Adrian Van Young will celebrate the launch of his latest book, Shadows in Summerland, at 6 p.m. on Thursday, April 21, at Maple Street Book Shop (7529 Maple St.).
The novel begins in Boston in 1859, as the nation is on the brink of war. Roughly based on the real-life story of William H. Mumler, spirit photographer and his clairvoyant wife, Hannah Mumler, Shadows in Summerland immerses the reader in a shifting world of light and shade where nothing is quite what it seems at first glance. A soaring and resplendently Gothic novel spanning three decades, it is as much an homage to the Golden Age ghost stories of Edith Wharton and Henry James as it is a companion to the revisionist historical epics of Peter Carey and Sarah Waters, with a little steampunk all its own.
What follows is an excerpt from the novel, originally published in 2013 in Black Candles: See Through.
Fanny in Development
Rap once for no, three times for yes, and five if you wish the alphabet. If the session is successful, thank the spirits for their kindness; if it is unsuccessful, curse the lot of them for tricksters. Make your feet and knees your friends and be sure they are always warm for feet and knees too cold and cramped will never work a proper rap. Always maintain perfect posture. Never concede to be shut in a cabinet. Be wary of writers and college professors. Do not speak outside the trance. Wear a dress that shows your neck but wear a skirt that hides your feet. Watch the face but not the eyes. Invest in harps and horns and strings. Do not be afraid to put a little sap in it. Often pray and always sing. Repeat words and phrases. Say: Harmony, Beauty, Comfort for the Ills of Life. Never agree to sit on credit, but always agree to sit for free. Condition your palms not to sweat. Exude grace. Never take more than a glass of red wine.
Miss Cluer and I sat across from each other. E.H.B. sat in the middle, observing. Even at so young an age—both of us were just sixteen—E.H.B. would call us Miss. This was no different for small girls of ten.
“Miss Cluer, you have lost your daughter. Your daughter was five when she died. It was measles. Miss Cluer has sought you out, Miss Conant. She’s heard that you can see beyond. Your signal job,” said E.H.B., “is making that beyond seem closer. Make it local, in a word. Make beyond a place, Miss Conant, that she can go to in her heart and yet make it one, if you possibly can, that she will require you to show her around. Comfort and confidence first, dear girls, but loyalty second, third and fourth. Loyalty is the sweet, soft milk that draws them here like hungry cats.”
E.H.B. held up one hand, the other inching up to join it.
“Comfort and confidence first,” we recited. “Loyalty second, third and fourth.”
“Such a lovely harmony!” She clapped her raised hands and we smiled at her weakly. “Miss Conant,” she said, “engage Miss Cluer. What are you going to ask her first?”
“Who were you hoping to speak to tonight?”
“Who were you hoping to contact, Miss Conant. If mediumship is to be a profession we must use professional words, mustn’t we?”
“Who were you hoping to contact, Miss Cluer?”
“Splendid, Miss Conant! Miss Cluer, your answer?”
Susie Cluer was a strange one. She was a tall and awkward girl who did not understand her body; her posture in the séance room was, for our teacher, an ongoing nightmare. It was also her habit to mumble her lines which is why, in our sessions, I was often the leader.
“You tell me,” said Susie Cluer.
“Please enunciate, Miss Cluer. Who were you hoping to contact tonight?”
“Whoever you think best,” said Susie. “I sit here at your expertise.”
“Miss Cluer, you’ve listened! Now you go, Miss Conant.”
“I am sensing a presence. It knows you, Miss Cluer.”
“Less purposeful, Miss Conant, please. Are you not in the grip of a mesmeric trance?”
“I am…sensing….a presence. It…knows you, Miss Cluer.”
Susie peeked out from beneath her lank bangs. “What kind of a presence?” she said, more assured.
“A female presence,” I responded, but already our teacher was clucking her tongue.
“Let Miss Cluer guess, Miss Conant. Tell her: a presence longed for and beloved.”
“A presence longed for and beloved,” I amended.
“Is the spirit male?” said Susie.
I rapped once with my toes, in the negative sequence.
“Is it female, then?” said Susie.
“Quicker, girls!” said E.H.B.
I rapped my toes three times for yes.
“Is the spirit old?”
“Is the spirit young?”
E.H.B. held up her palm. “If my memory serves, me Miss Conant,” she said, “you’re ambidextrous in your talents. In that case don’t be shy about it. Your clients shall want variation.”
I rolled my eyes about the room, rendered passive by the trance.
“Excellent!” said E.H.B. “Let her heartbeat race a bit. And now begin to feed her, slowly.”
I rapped twice with my toes and three times with my knees for a total of five at which E.H.B. beamed. “The alphabet is motioned for. So spell for us your name,” I said. “Oh bountiful, womanly rose of the Summerland, gladden our hearts with your name,” I cried out.
“Now you are laying it on a bit thick. But markedly improved, Miss Conant. Miss Cluer, what shall be her name?”
“Theodora,” said Miss Cluer.
It was a name I recognized as that of the sister who’d brought Susie here. This was after their parents had died in a fire or so the rumor got around, and Susie was remanded to her older sister’s keeping. That had been two years ago. The sister had gone to Baltimore to prepare, Susie said, for her railroad arrival, while in the meantime getting by at what her sister had informed her was a sort of acting college. On the day she had been in too much of a hurry to shake the hand of E.H.B., Susie’s sister told her this before running to catch her train.
“Let it be Theodora then. Miss Conant, watch Miss Cluer’s face.”
Her eyes were wide and wet and red.
“Never look into the eyes,” said our teacher. “A girl will get lost in the eyes of a mourner. There is such emptiness, you see. And yet such boundless, gorgeous hope.”
“You think that she is dead to you. And yet…” I gave pause “…she is not far away.”
E.H.B. considered this. “Forceful, Miss Conant and yet it wants finish. Is not far away and—what?”
“Your daughter’s closer than you know. Come with me,” I said. “I’ll take you.”
“I will conduct you, Miss Conant. Conduct. That it what you lack sometimes. But all in all a good attempt. Do you feel less alone in the world, Miss Cluer?”