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Saturday, April 6, 2024

That Literary Spirit and the Ghosts Between the Lines

"Sing in me, O Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending..."

The opening line to The Odyssey makes it very clear that Homer is not the author, and perhaps implies that no mortal is capable of spontaneous creation. Homer is acting as a medium, through which the goddess of poetry can amplify the memory and myth of Odysseus to his audience and then continue on, down through the ages. In order to make sense of the world, humanity has always needed stories, it seems. The craft of telling stories, through poetry, song, or prose then is something of a magical affair. We divine the quintessence of our mundane lives and the systems that sustain them through the words and tales of others; it is the job of the writer to act as the intermediary between the mortal realm and the otherwordly.

The earliest known writings attributed to an author are hymns to the goddess Inanna, written by Enheduanna, daughter of the emperor Sargon of Akkad. Sargon ruled over the Sumerian city-states in the 23rd century B.C.E., and Enheduanna was a high priestess of the moon goddess at Ur. There is debate about the extant writings, and whether they can rightfully be attributed to the ancient priestess, but be that as it may there is considerable evidence that the earliest works of what we now call literature were in service of a divine purpose. Propitiation to the gods, giving meaning and direction to the common person using the spoken and written word allowed for an evolution of sorts in the human psyche. If, as some scholars claim, the hymns were written down centuries after Enheduanna died and recorded in her name to preserve the lineage of Sargon, the point is still very interesting- in a sense, Enheduanna herself has become elevated to a plane of existence above our own. Achieving immortality, like the gods she worshipped, she becomes our earliest example of an author from the Other-Where.

As virtually any writer can attest, the act of putting words on a page can at times be magical and invigorating. Each word spills out quickly and without effort, with brief breaks for congratulation to one's self for their own brilliance. Other times the blank page becomes an impassable void, an abyss that defies traversal. Demons at the threshold, in the form of a blinking cursor perhaps, mock and dishearten the writer. "Go back", they say. "No one wants to read your writing anyway." A writer must summon the fortitude to continue on in spite of it, and it can certainly feel miraculous when the words begin to drown out the diabolical chatter.

It's little wonder then that modern writers would seek methods by which a Muse might sing through them. The confluence of the Occult and supernatural with the arts is such a broad topic that it would seem there's no end to the examples which could be brought forth. Even just in literature, or modern literature, the history is rife with the ectoplasmic residue of spooks on every page. For our purposes today, then, a brief sampling of the ghosts hidden in the margins of well-known writers is in order.

The Ouija Board is an ever-controversial object in our popular conceptions of the supernatural. Often used as a plot device in horror films, and hotly debated in various sectors of paranormal investigation, it has also been used to conjure poetry and stories. More than simply a plot device, it has been a device for developing plots itself. Whether one believes that the board has the potential to connect the living with the dead, or whether it is simply the ideomotor effect causing the participants to subconsciously spell out words is irrelevant. In particular, where poetry is concerned, the act of writing could be characterized as summoning the difficult emotional thought from the subconscious, and translating it to verse. However one defines the Muse does little to negate its existence.

Sylvia Plath famously used an Ouija Board to contact an entity calling itself "Pan" to aid in her poetry writing. She was introduced to the board through her then husband, Ted Hughes, who was much more interested in the Occult than she was. The story of their marriage is a tragic and rocky one, mired in controversy and myth-making, culminating in their separation and eventually Plath's suicide. The séance sessions occurred during a happier time for them both, and Hughes was quoted as saying that she possessed a natural psychic talent "strong enough to make her frequently wish to be rid of them." His influence in bringing Occult devices and concepts to Plath were in service of increasing the volume of the well she drew from in her writing. A talented and prolific poet, Plath seemed to find new boundaries to push throughout her life. Whereas Hughes, even in early works such as The Thought-Fox, was naturally inclined to a mystical bent and describing the poem as a creature slipping in from the darkness of the natural world, Plath had to learn to eschew her pragmatism. She described the sessions as "more fun than a movie", and in her poem Ouija captures the mood of a "god of shades" communicating his own form of verse to her. Where life is filled with turmoil, joys and struggles jockeying for attention, poetry is perhaps a meeting-ground between realms.

At around the same, poet James Merrill, along with his partner, artist David Jackson, began a series of Ouija Board sessions which over the course of decades inspired a trilogy of books.  Originally winning acclaim for more traditional and formal poetry, his 1959 poem Voices From the Other World was an early example of where his work was to go. The poem was the first to include material channeled through the board, and after decades of such sessions he released The Changing Light at Sandover, a 560 page epic including previously published works. In it, voices such as those of poet W. H. Auden and friends of Merrill's such as Maya Deren are conjured. Channeled messages contain warnings about contacting the dead, and some in Merrill's social circle worried about his obsession with the Occult device.

Poetry seems adaptable to channeled messages from an Ouija Board, but what about a novella? In 1919, two children named Virginia and Robert Wauchope accomplished it when they wrote The Invisible Inzi of Oz. L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz and its sequels, had passed away earlier that year. While it's unclear that the children, aged between 9 and 14 at the time, actually channeled Baum or were just clever enough to write convincingly in his style, the story was sufficiently Oz-like that Baum's widow deemed it part of the canon. It was originally published in 1925 in a series of sections in A Child's Garden, and later in 1980 in the Oz fan magazine The Baum Bugle. It should be noted as well that Baum and his wife Maud were members of the Theosophical Society, and some have read Theosophical meanings into the Oz stories. Baum seemed to think the idea for the book came fully formed, as though divinely inspired- that he was merely the most convenient instrument for "The Great Author" to use in getting the story down.

The idea of authors being channeled to continue their work, or in some cases, to complete unfinished works, is an old one. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle collects a few such examples in his book The Edge of the Unknown. While primarily remembered as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and the author of the mystery stories featuring him, Doyle was also very interested in Spiritualism and psychical phenomenon. He was a proponent for the existence of Fairies, and famously promoted the Cottingley Fairies as proof. Where Holmes is depicted as being shrewd and brilliant, sussing out the truth with limited information, Doyle is seen by many today as a gullible old daydreamer by the end. In writing about alleged channeling of famous writers, he considers himself as an author to be uniquely equipped to determine the legitimacy of the written results. He felt that the charm, or the spirit of the author would come through in a diminished form- his conception of the afterlife led him to believe that any effort to write from beyond would be hampered by the trauma of death and the adjustment to another form of existence. After all, writing is hard enough in the material realm! Further to that point, Doyle thinks of gross imitation of style as parody, which itself is a talent he contends not many mediums have.

A particularly novel channeled author he looks at is none other than Oscar Wilde. Remembered for works during his lifetime such as The Importance of Being Earnest and  The Picture of Dorian Gray, there are some spooky connections as well. His mother, Lady Jane Wilde, wrote extensively about fairies and folklore from Ireland after the passing of her husband, Sir William Wilde, who had collected manuscripts on the subject. She wrote under the pen name Speranza, and was also an activist for women's rights. When she was on her deathbed, Oscar was in Reading Gaol and not allowed to visit her. She is said to have made the visit in spectral form at the moment of death.

Oscar Wilde's own return to the land of the living from the great beyond came by way of a medium named Hester Dowden, aka Hester Travers Smith. She worked with a man named Soal, who transcribed her messages. These came both in the form of automatic writing and through an Ouija Board, and in the flowery prose Doyle was convinced that none other than Wilde could have composed them. As one might expect, Wilde didn't lose his wit and humor in the afterlife, at one point saying "Being dead is the most boring experience in life. That is, if one excepts being married, or dining with a school-master." He also takes shots at W. B. Yeats, who, it should be mentioned, inspired the aforementioned Hughes, Plath, and Merrill with his mystic poems derived from automatism. "I knew Yeats well- a fantastical mind but so full of inflated joy in himself that his little cruse of poetry was erupted only with infinite pains over the span of many years." One wonders if Yeats has ever come through in a séance session to add to his terrestrial portfolio, or to give comment about Wilde. Doyle is convinced in his assessment of the legitimacy of the channeled Wilde work, considering it to be just as good as anything Wilde wrote in life. To his mind, if it were an imitation, it was a superb one- while Wilde himself might have said "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness". 

All of literature and poetry is imitation or channeling in a sense. Doyle himself, through his enduring character Sherlock Holmes, continues to spawn imitators to this day while the character seems to never go out of style. Yeats is hailed as one of the most influential poets of all time, and even if his methods aren't used as in the case of Plath and the others previously mentioned, the spirit of his writing is. Authors and the personalities that emerge from their works bound along, like the sprites Lady Wilde wrote about and Sir Doyle believed in, through the pages of novels and collections of poetry from Enheduanna all the way to the present day. This brings us to our final example, for now- that of Charles Dickens and his unfinished work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

In 1873 Thomas Power James, a printer living in Brattleboro, Vermont, claimed to have channeled the recently deceased Dickens and finished the story of Edwin Drood. Other attempts had been made to finish the tale, which had been published incompletely when Dickens died in 1870. Critics hated it, and Conan Doyle, while more sympathetic and thinking it had elements of the purported ghostly author's style, found the plot and resolution wanting. He wrote in his review of it that "it reads like Dickens gone flat". Fortunately for Doyle, he had the chance to talk to Dickens personally in a séance conducted by Florizel von Reuter. He was convinced von Reuter wasn't familiar enough with the work of Dickens to have faked her way through a conversation concerning the unfinished story. From the other side of the veil, Dickens himself disavowed any involvement in James' version of his story. When asked about particular plot points, Dickens returned with a perplexing quote: "What about the fourth dimension? I prefer to write it all out through you." Shortly thereafter, he gives a few hints about where the story should have headed- which one assumes implies that he wished for Sir Arthur to finish the story.

While the mystery of The Mystery of Edwin Drood may forever be unsolved, ghostly hints notwithstanding, there is another strange bit of Dickens lore that is worth considering. On June 9, 1865, he was traveling by train with his friend Ellen Ternan and her mother when suddenly it derailed. A section of the rail was missing  on a viaduct in Staplehurst, Kent, and the train had no time to slow down to avoid it. The man stationed to flag down the train was too close to the viaduct, costing the engineer precious space to brake. The rail crash killed ten people and injured forty; Dickens was fortunate to be among those with minor injuries and helped others escape. Some died in his presence. The following year, he published a ghost story called The Signal-Man, a first-person tale about a man working at the signal box in a train tunnel who is visited upon by a spectre who acts as a harbinger of disaster on the rails. The setting, a train tunnel, may have been inspired by The Clayton Tunnel collision of two trains a few years prior, but one can't help but imagine his own experiences played into the narrative. In the story, the titular Signal-Man has a premonition of his own death- and Dickens died, with unfinished business, on June 9, 1870- five years to the day after surviving the Staplehurst crash. 

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