swedenborg and ultimately led to modern spiritualism," the site continues. "Swedenborg combined these ideas with Christianity, while later on modern spiritualism would be more all-encompassing."

Indeed. "Modern" spiritualism -- what we might call the New Age -- dates roughly to the performance of the Fox sisters, Margaretta and Kate, in Hydesville, New York, whose experiments with the Other World in 1848 led to an international wave of table-rapping, Tarot cards and crystal balls. "After centuries of silence," says the Church of the Living Truth, a "dispensational" Christian outfit with a heavy Web presence, "the spirit world suddenly began communicating with almost anyone who would take the time to ask a question."

And there's the rub: Before the 19th century, even thinking about such questions could get you burned at the stake. None of this can be taken out of historical context. Among the handful of scientists worldwide who still study psychic activity, most agree that anyone who brings the paranormal to public notice will need to "cheat," sooner or later, in order to keep the enterprise going. But they also agree -- and this is important as Guma's book comes out -- that there is nothing inherently more ridiculous about a Ouija board than about a group of old men in Rome sitting in a high-tech "conclave" to elect the next pope, "under the guidance of God."

This is a claim open to all, as Swedenborg knew -- it's part and parcel of the Protestant Reformation. And there can be no "proof" in these matters. The writer Arthur Koestler -- author of Darkness at Noon, The Ghost in the Machine and dozens of other works about the clash of materialism and reality -- put it best when he said in Janus, his last book, that trying to prove psychic ability is "like trying to get an erection in the public square, surrounded by skeptical observers." It simply cannot be measured that way. To which Guma, I think, would say, "Amen."

Spirits of Desire focuses on the well-known case of the Eddy brothers, orphaned stalwarts of a hard and embittered Vermont farming family in Chittenden (the town, not the county), whose subjection to psychic bedevilment and poltergeist activity could scarcely be equaled this side of Amityville. From the day they were born, apparently, "spirits" hovered and paraded themselves in front of the Eddy boys, William and Horatio. Doors slammed; windows opened; glasses flew out of cupboards and off the shelf.

The Eddy daughters also fell in the murk, after their father decided there was no exorcising "Satan" from the household and farmed them out to a carnival show. This at least made a little money for Papa, who also tortured the children with beatings and burns -- as did the spectators who saw them in trances at fairs and were urged by barkers to "try and snap 'em out of it."

On their return to Vermont, for a period of several years in the 1870s, all manner of psychic phenomena unfolded at the Eddys' farm, a ramshackle, two-story building locally known as "the ghost house," where the Eddys enjoyed dozens of paying customers a night, "mostly couples," as Guma writes, "and many of them so nervous about what they were about to experience that they avoided the whole subject with small talk about the state of the economy." In mystical circles, Chittenden was known as the "spirit capital of the universe."

With believers came skeptics, some well intended and others not. Fore-most among these were Henry Steele Olcott, a retired attorney and colonel in the Union Army, assigned to investigate the Eddys for The New York Sun; Dr. George Miller Beard, a ferocious rationalist and self-appointed debunker, who regarded the task of exposing the Eddys as a nearly sacred duty; and the incomparable Helena Blavatsky, the Russian-born medium, occultist and, some said, super-charlatan in skirts. After their mutual experiences in Chittenden, from which they both emerged "convinced," Blavatsky and Olcott went on to found the Theosophical Society, with its motto, "There is no Religion higher than Truth."

All the people who came to Chittenden in 1874 -- including Theodore Noyes, scion and eventual leader of the utopian Oneida Colony in upstate New York -- were in for surprises on the Eddy farm. The record is indisputable: Unlike the Fox sisters, who seemed to take pleasure in mystifying their guests, the Eddys were tormented by their supposedly natural gift and eventually went into seclusion; no one has ever succeeded in debunking them. Their farm is now a bed and breakfast -- though, reportedly, séances are sometimes still held there.

Guma has retold the Eddy story in crisp, clear prose, keeping himself out of sight (like a good medium) and setting his plot against a backdrop not just of scientism and spiritualism, but also human emotion, individual quest, private doubt, sex, love and social turmoil. I wonder, though -- why was it necessary for him to "fictionalize" a story like this? And, if he must, why isn't his writing as exciting as his tale?

There's nothing "wrong" with Guma's style, but it seems unnaturally flat and restrained, as if he were embarrassed to show us what he really feels and believes. Granted, no one wants to be made a fool of; no one wants to be duped, or pegged as "irrational." But the whole point of spiritualism in its time was the overt and defiant expression of something beyond rationality. And this is what Spirits of Desire doesn't quite get hold of.

In particular, Guma's portrait of Madame Blavatsky is skewed. He plainly wants her to be his heroine, but he won't let her do that until the force of events makes it inevitable. She appears initially only as "Helena," and even though I am familiar with her background and the Eddys', I didn't know who she was meant to be. Finally, with a gulp, I realized, "Oh, that Helena!"

As Guma's story moves on, Blavatsky becomes the only sane person in sight, not counting some of the Vermont "locals," whose consciences and native ingenuity allow them, finally, to do the right thing in regard to the Eddys. But it doesn't help to hear Blavatsky discoursing, through Guma, about "the astral body," since this is not explained:

Since their first talks and her opening act at the seances, [Olcott] was convinced she had the answers. He saw her as an encyclopedia of occult facts, from ancient rites to the latest views on hypnotic suggestion. And she did have knowledge of such things. But she chose not to dwell on them. Instead, she tried to steer his attention to subjects that really mattered. She also had to leave some areas unexplored, at least for the moment.

Alas, they still are. In an "Afterword" which I wish he had put at the front of the book, Guma explains how the Eddy story first came to his attention, though there are inexplicable events behind this, too.

It's Guma's achievement that he doesn't belittle any of his characters, nor land dogmatically on either side of the "Yes?/No?" debate over parapsychology. As a political theorist, he can't help but go off on the corruption of American life after the Civil War, when machines seemed finally to triumph over men and the debasement of national politics by money and graft would make a Bush-man blush. But against this screen of wistful humanity, again I ask: Why bother to recast this inherently colorful story as fiction?