Gresham and the King of the Spook Workers by K. A. Laity

William-Lindsay-GreshamWith the swirl of anticipation beginning to rise around Guillermo del Toro’s remake of Nightmare Alley, it’s a good time to look back at a tantalisingly incomplete project of William Lindsay Gresham. ‘King of the Spook Workers’ is collected in the 2013 volume Grindshow from Centipede Press, which also offers a balanced overview of the writer’s life in the lengthy introduction by Bret Wood which puts his suicide in a slightly different light. Briefer bios linked the act to alcoholism and to his wife Joy Davidman’s abandonment of him to stalk and marry C. S. Lewis, but he was apparently kind of happy with his third wife, Davidman’s cousin Renee Rodriguez. He’d taken the pledge and was trying different writing projects to get back on track when he got the cancer diagnosis. Losing his sight, and having recently watched another friend suffer through desperate and ineffectual attempts to fight the same cancer (tongue), he checked in a hotel to spare his family, leaving notes behind for Renee to deal with the work he left behind. 

He had hoped friend John Dickson Carr might be interested in doing something with his work on Daniel Dunglas Home (1833-1886), ‘the one “medium” who was never exposed and discredited, the medium who never took cash for his séances’ and as far as Gresham was concerned, ‘one of the greatest con artists ever to gaze with passionate, utter sincerity into the wondering eyes of a mark.’

Gresham begins the chapter by developing an imaginative ‘you were there’ scene, putting the reader into the experience of one of Home’s readings. ‘He kisses the ladies’ hands with a stateliness already a bit old-fashioned…he is gaunt, cadaverous man…his voice hollow, low-pitched, with a faint trace of a Scottish burr. You are prepared to dislike him at once.’ Of course doubts are dispelled as the magic unfolds and the small audience is enraptured by unmistakable miracles: music from an unseen instrument, shapes moving under a table cloth, spectral evocations. The fictional observer is moved from skepticism to belief.

Gresham knows better, but his admiration for Home’s skill is clear. He puts his life story in the context of the rising phenomenon of spiritualism and the occult like the Fox Sisters of New York and the spread of ‘table rapping’ séances. Unlike most hoaxers who grabbed the cash and ran, Home was definitely in it for the long haul and his success was undeniable. As Gresham wrote:

‘I am convinced, after studying the life of Home for thirty years, that his tricks were standard mediumistic hokum improved upon and executed with consummate skill, by a master showman whose genius lay in convincing people they had seen what they had not.’

He never took a penny for a séance but he was good at dropping hints about quite nice things to buy as thank you gifts and he was invited to all the finest homes and even the literati. He had a close shave with a séance for Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, because the latter’s undying skepticism led him to seize the ‘ghostly baby’s face’ conjured and claim to friends that it was ‘the rascal’s bare foot’ but Home survived the scandal. Arthur Conan Doyle was convinced and supported Home .

At a low moment he lost his fashionable friends and even converted to Catholicism, but eventually his services were demanded once more—and by no less than Louis Napoleon (nephew of the more famous Napoleon). In the Tuileries Home thrilled the Emperor and his wife Eugenie with his dazzling skills and he was back. Queen Sophia of the Netherlands was a convert. And even better Home fell in love with a Russian, Alexandra de Kroll, goddaughter of Czar Nicholas.

Alexandre Dumas was his best man.

For a time all was well, but Alexandra caught tuberculosis from her husband, who had been carrying the disease since his childhood as a sickly boy (contagion not being well understood at the time, alas). After she died, leaving him with a son Grischa, Home struggled to make ends meet. He worked on his memoir and friends clubbed together to found a Spiritual Athenaeum in London and gave him a small stipend to be secretary.

levitationAn elderly widow adopted him but then changed her mind and sued to get all the money she’d given him back. He formed an attachment with the young Irish sportsman Lord Adare (later the Earl of Dunraven) and for a time enjoyed his favour, but the changing face of Europe in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war meant that it was harder for Home to curry favour amongst the gift-giving elite. He even marries another Russian, Julia de Gloumeline and began to retire from the spook racket.

Gresham breaks down the likely techniques used in all of his séances with convincing insider knowledge. In fact, Home’s third book after two memoirs was a guide to trapping fraudulent mediums who used a variety of techniques that he most likely knew at first hand. He died from the life-long effects of tuberculosis and was buried in Auteuil, his crown wobbling at times but still in place.

 

The ‘Spook’ Racket by K. A. Laity

 

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In William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley and the film adaptation, Stan Carlisle starts out as a carnival mind-reader but soon his ambitions outstrip the penny-ante midway to head where the real cash awaits: ‘the spook racket’ as he calls it. People pay good money to talk to the dead. Whether for love or guilt, they want answers. Stan was more than willing to offer them.

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The Wellcome Collection exhibit ‘Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic’ offers some insight into this phenomenon as well as showcasing a wide range of paraphernalia from the magic trades. The wild work of spiritualists, séances and the debunkers who followed in their wake makes for a fascinating journey. From the Fox sisters to the Cottingley Fairies, you can see the ways that people were manipulated and tricked into believing their very eyes (never believe your eyes) – including people who thought they knew better, like Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini. But it’s not really surprising: we have a deep desire to believe in magic. Watch the joy in children’s faces as they watch a parlour magician.

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But that desire is so easily exploited. In the exhibit there’s a spirit trumpet like Carlisle used in his grifting. This section of the novel did not appear in the 20th Century Fox film; studio chief Darryl Zanuck allegedly hated the film from its start and these shenanigans would have outraged many. There are spirit boards, disembodied hands, and cameras for ‘spirit photography’ as well as photos of ectoplasm and other ‘proofs’ of success. Lurid posters of the era show the draw these artists of the ethereal had in the early 20th century between two big wars with so many mourning.

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The zeal of the believers was only matched by the equal fervor of the debunkers. The early versions of ghost hunters included entire toolkits for exposing charlatans who used the tricks of the magical trade not for entertainment, but like Stan Carlisle, for money and influence. He used a lot of research, too. But he had a knack for the psychology of it, right off the bat. Like many a grifter, Stan gilded his patter with nuggets from the good book. Bible quotes add a veneer of veracity for many a doubter.

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At the far end of the spectrum, there’s the place we find ourselves now, where people will believe insane conspiracy theories despite all logic and proof because…honestly, I don’t know (yes, I do, but it’s depressingly hard to fix). There’s a huge drawing that links up magic from John Dee and the Salem Witch trials to Jack Parsons (but not Marjorie Cameron) and Montauk (and I’m kicking myself for not noting the creator’s name, so if you know it, tell me!). Better to think about the fun way magic gets used, everything from The Amazing Kreskin’s ESP board game and comics, to the sublime comedy magic of Tommy Cooper.

 

Just like that, I feel better.

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Smoke and Mirrors continues through 15 September at the Wellcome.

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Tarot in Nightmare Alley by K A Laity

 

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When I showed Nightmare Alley to the students in my noir film course, one came up at the end to complain that the tarot readings were way off. I agreed and encouraged him to pick up Gresham’s novel. I assured him that the author cared a lot more about the tarot than Hollywood (e.g. the Death card surely always means literal death).

William Lindsay Gresham must have spent some time exploring the tarot in his too-short time on this earth. The troubled man might have found some solace shuffling the fated deck or maybe just amused himself reading fortunes for others like Zeena does in the novel. According to Nick Tosches’ introduction to the NYRB edition of the novel, he turned to tarot after Freud. Through the character of Lilith Ritter, he seems to suggest that psychoanalysis is just another form of the grift.

Gresham structures the book with 22 chapters, matching the major arcana of the tarot and begins with the card of the Fool—numbered 0, a card for beginnings. But he shuffles the deck and slips in a couple changes or innovations: card 6 should be the Lovers, but the chapter is called Resurrection of the Dead—which could be a bit of a Freudian joke itself. The Lovers do appear as card eleven. Card 18 is usually the Moon but chapter 18 is called Time. The Moon becomes instead card ten.

What are the missing or changed cards? Card 14: Temperance is the first one missing. The NYRB edition of the novel uses the Waite-Smith image of the Temperance card to illustrate the chapter called Time (itself a short chapter, as if time were fleeting). The image of the card shows an angel mixing wine and water in a gravity-defying manner (well, it is an angel). The chapter subtitle is ‘One foot on the earth and one on water, an angel pours eternity from cup to cup’. Time however is often an aspect not of Temperance, but of The Hermit (card 9 but chapter 17). In some decks the card is simply called Time. Temperance (or the lack thereof) is certainly a big part of the story (and the author’s story as well) so it seems a resonant change.

The other card not named is Judgment, usually card 20. It’s used to illustrate the chapter called Resurrection of the Dead. The subtitle of this chapter describes the card like this: ‘At the call of the angel with fiery wings, graves open, coffins burst, and the dead are naked’ and the Waite-Smith image is clearly based on ideas from the Book of Revelation, but it’s usually interpreted with more positive meaning than the macabre focus here. The chapter, however, fits this dark image. Stan dredges up the memory of when his childhood died.

I’m still mulling over Gresham’s novel and his interpretations of the cards. I recommend both the book and the film for noir fans who life the art of the grift, the smell of the carnival and the mystery of the tarot.

Bio: K. A. Laity is the award-winning author of White RabbitA Cut-Throat BusinessLush SituationOwl Stretching, Unquiet DreamsÀ la Mort SubiteThe Claddagh IconChastity FlamePelzmantel and Other Medieval Tales of Magic and Unikirja, as well as editor of Weird NoirNoir Carnival and the forthcoming Drag Noir. With cartoonist Elena Steier she created the occult detective comic Jane Quiet. Her bibliography is chock full of short stories, humor pieces, plays and essays, both scholarly and popular. She spent the 2011-2012 academic year in Galway, Ireland where she was a Fulbright Fellow in digital humanities at NUIG. Dr. Laity has written on popular culture and social media for Ms., The Spectator and BitchBuzz, and teaches medieval literature, film, gender studies, New Media and popular culture at the College of Saint Rose. She divides her time between upstate New York and Dundee.