The Higgins version of “based on a true story”
“You saw a medium?”
“Did she make contact?”
“My wife? Yes, once…” I replied, “with the aid of a Mrs. Trubshawe, when I visited her in her lodgings in Bow.”
“And what message did she have for you?”
“She advised me to pay Mrs. Trubshawe sixpence. And when I asked why her voice sounded so different, I was informed that in the afterlife everyone has a cockney accent.”
(Chapter II – The Redoubtable Harry Price)
I first read part of Conversations with Spirits on a website called jottify.com where I used to be a member. It’s a site for writers to post their work and get comments and if they have finished stuff they could put it up for sale for ebooks and stuff. The author, E O Higgins, got the book picked up by Unbound and pushed for pledges. I pledged. I got a signed first edition.
Higgins and I regularly exchange witticisms (his are usually wittier) on Twitter and that makes talking about his book a little weird. I know I talk about Rivka’s books a lot but we live together and I cheerfully tell her the reactions her books give me. She writes quite emotive and stormy stuff. Spirits is altogether a more genteel affair. And I mean that in a good way.
I mentioned that I had been reading it in the bath. I consider such behaviour a little decadent. I never used to get the “reading in the bath” thing. But Spirits is a sumptuous book that deserves to be savoured. The opening line…
“I AWOKE IN the shadow of Sibella, the crumpled blackness of her crinoline dress hovering lightly before me…”
(Chapter I – A Working Man)
it’s going to be iconic. It rolls around your brain like the first mouthful of a delightful scotch tickles the tongue. I always say that Chocolat is the book I wish I’d written, and that’s still true, but Conversations with Spirits is the book I wish I could paint onto myself like a full bodystocking tattoo. That one sentence fits the tone of the whole book: Sibella hovers with a shadowy form (from Hart’s dishevelled perspective) like an impatient spirit.
Set in 1917, it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Trelawney Hart is a drifting, cynical alcoholic with the brain of a cold hearted materialist. It is very easy to forget how young he actually is. I had a shock when I remembered Hart is only thirty-two, given his hard drinking and railroading speeches. He acts older than his years but then he has suffered: his upbringing was clinical and he has lost his wife (a large part of the need for drink). He lies and he bluffs and he stumbles (literally at times) from insult to injury to indignation in his quest to prove that there is nothing supernatural going on in Broadstairs. Hart has been engaged to witness and scrutinise a potential miracle: a man called J P Beasant walking through ten feet of solid brickwork.
The book involves the quite real personages of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Price, the rise in popularity of mediums and spiritualists, and the academic conflict between the Materialist (realist/scientific) and the Spiritualist movements. Higgins wisely chooses to keep to the miracles end of things and steers clear of too much ghostly haunting of a sheets and chains kind. Those talkative spirits are both the liquor-induced whispers of memory and guilt that Hart is desperately trying to drown as well as the messages from beyond he delights in debunking. Hart scoffs at the supernatural and decries all mediums and psychics as being charlatans, but is (wilfully) ignorant that he is being haunted by his memories of Katherine. His refusal to acknowledge his turmoil does not make it any less real.
The spirits/spirits theme is there from the off
We know from the beginning, when Hart meets Price on the train, that of course it won’t be a miracle. There is a nice bit of foreshadowing where Hart demonstrates his powers of reasoning to explain a simple conjuring trick that Price performs that allows the reader to truly appreciate Hart’s disdain for anything irrational, including the behaviour of ordinary people. As the details of Hart’s education and upbringing splurge out in lumps when he’s feeling particularly callous or annoyed, we come to understand why Doyle compares him to Sherlock Holmes. There is no doubt that however carefully this spectacle is staged, Hart will figure it out and expose it. But it isn’t a straightforward journey.
The narrative is in the first person, making this fervent denial even more gripping. Going back to the opening, to Sibella, to the only woman in the book to have true substance, her concern (and affection) is seen from Hart’s perspective as nosiness and unwelcome interference. It is Sibella who arranges the first meeting with Doyle and who packs Hart’s luggage, though he is less than appreciative:
SIBELLA, IN HER usual marmish fashion, had packed a carpet-bag for me containing some fresh linens and toilet equipment. For whatever reason, she likes to do these things, and I have realised— perhaps a little late in our association— that it was easier just to accept these foibles. Not requiring the extra burden, however, it was my plan to deposit the bag in the Left Luggage office at Victoria railway station, should time permit it.
(Chapter II – The Redoubtable Harry Price)
She responds to Hart with lashing sarcasm and it is only after “four days of feminine criticism” on her part that he emerges from the first chasm of his grief following his wife’s death. As the book unfolds, it becomes clear how dependant Hart is on her: she even helps to organise and write up his manuscripts when she’s not busy making him get off the floor and drink something other than brandy. Though Hart blearily dismisses her caretaking as “mawkish” and “sentimental”, it does seem to occur to him that he appreciates her in his own way. After all, for a woman he is constantly criticising, he thinks about her a lot during the weekend.
It is Hart’s interactions with others – seen from his own clearly superior perspective – that give the book its best moments. He matches wits with Conan Doyle, finally getting a puissant last word that led to a full on chortle (which I won’t spoil); toys with Horrocks the long-suffering Hyperborea Club barman in full abuse of his social standing; and generally bullies his way through any situation. Hart is infuriating at times in the best possible way. He made me smile and cringe and snicker and glower so if nothing else this book gives the face a full workout. He isn’t necessarily a likeable character, but you can’t dislike him either. He is a person suffusing pathos and bedraggled pride from every brandy-clogged pore.
With a reluctant smile, Doyle added: “Between ourselves, I have always considered Knighthoods to be the badge of the provincial mayor.”
Nodding absently, I muttered: “I understand completely. I rarely ask people to use my title either.”
There was a moment’s pause within the carriage. Finally, Doyle leant forward in his chair: “Your title?”
“Oh? Didn’t you know?” I returned mildly. “I’m the eighth Duke of Roxburghe.”
(Chapter X – A Departure)
Beasant himself, the miracle worker, is a slightly pathetic figure that seems uncomfortable with the glare of the spotlight in which he has found himself. He is not a charismatic and flamboyant showman who is going to perform a spectacle; he is reserved and self-deprecating. Hart is not impressed with him when they meet by chance, though he manages to wangle an invitation to a small private séance anyway. Beasant reminds me of Sybill Trelawney from Harry Potter, in that it seems he does have a hint of real talent, revealed only subtly at first as he makes claims of a spirit guide and disembodied voices that Hart dismisses as the usual spiel.
Events at the séance, however, unsettle even a dyed-in-the-wool realist like Hart, and he later dreams of his wife. He wakes after the dream ends with his teeth falling out. It is a common theme of dreams but I doubt Higgins chose it at random. Losing teeth in dreams apparently represents feelings of powerlessness and difficulty dealing with loss, telling lies, and possibly even that the dreamer places all their faith and belief in the tangible and rejects the spiritual. Sounds about right. Thought you could sneak that one in, Higgins? I’m onto you.
Hart’s companion for most of the narrative is the bedraggled Billy Crouse, Ramsgate native, who is pressed into becoming Hart’s local ‘guide’. The two of them spend a lot of time drinking, though Billy is more used to cheap and nasty concoctions than the good stuff Hart is fond of. Hart feels sympathy for Billy as he too has lost his wife, and really the only thing that separates them is social class: Billy was a joiner while Hart is the son of a Colonel and by his own admission doesn’t work. Hart has been sheltered in the Hyperborea Club while Billy has been reduced to a vagrant. Their paths intersect and while Hart’s influence appears to be doing Billy some good – he can afford to eat properly and he has new clothes – Hart deteriorates through the weekend in both health and spirit.
Billy has a quiet dignity and a firm moral compass – he doesn’t like Hart lying to Beasant – but he knuckles under to Hart’s upper class bluster and becomes a useful gofer. He is also more intelligent than people give him credit for, including a sharp sense of humour. And of course he gets he best line in the whole book:
I blinked across at Billy, who was looking very intently at me. Finally, he broke the silence in the room and, in an anxious tone, uttered:
“You had your honeymoon en Basingstoke?”
(Chapter VIII – Lost Souls)
I was in the bath for that one.
So why do I want this book to be tattooed on me forever? Well, the language and vocabulary are stunning. When I read the first chapters on jottify it was clear that this was Higgins’s soul between the lines. The pages are dense with detail including newspaper articles and the manuscript of Doyle’s draft report following the ‘miracle’. No one ejaculates, but there is some hallooing which is always welcome. The tone wavers between condescending and self-pitying, with brief stops in arch and wry. Each word has clearly been chosen with care and with an attention to register and structure that frankly beggars belief. It has been sculpted. It has been honed. It is so worth it. There is not one wasted syllable in this book. It’s the leanest sirloin you could hope for.
You may remember I’m a less than staunch supporter of Neil Gaiman and his works quite often have a similarly super-edited quality to them, but the difference for me is that Higgins doesn’t get pretentious about it. Or maybe the whole book is so damned pretentious it’s hard to see the wood for the trees. But I don’t think so. The strength of the character voice and the eloquent language reminds me of Memoirs of a Geisha. The attention to period detail is luxuriant. From the brandy bottle bedecked endpapers to the excellent note about the font at the back of the print edition (I love this kind of education in my books) the only fault I can find is that it ends…
According to the man himself, paperbacks will be available from February 2014
Learn more about E O Higgins at his website or follow him on Twitter.