The final chronicle in Help for the Haunted involves Vera and Lida traveling north to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, during what seems to be the coldest part of winter. The women are there to investigate reports of “hard ghosts,” phantoms that are invisible — but tangible. They can be touched, and they can touch!
While the duo find what they’re seeking, this adventure also involves loss — a permanent loss for Vera and a temporary one for Lida. At least, she hopes it’s temporary.
Enjoy “Beyond the Great Beyond,” one of the strangest and most revealing chronicles from Help for the Haunted, in .pdf, .epub, or .mobi/Kindle format by following the link on the Complimentary Haunting page.
Here’s a strange idea: what if the reason why it’s so difficult to find physical proof of Bigfoot is — he’s not physical! What if Sasquatch disappears so easily because — he’s a ghost! This is the theory that a cryptozoologist presents to Vera Van Slyke in the hope that she’ll share her ghost-hunting expertise with him on a trip to Arkansas, where there have been reports of an elusive ape-like creature in the woods.
Reluctantly, Vera agrees to the expedition. However, by the end, she’s less concerned with any “wild man in the woods” (or was it a wild woman in the woods?) and more distraught by the notion of losing her faithful companion, Lida, to the worst of all possible fates: marriage!
Enjoy “Monstrimony,” one of the funniest chronicles from Help for the Haunted, in .pdf, .epub, or .mobi/Kindle format by following the link on the Complimentary Haunting page.
Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death (Penguin Press, 2006), by Pulizer-Prize winning author Deborah Blum, might disappoint readers looking for true stories of actual ghost hunts in haunted houses and the like. Instead, the book focuses on scientists from the late 1800s and early 1900s who investigated spiritualist mediums, clairvoyants, and the like. William James, brother of the fiction (and ghost story) writer Henry James, was among those scientists, and he serves as the hub of Blum’s book.
However, this isn’t exactly a biography of James, either. Rather the book spans the interest in psychical research of many scientists and scholars — William Crookes, Edmund Gurney, Oliver Lodge, Nora and Henry Sidgwick, et al. — so many, in fact, keeping some of the names straight can become a challenge. Nonetheless, readers get a good sense of the opposition facing these intellectuals from both Europe and the U.S. Blum also explores the internal tensions felt between these figures, who became the key players in forming the Society for Psychical Research and its American branch.
Less challenging to sort out and more interesting to me personally are the specific mediums Blum covers, including Madame Blavasky, D.D. Home, Leonora Piper, and Eusapia Palladino. Those who’ve read my Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries know that Van Slyke met her “Dr. Watson” by exposing the young woman as a fake medium. Learning how those other mediums were similarly debunked — or tenaciously defied being debunked — is a story rich in the long-lived struggle between belief and skepticism. The spotlight on Leonora Piper, whom James saw as the best evidence that seances are not always fraudulent, makes for gripping history.
Blum’s work is thoroughly researched, relying quite a bit on the letters of James and others. Her language is accessible, I think, to most adult readers. It’s certainly an engaging book for those with an interest in the spiritualist movement and how the psychical research that depended so much upon it emerged and ruffled academic feathers.
As I say, though, don’t let the title mislead you. There are few accounts of ghosts or ghost hunters as those terms are used on this website and elsewhere.
“Violet, say our scientists, is on the extreme edge of visibility! Could it somehow mark a passage between ours and the invisible world?”
— Vera Van Slyke, “The Minister’s Unveiling”
The very first story in Help for the Haunted introduces the idea that violet light marks passageways between the spirit and physical realms — but the light can only be perceived by spirits. By the third story, Van Slyke and Lida discover a means to tug that light into the visible spectrum of the living. It becomes the duo’s chief means of confirming supernatural activity.
I became curious about the science behind this phenomenon and did a bit of research. In 1800, William Herschel established that infrared light exists just beyond human eyesight. Inspired by this finding, the following year, Johann Ritter discovered ultraviolet light wavered invisibly on the other end of the color spectrum. He knew that silver chloride turns black at different rates when placed in different colored light: red had little effect, but blue worked much better. So Ritter went further — beyond the violet end. The silver chloride blackened surprisingly quickly. There was something there!
Closer to Van Slyke’s own time — 1895, to be exact — Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen toyed with invisibility in a very new way. He found that rays exist that penetrate physical things with varying effectiveness, depending on the thickness of the thing. And the results can be photographed.
Take, for instance, your spouse’s hand. Place it over a sheet of photo-sensitive paper. Expose it to what Röntgen started calling “X-rays.” Develop that photo, and you’ll see the bones beneath the flesh. That is exactly what the scientist did, and as a result, doctors had a means to precisely locate health threats, be they bullets or bone breaks.
In contrast, Vera Van Slyke was convinced that photos of ghosts were inevitably fake. (She says as much in “Houdini Slept Here,” one of the Help for the Haunted tales.) However, she clearly understood the relationship between the physical spectrum of visibility, its edges and what exists beyond those edges, and even making the invisible visible. Vera managed to shift the ultraviolet (or “ethereal-violet”?) into the violet range — by using sound of all things. But that’s a topic for a future post.