Maggie and Katie Fox spent their Victorian childhood in a supposedly haunted house in Hydesville, NewYork.. To entertain themselves, the girls devised a method of contacting the noisy spirit. (In fact, they rigged up apples on strings to fake the bumping sounds.) As word of their unusual talents spread, the girls became famous, touring the country to hold seances with the likes of Horace Greeley and Mrs.Abraham Lincoln.
Helen West, a journalist trying to recover from the death of her lover, lives in a current-day town similar to Hydesville, and has been contracted to write a definitive essay about Maggie. It is through her research that she develops a strange, unexpected kinship with her subject, and learns that, though gone from this world, the dead have much more to say.
About the Author:
Jeannie Mackin lives in upstate NewYork and teaches writing at Ithaca College.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Edition description:||1 ED|
|Product dimensions:||5.76(w) x 8.56(h) x 0.97(d)|
Read an Excerpt
Eleusis, New York-1998
Be open-minded," my editor Tom Riley said in his best editorial voice when I spoke to him last month about the article on Maggie and her kin. "Consider, at least for a moment, all possibilities. One can hope."
"Too many hope," I told him. "Usually for the wrong things. Hope is sister to faith, and faith is a guest of honor who leaves too soon or never arrives, but only keeps you waiting and looking like a fool."
"You sound like a jilted Victorian virgin," Tom said. "It doesn't suit you. At least it didn't use to. I'm not certain you should take this assignment."
He cleared his throat loudly so that the phone against my ear rasped and scratched. In my mind's eye I saw him in his Forty-second Street office, sitting behind his battered oak desk, half hidden by books and manuscripts and back issues of Savant, pencil in hand, tap, tap tapping on his coffee mug. There is a sphinx on his desk, a tawdry brass thing that Jude gave him years ago as a souvenir of some private joke never explained to me.
"We'll put aside for the moment the question of faith," he said. "It's a difficult one, certainly not suitable for a long-distance phone call. But your mourning is taking too long, Helen. Perhaps writing a piece about Maggie Fox will be cathartic."
"Perhaps," I said, but did not believe.
His remark describing me as a jilted Victorian wounded. Jude hadn't jilted me,unless death counts as a no-show. His loyalty, in fact, had been my life raft, my dawn after the darkness. It had been complete.
The pencil tapped again. "Write about endings, Helen. But only if there is a beginning after the end. And I'll come visit in a couple of weeks, to see how things are going. I'm still not certain this is the right topic for you, now."
Maggie Fox, the founder of the American Spiritualist movement, was a nineteenth-century farm girl who, with supple knee and toe joints and a taste for the theatrical, made the dead rise from their cold and lonely graves and speak again to the mournful living. Now is Maggie's season, when the earth sleeps under winter's lingering white shroud and life holds its breath, waiting for either miracle or disaster. March, not January, is the two-faced month that leads back to winter or lunges into spring. March makes fools of us all and March knows nothing of loyalty.
Maggie herself has been dead for a hundred years, and Split-foot, the first of many spirits who conversed with herwell, the devil never dies. We will not let him.
As I go over notes from my last conversation with Tom and reflect on Maggie's life, a full moon casts shadows on the stubborn blanket of snow still covering the north meadow outside my window. The wind moans and whistles through the oaks and pines, as I imagine it did on that night of March 31, 1848, the night Maggie Fox began speaking with her spirits. I sit in my vast bed shivering, waiting to hear the knocking that means Maggie is here. I'll give this dead Spiritualist a chance, if for no other reason than to add spice to the article Tom wants me to write.
Okay, I'm ready. Speak to me, Margaret Fox, if you can. Tap at the window, on the wall, on the ceiling, anywhere you prefer. Make yourself known, be heard. Here, now, in this place. Focus all your straying atoms, if any still cohere to the personality and body once known as Maggie Fox, and answer my call. If you speak to anyone, it should be me. Who else has paid you so much attention lately?
Nothing? Silence? Only the wind in the snow-heavy pines? Where are you? Are you?
Wait. Did I hear something? Was that a tapping?
No. Of course not. The dead do not speak with the living. The dead do not speak at all. They have disappeared into nothingness, returned to the silent stardust from whence we came.
It could make a good beginning, though: journalist in bed with covers up to her chin, a howling wind, cold spots on the stairway, the fragrance of invisible lilacs in the air, a tapping from the wall, ghostly lights in an otherwise dark room, as Maggie Fox announces herself.
No, this is foolishness. If Tom and the magazine's editorial board wanted that kind of cheap sensationalism, they would have hired someone from the tabloids. I don't write for periodicals that collage the faces of politicians onto alien bodies or into the arms of starlets. I am a serious woman, a hardworking woman who has earned a reputation for accurate and unbiased reporting. I write for no-nonsense publications, and Savant wants someone who will stare the cult of Margaret Fox in the face and not flinch, not cower under the covers and start waffling paragraphs with maybes and perhaps.
Customarily I am not a hagiographer of spurious mystics. Numbers are my domainsudden-infant-death syndrome rates in public housing projects, the number of fatalities from car accidents, the probability of a new and deadly mutant rain-forest virus popping up in Chapel Hill. Risk assessment. Odds. The chances are ... Numbers are my refuge from chaos, not mystics and mediums.
However, I asked for this bizarre assignment from Savant because of the unusually large check that awaits me, a dollar a word for a definitive biographical essay, in ten thousand words, of one of the greatest frauds in the history of religion, an area replete with trickery: Maggie Fox, the upstate New York girl who used parlor tricks to make the credulous think they were speaking with their beloved dead onesfor a fee, of course. Maggie and I have that much in common. We are working girls with bills to pay.
My name is Helen E. West. I live in one of those little academic towns that dot the valleys and waterways of upstate New York. It is not far from where Maggie Fox first spoke with the spirits. Most towns here are named after Greek places and Greek heroes (or, like me, Greek disasters), and are filled with aged Greek Revival townhouses and mansions long since converted to interesting apartment houses with modern sculpture in the entrance, or disheveled fraternities with abandoned bathtubs in the front yard.
My own house is not one of those thin-walled apartments that carry the accumulated smells of graduate-student curry and garlic, marijuana and Marlboros, but a rambling, drafty, turreted, many-chimneyed farmhouse situated at the top of an old Indian trail-turned-road, named Piety Hill. My house, enlarged, updated, and otherwise improvedor ruined, depending on your views of historical preservationsuffers a plethora of Italianate overhangs, a Greek Revival porch, several Victorian sunrooms, and turrets tacked onto the original Federal facade. The house came cheap, with reason. More-recent owners lacked the means to repair roofs, replace windows, and, in general, to maintain that fine and required separation between indoors and outdoors.
The house came with ten acres of old farmland now given over to new forest growth and meadow, and seven rooms littered with four generations' worth of dusty yellowing books, threadbare Oriental carpets, mismatched china and linens, radios, gramophones, and other jetsam and flotsam left behind by the Barwell family. They have, according to the local historical society, now died out. There is no address to which I can send the trunks of clothing, the family photo albums, the schoolbooks and report cards from 1921 stored in the attic. I feel like an interloper, living among the dusty accumulations of others. I like this sensation. In such a house, loneliness is complete. There is no way to pretend that you are not solitary; there are no illusions here.
The one item in this house that is distinctly mine, aside from clothes and papers and the many overdue library books, is a Gothic Revival bookcase filled with volumes of Victoriana about the occult, inherited from my great-grandmother Clara. She believed in ghosts ("spirits" she called them, if they were friendly, and "wraiths" if not) and in communication between living and dead. She was the rule, not the exception. Ninety-seven percent of Victorian women did believe in life beyond the grave, in heaven and hell and those shadowy mists betwixt the two from which the dead sometimes appeared to the living. Maggie had much to do with this.
Of course, I can't blame Maggie personally. She simply filled a slot that is always present, it seems. She was part of the perpetual jest in the want-ads of the cosmos: New culture being formed. Needed: carpenters, politicians, doctors, cranks. The morning edition today carried a large story about a woman who is running for president. She claims to speak with spirits, one of whom is Lincoln, who endorses her candidacy. A group of survivalists in Idaho insist the end of the world is coming and they are in direct contact with God and his angels.
How much of this delirium is simply about loneliness? We and the world contrive to separate ourselves, one from the other in countless ways, and sometimes the solitude becomes overwhelming. A legion of devoted guardian angels and other friendly spirits seems a pleasant thing to anticipate. Even cataclysm adds spice to the day, and I suspect that this great longing for the company of the dead is simply the chin-up obverse of the fear of death. If Jude were here, I'd ask him what he thought of guardian angels. We never discussed them.
Over my desk hangs a painting by my great-grandfather. A woman, her long dark hair streaming over white shoulders, sleeps on a sofa. There are dark circles under her eyes; her mouth is pale. An angel with multicolored wings and my great-grandfather's dark eyes hovers over her.
When Clara died of consumption, my great-grandfather washed and laid out the body himself, chasing away the female relatives and neighbors who normally performed this chore. He sat by her day and night until, exhausted, he fell asleep and they stole the body for burial. He didn't speak much after that. But he did keep a diary which was passed on to me when my mother died, along with the bookcase filled with Victorian books on the occult. The diary is filled with notes about weather and comments about articles read in The Abolitionist. But there is this comment, written a year after Clara's death:
... bought a ticket on the public carriage to Rochester, thence to meet with Margaret and Katie Fox in a circle. Will Clara speak from beyond the grave?
Jude, my lover, who first introduced me to the world of mystics and religious anomalies, read every faded word of the diary, but found no other reference to his favorite medium, Margaret Fox.
Great-grandfather never remarried. I never married at all, nor did I have childrentwo activities no longer as closely related as they were in Maggie Fox's and Great-grandfather's time. Some current statistical studies claim I'm more liable to be attacked by a terrorist than get married. Single, middle-aged women abound whereas their male counterparts are as rare as the white Siberian tigerand equally as skittish.
The nearest I came to "married" was my long-standing and intimate relationship with Jude Reid, a professor of classical studies. The relationship ended with his sudden and premature death three years ago. The average American male today can expect to live seventy-six years. Jude died at forty-five.
His wife, Madelyn, has already remarried, to a professor of macroeconomics. "I'm no good alone," she said in one of her infrequent phone calls. "I can't mourn forever. He would have wanted me to get on with my life."
I sleep alone now that Jude is gone. I have no desire to replace him. Some women deserve to be loved, some women just are, whether they deserve it or not, and some women, women like me, should be content with being wallflowers at this particular party.
I will be honest. It wasn't the money that made me accept the assignment to write about Margaret Fox: writing about Maggie keeps me connected to Jude. She was his obsession, his find, one of his gifts to me. Jude was a gift-giver. He brought me flowers, chocolates, ideas, names of people he thought would interest me, stories, scraps of history. In the hospital, during my recuperation after the accident, he came twice a day with an anecdote from Herodotus, usually one of the sexier parts. My favorite was the story of how Cleopatra swam under a bridge and tied pickled herring onto Antony's fishing pole to flatter him, since he caught nothing with his own skills.
I miss Jude, his stories, his little gifts, the feel of his eyes on me. I live in perpetual winter.
Some days I know that if Maggie were here I would let her convince me. I would be as easily gulled as one of the hundreds of widows or virgins who came to her, pleading to speak with the beloved husband, fiancé, brother, father, killed at Harpers Ferry or in the Glen Salt Mine or the influenza ward of Mercy Hospital. I would let Maggie draw the heavy velvet curtains, extinguish the lamps, pull the chairs into a circle, and command Jude to speak from beyond the grave. I would ask silly questions, like where did you leave the corkscrew and do you still love me now that you're dead or is it all over between us? Can you ever forgive me?
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What People are Saying About This
What a treat this novel is, a wonderful collision of eras that's sensuous and ethereal at the same time, but also full of compelling mysteries.
(Diane Ackerman, author of A Natural History of the Senses)
Jeanne Mackin has written a novel which satisfies as only novels which bring the past to life in the present can.
(Lamar Herrin, author of The Lies Boys Tell)
A haunting book in every way. Masterly and fervent.
(Paul West, author of The Secret Lives of Words)
Jeanne Mackin has written a multi-layered multi-generational story of spirited encounter with the spirit world. One hundred and fifty years are but the brief blink of an eye under this author's imaginative scrutiny, and she enlivens...both the quick and the dead.
(Nicholas Delbanco, author of What Remains)
A sensitive, affectionate, and appealing portrait of the uneducated girl who at fourteen escaped rural poverty and a drunken, abusive father to become America's first and most famous spiritualist medium.
(Alison Lurie, Pulitzer prize winning author of Foreign Affairs)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I bought this book because I'm a huge historical fiction buff, but I was rather disappointed. The two parallel stories involve a young girl in the 1860s who invents the "spiritualist" movement when playing a prank on her father. She lives a life of deceit and is utterly unfulfilled. The other is about a modern day journalist who lost her married lover in a tragic accident. The latter, must write about the former. As I read, I found myself wanting to delve deeper into the spiritualist's story. The alternating story-line of the journalist was flat, boring, and I was completely disengaged with the character. I wouldn't spend money on this one.