Posts Tagged spiritualism

Arthur Machen: “An Ecstasy of Fear”

16 April 2012

Arthur Machen - http://www.johncoulthart.com

Arthur Machen, by John Coulthart (1988)

In 1923 H.P. Lovecraft described Arthur Machen as “a Titan—perhaps the greatest living author,” and vowed to read everything he wrote. “There is in Machen,” he later wrote, “an ecstasy of fear that all other living men are too obtuse or timid to capture, and that even Poe failed to envisage in all its starkest abnormality.” In developing his Cthulhu Mythos Lovecraft drew heavily upon Machen’s stories, which abound with sinister, malefic entities that exist on the borders of human perception and are capable of inflicting unutterable, mind-fucking horrors upon those who are foolish enough to venture after them. 

Whereas Lovecraft invoked the mindscapes of science fiction in order to lend his horror its cosmic scale, Machen conjured his eldrich abominations out of the pagan lore of his native Welsh countryside. A one-time member of the Golden Dawn, his stories are occult to the bone. They evoke not the existential horror of the human race adrift in a hostile, indifferent universe, but our ancient, lingering fears of the Other, as remembered—with a certain, ominous undertone—in the language folk tales and superstition. Take this passage from The Three Impostors (1895): 

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Elizabeth d’Espérance’s “Shadow Land”

1 October 2011

Elizabeth d’Espérance grew up in a tired old house on the East End of London, filled with dark, oak-paneled halls and desolate, forbidden rooms that compelled her to explore. “I was very fond of wandering about from one empty room to another,” she wrote, 

and of sitting with my dolls on the broad low window seats, whence I would be fetched with an exclamation of horror and wonder by our servant, who considered my liking for the haunted rooms as “uncanny” and unnatural, threatening me with the ghosts and their vengeance if I persisted in invading their domains by myself.

I could never quite understand nurse’s remarks about the lonelines of the rooms, though her threats about the ghosts frightened me. To me the rooms were never empty nor lonely;—strangers were constantly passing to and fro, from one room to another; some took no notice of me, some nodded and smiled as I held up my doll for their inspection. I did not know who the strangers were, but I grew to know them by sight…

On this note, d’Espérance sets the tone for Shadow Land, her 1897 memoir of life as a medium during the heyday of Victorian spiritualism.

Her career began, naturally enough, in experiments with table rapping and automatic writing, but before long she was performing full-form manifestations in the manner of Florence Cook, Annie Fairlamb, and other star mediums of the era. Her usual controls were “Walter,” a light-hearted American soldier, and the professorial “Humnur Stafford,” but she is best remembered for manifesting female spirits like the “Yolande:” a playful Arab girl whose favorite trick was to materialize (“apport”) exotic flowers into the room. 

Accounts of purported spectral phenomena like these are familiar to any student of spiritualism. What sets Shadow Land apart is that d’Espérance weaves them into a powerful, first-personal narrative that delves into the subjective experience of giving over one’s body as a conduit to the spirit world, together with its attendant doubts, fears and anxieties. Enough has been written about whether it is possible for a medium to lend her substance to strange, otherworldly entities—Shadow Land gives us a basis to imagine what it might actually feel like to do so.

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The Lighter Side of Victorian Spiritualism

3 September 2011

The Spirit Katie King in the Seance Room

The Spirit Katie King in the Seance Room

“One important and often overlooked aspect of Victorian mediumship is that it could be enormous fun,” says Alex Owen in The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England. This is the picture that emerges when one looks particularly at the “star mediums” of the 1870’s, who were known for performing theatrical, full-body materializations for eager audiences.

In a dim seance room, the medium would enter a closed cabinet wherein she would tap the mysterious psychical forces that would allow her to manifest one of her spirit familiars. This familiar would then emerge to from behind the curtain to entertain the assembled sitters. Each medium had her own repertoire of otherworldly entitles at her command, each with his or her own distinct personality, speech patterns, favored tricks and antics. They could be gallant, flirtatious, aggressive, or playful, as suited them.  

Florence Cook’s child spirit Pocha “stole money and trinkets from the sitters, climbed on the laps of gentlemen, stroked their whiskers, and allowed herself to be kissed and cuddled.” Annie Fairlamb’s male familiar Sam repeatedly boxed a sitter on the side of the head until the man guessed his name right. Elizabeth d’Esperance manifested Yolande, a sensual, oriental girl who kissed and caressed her sitters, and made gifts of exotic flowers that she materialized into the room. 

These encounters often took on highly sexual overtones. Clad in loose-fitting garments, liberated from extraneous corsets and underwear, spirits sometimes invited sitters to explore their corporeal forms and prove to themselves just how very real they were. Florence Cook was famously purported to have carried on an affair with one of her investigators, whom she allowed to enter the materialization cabinet with her. The seance room was a liminal space where participants were afford greater license to transgress the ordinary norms of Victorian society.

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