A Ghost Story by Lorna Gibb. Book review

A GHOST STORY by Lorna Gibb, Granta, London, UK. £12.99 (UK), 322 hb

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan

Spirits have long been a fascination for mortals. Numerous cultures want to believe that there is something of worth after death and most religions have some kind of belief system that incorporates this. Spiritualism in Western culture found its peak in the Victorian period when there were many who purported to be able to speak to the dead. Most of the mediums were purveyors of trickery and the Society for Psychical Research (which still exists today), while wanted the phenomena to be true, exposed many of them as fakes. One of the spirit guides claimed by several mediums was John King, and later Katie King who according to some records was his daughter.

There are other schools of philosophy that have considered what the nature of a spirit is, whether is the soul of a departed person, a telepathic communication with an unknown person, a supernatural being or a hallucination. A Ghost’s Story takes a different slant on it. The spirit, whose story this is, doesn’t know where he/she comes from. It thinks it has always been around but has only recently become conscious of existence. It supposes that there must be others like itself, but never encounters any. Instead, it attempts to interact with humans that believe in the spirit world. In fact, it seems to be drawn to specific people, and stays in their vicinity.

The novel, is told much in the way that many Victorian novels were, as fiction disguised as fact. It is set down in a number of instalments that were found in a bookshop having mysteriously appeared overnight. No-one appears to have entered the shop from the time it was locked for the night until it is opened in the morning. In the papers, the spirit identifies herself as ’Katie King’ and relates what she considers to be the story of her life from the moment she realised she was conscious until she senses that she is losing that by the end of the narrative two hundred years later.

The story that the ghost tells in the mysterious papers relates Katie/John’s interactions with various mediums, all of which are chronicled in history, so much of the history is available from other sources. All of them were regarded as frauds – with the odd phenomenon that defied rational explanation. The narrator doesn’t try to overturn the exposures but relishes in explaining how the audience was tricked alongside the few occasions when she was actually able to create a physical effect. The ability to do this increased the longer she was exposed to the company of mediums. The question might be asked why she would want to interact with humans. The suggestion is that it stems from her obsession with the philanthropist Robert Dale Owen and the belief that she saved his life as a sick child.

The novel itself is well written and stylistically consistent with the period when the narrator develops the skill of reading. The question to be considered, though, is what does this book add to the genre. We learn nothing new about the historically recorded characters and most of them were real people, and because of the perspective here is little indication of their personalities or motivation – the narrator is very self-centred. The book, though, does offer a different perspective to the phenomenon of spirits. Even so, it could be argued that since the narrator has no contact with any others, it statistically flawed.

Two things, on a personal level, that I dislike. First is to be confronted by several pages of work in italics, the second is for the author to name herself in the documents presented during the narrative. The part that is most successful is the subtle unfolding of the research of the initial investigator into the papers presented in this volume. Overall, this is a book that has a degree of charm for anyone interested in the lives of Victorian mediums.