Robert Hugh Benson was a distinguished Roman Catholic priest and his novels were immensely popular in late Victorian times and those of King Edward VII. His death in 1914 was a severe blow, both to his Church and the reading public, for in his writings he displayed the subtle art of attacking evil practices without in the least appearing to preach.
In the present story Father Benson’s principal character is a young barrister named Laurie Baxter. He falls in love with the local grocer’s daughter, Amy, a pretty but quite brainless young girl. His family naturally disapprove so are not unduly distressed when the girl dies, from natural causes, before Laurie has married her. But his passion for this innocent charmer continues to be intense; so much so that he joins a spiritualist circle in South Kensington in the hope that the medium will enable him to see again, and possibly even touch, his dead love.
Obsessed with this idea he neglects his work and family. His mother, a lazy, shallow woman, is not particularly distressed but her adopted daughter, Margaret Deronnais, who has come down from Oxford to live with her, becomes greatly worried. Margaret is intelligent and courageous. She and Laurie have been brought up together almost as brother and sister, yet both have, subconsciously, a deeper feeling for each other. On Laurie’s ever rarer visits to his mother’s house in the country, Margaret gradually learns of the hold that Spiritualism is gaining over him; then she starts to fight it, her only weapons being her strong will and fondness for him.
Despite her efforts nothing will deter Laurie from trying to get in touch with Amy’s spirit. Encouraged by a medium, whose only interest is to carry out experiments regardless of their consequences, and two credulous women, after several séances the night Laurie has been longing for arrives. A spectre – assumed to be that of Amy raised from the dead – appears. Laurie attempts to seize it in his arms and chaos ensues.
As a result of this séance Laurie becomes a changed man. His expression, his manner, his attitude to life all alter; although, at times, he seems to be his normal self. To Margaret’s horror she realises that he now has a dual personality and is, in part, possessed by an evil spirit that is seeking to gain complete domination over him.
To give further particulars of the story would spoil it for he reader. But, with overwhelming clarity Father Benson makes clear his conviction; and it is the same that has caused the Spiritualist Press to regard my own writings on the occult with considerable hostility.
I maintain that Spiritualism – or to give this practice its proper name – Necromancy, is an evil thing. One has only to consider how every day scores of engaged couples or newly-weds, deeply in love, are suddenly separated by some fatal accident, to realise that it is against the laws of the spiritual world for the dead to return. Otherwise would it not be a common occurrence for the newly-dead to appear to their beloved and comfort them with the assurance that they had not been separated indefinitely?
During the past century countless mediums have been exposed as frauds; and it is notable that in times of war the number of these criminal tricksters increases a hundredfold, to batten unscrupulously on mothers, fathers and fiancées who wish to get in touch with soldiers killed in battle, whom they have loved.
I do not say that all mediums are dishonest. Many genuinely believe that their psychic powers enable them to speak on behalf of the dead. But is the voice of the spirit really that of the dead person called upon – or an evil spirit impersonating the departed? Are the dead in any circumstances allowed to return, or are even ghosts evil entities taking their form for reasons still hidden from us?
One further point. At séances it is assumed by the audiences that the spirit of the medium leaves his or her body, which becomes temporarily the habitation of another spirit. In other words the medium, if honest, is possessed. Can anything possibly justify a person laying themselves open to an unknown force and so imperilling their immortal soul?
Father Benson’s book may well arouse such sinister thoughts but, as a novel, it makes excellent reading with great suspense in the final chapter.