Wednesday, 15 January 2020

'The Messiah of Blackhall Place'

Derek John's contribution to The Far Tower: Stories for W.B. Yeats presents your humble reviewer with a slight problem. It was inspired by one of Yeats' best-known poems, but to say which one would give the game away. So let me instead dance around the story a bit and avoid any spoilers.

Set in roughly the same interwar period as John Howard's tale, 'The Messiah of Blackhall Place' concerns a man who takes past in the post-Great War renascence in spiritualism and psychical research. The narrator is a sceptic who will have none of Conan Doyle's fairy photos and feels compelled to unmask obviously fraudulent mediums. However, he does meet a genuine seeker after higher truths, the invalid 'Doctor Vanston', who has formed an elaborate philosophy concerning our next life, or lives.

The story concerns what happens after Vanston dies and apparently becomes a nuisance to a group of table turners, a 'frustrator' who keeps muscling in on seances. The narrator tries to engage his former acquaintance and get him to leave the group alone. The scene in which a spirit guide, an ancient Egyptian, is drowned out by Vanston's monomaniacal communication is especially well done. The picture of the afterlife presented is rich and strange enough to please Willy Yeats' himself. What's more, it turns out that Vanston - or rather, his spirit - has made a major blunder and admitted something terrible to our mortal plane.

This is a resonant, rather serious tale, despite the fact that spiritualism is often seen as faintly absurd. It lingers in the mind, or at least it did in mine.

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