‘Tis the season of ghost stories. Halloween’s long past, I know but Christmas, when lots of us are cosily tucked up at home, offers the perfect opportunity for a few ghostly frissons. Lorna Gibb’s A Ghost’s Story is somewhat different from the more traditional scare-yourself-rigid variety such as Susan Hill’s splendidly terrifying The Woman in Black. The hint’s in the title’s punctuation. This isn’t so much a ghost story as the ‘autobiography’ of one of the most famous manifestations of the spirit world: Katie King – or John King as she was sometimes known – who first made her appearance during the heyday of nineteenth-century spiritualism. Gibb has already published non-fiction in the shape of a biography of Rebecca West but this is her first novel, and a very ambitious one it is, too.
It begins with Katie’s first glimmerings of consciousness – a collage of graphic, chaotic images, many gruesome and full of death, ending with the vision of an extraordinarily empathetic little boy touched by the death of a mill hand. This is Robert Dale Owen, son of the philanthropist Robert Owen, who Katie comes to love and yearn for many years beyond his death. Couching her story within the framework of academic research, Gibb takes us from London to New York, Russia to the slums of Naples, and back again as she follows Katie from séance to séance, revealing the elaborate theatrical shenanigans employed by mediums and their sponsors. It’s a story which spans a century and a half, ending in 2013 with Katie’s impressions of the life she ‘has not lived’. Gibb’s novel is made up of seven computer printouts which appear on an Italian bookshop’s printer apparently without human intervention; bits and pieces of ‘spirit writing’ courtesy of the Magic Circle’s library; analyses of documents by Adam Marcus, an academic – now dead; and correspondence between the Magic Circle’s librarian and Lorna Gibb, the academic who has taken over from Marcus.
The novel’s fragmentary structure takes a little getting used to but the device of academic research gives Gibb’s fiction a nice touch of sceptical analysis making Katie’s voice all the more vivid. At times it’s very funny – Katie sniffily decries the theatrics and sexual titillation of nineteenth-century spiritualism with its scantily clad young women and levitating tables, often finding humans intensely irritating. In a clever twist hers is the voice of scepticism, debunking much of what she sees at séances and wary of those who seem to have the possibility of psychic ability. Gibb injects a poignancy into Katie’s story with her yearning for connection and physicality, and her constant devotion to Robert Dale Owen. It’s a novel firmly rooted in research, peopled with prominent historical figures – from the renowned scientist Alfred Russel Wallace, who becomes convinced of Katie’s existence, to Florence Cook, a celebrated Victorian medium – and if I have a criticism it’s that at times the research threatened to overwhelm the story. That said, it’s a fascinating study of the strange world of belief and longing to believe all wrapped up in a very clever, sophisticated piece of fiction.