The Barnes & Noble Review
The old-fashioned ghost story has never fallen out of style: Charles Dickens is still best remembered for A Christmas Carol, and Peter Straub, despite his many fine novels, found in the ghost story his most potent tale (Ghost Story, of course!). When Shirley Jackson wrote The Haunting of Hill House and Henry James wrote The Turn of the Screw, did they know they were creating their most-remembered works in the horror genre?
Barbara Michaels has written everything from outright horror (Ammie, Come Home) to horror cozies (The Crying Child), but her new one has more in common with Peter Straub's Ghost Story (without the violence) than with anything she's written before. As several men gather in a special club to discuss unexplained mysteries of the past, an aura of chilly darkness surrounds them.
The men are famous and the time is the past. In a London Club, Houdini, Conan Doyle, and other psychic investigators and debunkers gather to tell ghost stories. Their purpose is to tell the tale, and then each will pick it apart to try to find an explanation for the phenomenon in question. The first story is one of the most famous historical hauntings in U.S. history: the Bell Witch in Tennessee. The second is a moderately well-known haunting in Stratford, Connecticut, called, appropriately, the Stratford Haunting. Each tale is told, and then the guests gathered around the club describe their understanding of whether the hauntings are either fake or very real.
But an eerie edge begins to creep like fog into each tale,andalthough there is no Grand Guignol to Michaels's novel, there is a decidedly eerie and yes, old-fashioned feeling of dread. Imagine a séance with some of the best storytellers gathered around the table, or a fire at a campsite, or even the distinguished London club where these men congregate. Michaels captures this mood better than most, and she has a way of telling a tale that is never violent but features a mounting fear of the unknown that persists and becomes captivating.
Those unfamiliar with the Bell Witch and the Stratford haunting will enjoy hearing these stories as well as the various solutions proposed by the august assembly. In the second section of the novel, which deals with the Stratford haunting, a new guest joins the men's table to tell the tale, and in many ways Other Worlds becomes more thrilling as this one a story of family madness and human experimentation from a previous century begins.
When you pick this novel up which you should think Hawthorne, think Melville's short stories, and you'll definitely see the mastery of what I'd term a horror cozy that Barbara Michaels has at her fingertips. This novel is not for anyone who loves outright violence in dark fiction, but for the millions of readers who love a good ghost story, superlatively told.
Douglas Clegg is the author of numerous horror novels, including The Halloween Man and Bad Karma, written under his pseudonym, Andrew Harper. His recent Bram Stoker-nominated short story, "I Am Infinite, I Contain Multitudes," can be found in the anthology The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Volume 11.
Read an Excerpt
The Scene is the smoking room of an exclusive men's club, familiar through film and fiction even to those who have been denied admittance to such precincts because of deficiencies of sex or social status. The lamplight glows on the rich rubbed leather of deep, high-backed chairs. Grave, deferential servants glide to and fro, their footsteps muffled by the thick carpet. The tall windows are draped in plum-red plush, shutting out the night air and the sounds of traffic on the street without the traffic, perhaps, of hansom cabs and horsedrawn carriages. For this is no real establishment; it exists outside time and space, in the realm of the imagination --one of the worlds that might have been.
A small group of men enters the room. They have the sleek, satisfied look of gentlemen who have dined well, and who are looking forward to brandy and a fine Havana and another pleasure equally as great -- conversation with their peers on a subject deeply engrossing to all of them.
One man leads the way, striding impatiently. His high forehead is wrinkled, his eyes narrowed. Mr. Frank Podmore calls himself "skeptic-in-chief" of the Society for Psychical Research. The spiritualist tricksters he has exposed, and many of his own colleagues in the SPR, consider him unreasonable and unfair. Those colleagues would recognize the expression on his face this evening. Podmore is on the trail again, ready to pour the ice-water of his doubt on another questionable case.
Behind him comes a man whose voice still retains the accents of his native Vienna -- Nandor Fodor, formerly director of the International Institute for Psychical Research, whoresigned in disgust when his colleagues objected to his "filthy-minded" explanations of certain cases. A practicing psychiatrist for many years, he has investigated almost as many purported "ghosts" as has Podmore.
The third member of the group is stocky and cleanshaven, with keen blue-gray eyes. Born Erik Weisz, son-of a Hungarian rabbi, he is better known as Harry Houdini. Many of the spiritualists he ridiculed claimed that he himself must have had psychic powers in order to accomplish his amazing feats.
One of his old antagonists, a burly bristling mustache and soft blue eyes, walks with him. Conan Doyle and Houdini broke off their friendship when Houdini attacked Doyle's faith in the survival of the dead. It would be pleasant to believe that in some other time and place these two good men have at last made up their quarrel.
A fifth person follows modestly behind the others. From his hesitant manner and the formal way in which the others address him, one might deduce that he is a guest, rather than a regular member of the group. He is taller and heavier than the others; his evening suit is a trifle old-fashioned and more than a trifle too small. He has very large feet.
They settle into their chairs. Topaz liquid swirls in the bell-shaped glasses and a fragrant fog of smoke surrounds them.
"Well, gentlemen," says Podmore, "are we ready to begin?" Typically, he does not wait for a reply, but continues, "Tonight's case -- "
Doyle raises a big hand. "Always impatient, Podmore. Don't you think we owe our guest a word of explanation first? He knows our purpose, but cannot be familiar with our methods."
"Oh -- certainly" Podmore turns to the stranger. "I beg your pardon, sir. All of us have investigated many cases of presumed supernatural activity, some as agents of the SPR and some, like Houdini, in a private capacity. During our evenings together we enjoy a busman's holiday, applying our combined expertise to the investigation of famous cases that have never been satisfactorily explained. Sometimes we agree on a solution; more often we agree to disagree."
"More often?" Fodor repeats, smiling. "I cannot remember an occasion when the verdict was unanimous, and I know none of you are going to agree with my solution to this case. The Bell Witch, is it not?"
"Correct," says Podmore. "And, as is fitting, we have selected our American member to describe this American ghost. No more interruptions, gentlemen, if you please; pray, silence for Mr. Harry Houdini."
Houdini has his notes ready. He gives the others a rueful smile. "This is worse than escaping from a sealed coffin, gentlemen. Book research isn't my style, and this is the first case I've investigated where all the suspects have been dead for over a century. But as Podmore would say, that just makes it more challenging. And what a tale it is! Dr. Fodor here has called it the greatest American ghost story I would go further; I would call it the greatest of all ghost stories. There is nothing to equal it on either side of the Atlantic.
"Over the years the true facts have become so encrusted with layers of exaggeration, misinterpretation, false memories and plain out-and-out lies that the result sounds like one of Sir Arthur's wilder fictions. Our greatest difficulty will be to figure out what really happened. I won't presume to do that; I will just give you the story as I have worked it out and let you decide what is important and what isn't. Ready? Then here we go." Other Worlds. Copyright © by Barbara Michaels. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.