Thursday, November 26, 2015

Necromantic Epiphenomena

So Saul disguised himself, putting on other clothes, and at night he and two men went to the woman. “Consult a spirit for me,” he said, “and bring up for me the one I name.”
 —1 Samuel 28: 8

This quote from an Old Testament passage describes an act of necromancy involving King Saul and the Witch of Endor.  Saul had earlier outlawed all mediums and spiritists from his beleaguered kingdom, but facing a difficult battle with the Philistines, he decides to ask a local sorceress to raise the spirit of the prophet Samuel to obtain military advice.  The troubled king’s request is inconsistent with his official line, but also recognizably human.  He wants to hedge his bet.  The advice from the reconstituted prophet is not particularly helpful or encouraging.  One can imagine his more practical companions saying something like “Trust not these charlatans, my lord!  Is it not be wiser to surveil the enemy with our own eyes?”

Necromancy is an ancient practice, and likely has always provoked tension between belief and skepticism, or more broadly between supernaturalism and materialism—that is, between religious thinking and science.  It involves conjuring the spirits of the dead in order to influence current events, chiefly by acquiring the secret knowledge only such spirits can impart.  As such, necromancy is a frequent motif in horror entertainment, a source of general spookiness and dire, ironic effects.  Of course, such mumbo-jumbo is anathema to atheists and materialists, who have challenged the assumptions underlying necromancy as early as the time of the ancient Greeks. 

Necromancy assumes that the mind can exist separately from the body, that certain practices can synchronize the consciousness of the living with that of the dead, creating a bridge between the two, and that the nonmaterial can interact with the material—can move things, rap on tables and doors or make sounds which communicate information.  Like King Saul, the living may have an urgent interest in communicating with the dead, but the reverse is not always so.  The interests of the living and the dead frequently diverge, with disastrous results, at least on one side of the veil. 

(As we approach an election year, we should note that in several large American cities both the living and the dead apparently vote—“early and often”—and typically along party lines.  So it is possible for the political and economic views of both camps to converge on occasion, though the departed are often underrepresented in opinion polls.)

Anthony Aveni’s Behind the Crystal Ball (2002) is a fascinating survey of the historical relationship between science and the occult, from antiquity to the present.  He devotes several chapters to the rise of spiritism in the middle to late nineteenth century, when celebrity mediums and séances came into vogue, attracting numerous adherents as well as several scientific efforts to debunk the craze.  Which efforts were only partially effective, given the continued prevalence of revived occult practice today’s society.  There is interesting material about the Fox sisters, who were able to channel telegraphic messages from the local departed of Hydesville, New York, and Daniel Dunglas Home, (“DDH”), a Scottish necromancer also adept at levitation.  Aveni describes their exploits in some detail, and then shows how contemporary scientists and debunkers tried to disprove their outlandish claims.

Aveni offers Sir William Crookes as an example of how an individual could ascribe to both supernatural and scientific viewpoints at the same time, achieving an unstable amalgam of heart and mind as a result of personal tragedy.  (Crookes’ younger brother died a couple years before he took up his researches into occult phenomena.)  Crookes was a brilliant Victorian scientist known for his invention of the “Crooke’s Tube”, a device that could produce a vacuum for the study of phosphorescent gases, lightning, and related phenomena.  His invention laid the groundwork for the later discovery of X-rays. 

This is the same Crookes referenced in H.P. Lovecraft’s story The Shunned House (1928), in which the scientist’s invention is used unsuccessfully against a malevolent, vampiric entity in the basement of an abandoned house.

We had devised two weapons to fight it; a large and specially fitted Crookes tube operated by powerful storage batteries and provided with peculiar screens and reflectors, in case it proved intangible and opposable only by vigorously destructive ether radiations, and a pair of military flame-throwers of the sort used in the World War, in case it proved partly material and susceptible of mechanical destruction…

Lovecraft’s story is an example of a transitional point between supernatural horror and the emergence of a more science-based speculative fiction—in a sense it is proto-science fiction.  Like Crookes, Lovecraft was an enthusiastic materialist and revered science, yet his fiction betrays his reliance on supernaturalist assumptions.  (Is it possible to create genuine horror in the absence of supernatural beliefs?)  Remarkably, Crookes completed some of his most important work in thermodynamics while preoccupied with his investigations of spiritism and psychic phenomena.  Perhaps his scientific advances were guided in some way by communications with the spirit world!  But his career and reputation suffered greatly because of his support—and probably hopefor further research in the paranormal field, driven in part by his personal experience of the premature death of his brother.

It seems as though Sir William Crookes could have been the model for Julian Blair, the doomed electro-physicist in William Sloane’s The Edge of Running Water (1939).  This novel and Sloane’s earlier To Walk the Night are published in a collection re-issued this year called The Rim of Morning.  (See also An Archetypal Terror.)  There are a number of similarities between the two stories; in a way, the second, longer work is essentially a further elaboration of themes introduced in the first.  Both are novels of quiet horror and dis-ease, leisurely in pace but concluding with powerful and haunting images.  Each involves a narrator whose unfortunate friend is hopelessly obsessed with a mysterious and powerful woman.  In The Edge of Running Water, the narrator is appropriately a psychologist, insightful about everyone else’s motivations, though not his own.

In The Edge of Running Water there are four powerful women.  There is Mrs. Walters, the treacherous and ambitious medium who is assisting the scientist with his necromantic work.  Visiting them for the summer is Ann Conner, the younger sister of the scientist’s late wife Helen, with whom the narrator has fallen in love.  The narrator’s feelings are mixed; he had originally loved the sister who is now departed, but she had fallen for Julian and married him instead.  There is also the unfortunate, long suffering housekeeper Mrs. Marcy, a remnant of the grand family that had once occupied the residence, now fallen on hard times. 

Though she never puts in a formal appearance, the spirit of Helen hangs over the dismal atmosphere of the house, and is the impetus for Julian’s feverish, obsessive experiments upstairs.  Typical of Sloane, the science fiction elements of the story are really incidental to the focus on the relationships among the characters.  Here is Sloane describing Ann’s ability to drive, circa the late 1930s:

We went on, not exactly racing but making incredible speed for the condition of the road.  Anne handled the car with a magnificent blend of daring and judgment; I thought we weren’t going to make the bridge at the turn by the creek, but we got across it by a hair…Even with the chances Anne took, I did not feel nervous about her driving.  There was competence in the way her hands were resting on the wheel, in the way she sat behind it, alert but not tense.

The narrator makes similar appreciative comments about his nemesis, the scheming and ruthless Mrs. Walters.  He acknowledges that in a way, she is a professional competitor, and uses some of the same expertise about human behavior that he does--but for evil and personal gain.  These are remarkable appraisals to find in the genre fiction of this time, and have a very contemporary feel.  Thinking of the Witch of Endor and her modern fictional avatar, Mrs. Walters, one wonders if occultism attracts a disproportionate number of competent, self-directed women to its ranks, and if historically it was one of the earliest equal opportunity employers.  

Julian Blair is the reclusive mad scientist, though he is more obsessed than maniacal.  (The character was played by Boris Karloff in a film adaptation of the novel called The Devil Commands in 1941.)  Both he and the narrator are the principle male voices, and seem to represent rational minds overwhelmed by supernatural and emotional forces that cannot be easily analyzed, explained or controlled.  It is no accident that the lonely house is set on a point of land in the midst of a bay and tidal river—“the edge of running water”, an archetypal image of emotional inundation.  Blair cannot come to terms with the loss of his beloved Helen, and so applies his scientific prowess to finding a technology that will allow him to communicate with her.  Like Sir William Crookes, he makes spectacular progress and inadvertently makes an awesome scientific discovery—but not the one his heart was directing him to find.


Necromancy has been the topic of several earlier posts.  Further discussion of this interesting subject can be found at:

“…doe not call up Any that you can not put downe…”... (H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward)

Raising the Dead (Clark Ashton Smith’s The Empire of the Necromancers)

Towards A Modern Necromancy (developments in cryogenics)

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