I’m not the biggest reader of historical fiction, but a quote on the press release for The Spirit Engineer by Derren Brown (big, big fan) sold me instantly, and of course ’tis the season for spooky reads. What’s more this novel is a fictional account based on real events, in which science meets spiritualism head on…
The novel begins with a short prologue set in its future: it’s 1920 and a man is preparing to commit suicide on the Bangor shore. A suitably grim start to draw brave readers in.
We go back a few years to Belfast; it’s 1914, two years after the sinking of the Titanic which had sailed from the city’s famous shipyard. William Jackson Crawford is an engineer and junior professor at the Municipal Technical Institute. New Zealand-born, he is married to Elizabeth, and they have three children, the youngest, Robert always calls him ‘Farfur’, then Helen and Margaret.
As a family, they are all rather highly strung. Crawford is ambitious, but doesn’t like having to toady up to the college principal; he is also always mislaying his pipe. Elizabeth is devout, increasingly going out to church meetings in the evenings. Of the children, Robert is sickly, having stomach problems which are made worse by stress. Their latest maid has just abandoned them, so Elizabeth is finding it hard to cope, she is also still grieving for her brother, Arthur, who died on the Titanic. The Crawfords also find it hard to make ends meet on William’s salary, he is writing a maths/physics book which he is convinced will sell well (!), but until then, the Crawfords take advantage of the beneficence of ‘Aunt’ Adelia, Lady Carter, a rich widow who had adopted them. Meanwhile the children are concerned by hearing noises in the house, convinced they have a ghost.
One day when William arrives home, the rest of his family excitedly introduce him to ‘Rose’ who is to be their new maid, a misshapen giantess, mute and illiterate with no references, he is won over by her cooking. Rose needs a room, and William is forced to break into the attic which had a stuck lock, over Elizabeth’s protestations, finding a shrine to her dead brother. Later William also finds a letter from the previous maid to Elizabeth, which intimates she’s been doing something naughty so the maid left rather than feel forced to tell her master. William now suspects that Elizabeth is having an affair and not attending church meetings…
The scene for the main action in the novel is thus set, and what William discovers will test his scientist’s sceptical mind to the limits. Elizabeth hadn’t been going to church, but neither had she been having an affair – she’s attending seances, trying to contact the spirit of Arthur. A young medium called Kathleen Goligher has been communing with the spirit world and keeping the lives of lost relatives alive for those attending, which also include Aunt Adelia, which explained an comment she made earlier…
‘Death is not an end, Lillie’ said Adelia with a meaningful look. She touched Elizabeth’s knee. ‘Remember what we have been told at our church meetings, child. Death… is a beginning.’
William sees his chance for a scientific coup to debunk spiritualism. Amazingly, Kathleen agrees to submit to his experiments, (which will be financed by interested patrons, so beneficial to both the Crawfords and the Golighers). A personal tragedy will, however, contribute to take William beyond his scepticism into constructing scientific explanations for the medium’s effects such as table levitation, turning him into an enthusiast for the spiritualism movement. Indeed he gets to meet the movement’s great proselytiser, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – and also Houdini who was a famous debunker (this is in the historic record). All this is at the expense of William’s sanity, as you may imagine. The novel gets darker and darker, more and more Gothic. With William as our narrator, he obviously becomes more and more unreliable too, growing into the role of mad scientist, taking the reader on a dark journey into his mind.
West captures the narrative style of the times really well, The Spirit Engineer reads as if written when it is set which adds to the drama and increasingly febrile atmosphere. It’s all the more thrilling and simultaneously sad that Crawford’s story was real, although embellished with poetic licence in West’s novel. The Goligher Circle of Kathleen and her team existed too, and their history is absolutely fascinating. For anyone interested in finding out more, author AJ West talks to the descendants of both families to discuss their family history and the broad themes of the novel on his website alongside lots more from his extensive research.
A very enjoyable debut, and a suitably macabre novel to finish my RIP reading this year. (9/10)
Source: Review copy – Thank you. A J West – The Spirit Engineer (Duckworth, Oct-21) Hardback, 304 pages.
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