Material Girls

Emma Heathcote James. They Walk Among Us: An Investigation of the Phenomenon of After Death Materialisation. Metro Books, 2004.

Materialisation and physical mediumship is a subject which has come a long way downhill from the heady days of Dan Home, Florrie Cook, Eusapio Palladino and the like. In the interwar period it became associated with a mixture of fraud and kinky sex as practised by the likes of Eva Carriere alias Marthe Beraud and Mina ‘Margery’ Crandon who were in the habit of producing ectoplasm from the most intimate places, and by the post-war period it had become synonymous with the crudest kind of fraud practised in sleazy back rooms in even sleazier back streets. Some idea of its state can be found in the 1967 novel by Archie Jarman, High Jinks on a Low Level. The SPR kept up a prize for anyone who could produce physical mediumship in controlled conditions but it was never taken up.

It is into this seedy realm that E. H. James has now stepped. Her previous books on angels and after death visitations dealt with the anomalous experiences of ordinary members of the public, and if nothing else were valuable collections of modern folklore, and clearly resonated with a wide readership. This current book has no such appeal.

Researched and compiled during a self confessed period of depressive breakdown following three close bereavements, it lacks any sense of critical balance. James has clearly decided to take on the role of true believer. With her degree in theology and a background in the sociology of unconventional religious groups, and work in the media, she could have been ideally suited to examine the role of physical mediumship as a set of experiences and beliefs at the intersection of science, religion and entertainment, commenting perhaps on its ambivalent attitude to denouncing materialism yet dealing with spirits as matter often of a fairly gross kind.

Instead she takes on the role of spokesperson for a couple of characters who run organisations called The Campaign for Philosophical Freedom and the Noah’s Ark Society. These are Michael Roll who combines credulous support for physical mediumship with an anticlericalism every bit as fierce as Richard Dawkins, and Ronald Pearson who wages a one man crusade against Einstein and for the ether.

But even in this role she basically fails. If you are presenting a book arguing for something as altogether rejected as physical mediumship, the obvious route would be first of all to first present dispassionately good quality evidence, and present well-reasoned conclusions later on, based on this evidence.

That is not what happens here: the first part of this book is given oven to a barely coherent repetitive rants against materialism and modern science. Eventually we get to evidence, or rather the lack of it. James screws up her courage to actually investigate some of the séances where amazing things are about to happen, and decides to take along some night sight goggles so she can actually see what is going on in the darkness. You’ve guessed it haven’t you? The medium backs away, saying he was “not quite as developed as I had previously understood …” Plaintively the author “could he have been a fraud?” (Well, “Yes, and he has practically confessed it” is the answer.)

So instead of evidence we get a load of assertion from the likes of Montague Keen, but much of it transparent enough to show that fraud is alive and well in these parts. Some of it is so moving that you almost fall off your chair laughing at it. I think the high, or low point depending on how you look at these things, is when a materialisation announces he is Louis Armstrong and complains “I’ve got to say this is very difficult speaking through this ‘ere voice box” like someone from EastEnders.

For those who can read between the lines, the kinky sex is not far below the surface in places, there is a definite S and M flavour in all this trussing up of mediums, and there is something masochistic about the humiliation of some of the sitters. -- Peter Rogerson

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