Speaking to the dead.
It was 8pm in New York, October 30, 2022, although I was not there, not physically anyway. In the UK and Ireland, it was midnight – already Halloween. My partner was in bed, though not asleep. We’d had a gentle dispute over the evening’s activities, she being adamant the dead were not to be messed with. I was in the sitting room of our Edinburgh tenement flat, door shut, hunched over my computer, waiting for the Zoom call to begin. I had agreed to accompany my friend, Francesca, to an online séance, hosted by the Spiritualist Church of New York City.
She was writing a book about the American poet, Hart Crane, who was lost at sea in 1932. Following his death (possibly a suicide; possibly misadventure) his mother, Grace, attempted to contact him with the help of a medium from this same institution. The idea, for Francesca, was to experience what Grace had experienced, and, perhaps, to try and contact them both. I was there out of curiosity, and for moral support.
I promised myself I wouldn’t laugh. To do so would have been disrespectful. The other members of the congregation – the Message Circle – were there sincerely. Many were bereaved, hoping to contact loved ones who’d moved across to the ‘other side’. I had no business belittling this experience. But the sombre affect I adopted was immediately tested. When the call started, we met the two mediums (media?), Janet, an older woman, and Eugene, a younger man. During roll call, Eugene’s phone went off. His ringtone was The X-Files theme tune.
At the outset, we introduced ourselves. There were participants from across America – the South, the Midwest, the Tri-State area. Francesca and I were the only ones from further afield – she from outside Dublin, me from Scotland. We began with a meditation. We were to picture a ball of light above our head, to feel it travel down through our skull, neck, shoulders, torso, arms and legs. We were enjoined to imagine ourselves in a circle, as if we were all together in the church in Manhattan. I visualised Eugene – an American I’d just met – on my right and Francesca – an old friend – on my left. She would later tell me her hands felt warm at this point – one of several eerie episodes to emerge from the experience.
We were to think of the person with whom we were hoping to make contact. I had come prepared for this, and thought of my godfather, who’d died earlier that year. He was a tall, well-connected Old Etonian who’d met my parents when they were all training to be social workers in east London; he’d later become a vicar with a collection of beautiful parish churches in Cornwall. As instructed, I held in my mind clear memories of him holding forth over the dinner table, pouring me a glass of the most luxurious wine I’ve ever tasted (a 1970 Chateau Mouton Rothschild with a label designed by Chagall) or else striding across Bodmin Moor in a green anorak. His death wasn’t sudden, but it was untimely, and I realised as I held him in my mind that I did want to contact him; I was hoping the séance would be fruitful. I was a sceptic praying for a spiritual experience; for a burning bush.
It might be a good point to outline my own religious background. The word ‘devout’ conjures images of fire and brimstone, a kind of fundamentalism that walks hand in hand with regressive politics. But my childhood was devout, or perhaps ‘very religious’, without being either of these things. It was a household that was at once deeply observant and socially liberal. In his 20s, my dad had spent two years training to be a Catholic priest in a seminary in Paris, and this was the denomination I was baptised into, although he moved us towards the Church of England when the Vatican reiterated its position that it would never ordain women. As a teenager, I was an altar server at York Minster, carrying a candle as the clergy processed. Later, at university, I lost my faith. I would have described myself as an atheist – although now ‘agnostic’ is the adjective that suits me better. I have been marked by religion, moulded by it for the better, but I no longer have any real sense of what I believe.
Janet explained the rules of the Circle. It was sacred; it was safe. We had to keep these requisites in our minds so as only to invite the worthy spirits; to keep out those with malicious intent. She instructed us to be bold. If a spirit came to us through one of the mediums, they would ask if we wished to receive the message and – if we did – we had to offer a firm ‘Yes!’.
The séance began. The first contact came quickly, through a swaying Eugene, to a young man in South Carolina. It was from an old woman, whom he suggested might be his godmother, encouraging him to change careers. Then it was Francesca’s turn. She would later tell me that she had expected the call, and that she was already moving to unmute her microphone when Eugene announced that he had a message for her. It was from a handsome young man who knew her from afar. Distant but somehow close. Eugene asked if that sounded familiar and she replied that she wasn’t sure. I could tell she was being circumspect, deliberately holding back to guard against confirmation bias. But I immediately thought of Hart Crane. Close in the sense that she knew his poetry and biography inside out; distant in the sense that he’d died long ago and far away.
Eugene said the man was enamoured with Francesca, but that they didn’t know each other properly. He moved on to a series of complex images, which he was receiving. The most prominent was a gold wedding band spinning inside a walnut. This indicated that something good was coming Francesca’s way. Then he said the man had a turbulent life (Hart was a raging alcoholic) and difficulties with his family (also true). The final image was of a navy windbreaker. This had significance too: It is alleged that, after he was lost at sea, the crew found Hart’s jacket slung over the ship’s railing. ‘Can I leave this message with you?’ Eugene asked. Francesca said that he could.
Next, a communication for a woman in the circle – the image of hummingbirds erupting from a pair of hands – and advice for another’s love life. Then it was my turn. It was Janet who called my name. She asked if I was ready to receive, and I gave my bold reply: ‘Yes!’
At first, she came to me with a message from a man in a military uniform, possibly from the First World War. He had short hair and a moustache. She asked if that rang a bell but, at that time, it didn’t. Looking back, I might have suggested my grandfather, who’d served in World War Two, but I had my godfather so firmly in my mind that I was closed off to other possibilities. She then moved on, stating that I was especially sensitive, and asked if I was a psychic. I responded that I didn’t think I was, but perhaps I could be (I have always been easily led). Then she started to laugh. It was a surprised giggle, but joyous too. ‘This is very unusual – I have never had this before!’ she said. I was eager to know what it was and leaned towards the screen.
‘I see a spiritual guide!’ She then asked me if I had a dog, and I said that I did. She asked me if my dog sometimes got disturbed by something in the house, but it was unclear why. I said that he did (what dog doesn’t?). She said that he was being wound up and distracted by my spirit guide. ‘You’re not going to believe this,’ she said. ‘It’s a leprechaun.’
I snorted. How could I not? I quickly tried to disguise my eruption behind a generalised enthusiasm, but it seemed as if it were acceptable. Janet had chuckled too; so did some of the others.
Laughter is the verso of faith: frequently at odds with it, sometimes in accord. It can be a mark of scepticism; an involuntary response to the absurd, but it can also be prompted by revelation, by something that seems to fit together so neatly, it delights us. In Genesis, when God tells Abraham of the covenant between them, he falls down on his face and laughs. Sarah laughs too – ‘within herself’ – when she is told she will bear a child in her old age. Laughter can also be punished: In Wagner’s Parsifal, we learn of Kundry, a woman who is doomed to wander the earth and be reborn repeatedly with her memories intact as rebuke for laughing at Christ’s pain on the cross.
‘He’s awful to look at,’ Janet went on. ‘He has a greenish tint.’ I imagined a little goblin-like creature pottering around my living room, pulling my dog’s tail. Then she said there was something else. She asked if I worked with books, if I was a librarian. I told her I was a writer. She nodded. She said I should believe in myself, and that there was a writer who was looking over me, taking an interest in my career. ‘It’s just amazing,’ she said, ‘It’s Oscar Wilde. He’s there with you now. Right now. He sees great things in you. He wants you to continue with the humour, to be funny.’
I confess, my cynicism had dug in. Francesca, based in Ireland, had bought both our tickets, so I’d hazard a guess they thought we were both Irish. My name and colouring (if they’d looked me up) might have suggested a Celtic connection too. The leprechaun and the great Irish writer were, I guessed, the result of this assumption. It is possible they made the connection with my partner, an academic whose book examines Oscar Wilde’s Salomé and its literary afterlives. They could certainly have seen online evidence of Francesca’s interest in Hart Crane. And, when it came to my turn, I’d been egging them on.
After me came others, but their messages were more sedate. Eugene told a woman that he could see a beam of light emanating from her forehead, but other than that, there wasn’t much that was outlandish – no other spirit guides, no more famous writers. There were messages from deceased parents, grandparents and aunts; more advice about relationships and careers.
The next day, Francesca and I reconvened to discuss the experience. We remembered a strange digression Janet had gone on, recommending the website AbeBooks to us and explaining exactly how it worked. We also touched on the strangeness of Francesca’s message, and the absurdity of mine. I suggested that perhaps they’d googled us both beforehand. ‘I didn’t enter our full names,’ she replied, which gave us pause for thought. I haven’t been back in touch with Oscar Wilde, as far as I know, though I am comforted by the idea that he is watching over me, egging me on. Perhaps he’s reading this article. Perhaps Janet is too.