Random Research: The First Psychic

It’s been quite some time since I’ve done one of my Random Research blogs. Let’s bring that back, shall we?

The First Psychic: The Peculiar Mystery of a Notorious Victorian Wizard – Peter Lamont

Book Description (from Amazon):

He was simply the greatest psychic of all time. He was also the first – before him, the word ‘psychic’ did not even exist. The feats he performed were so extraordinary that Victorian scientists had to invent the term in order to explain them. The man who became the world’s first psychic was Daniel Dunglas Home. Now almost entirely forgotten, Home was a household name in Victorian Britain, a man of inexplicable ability who divided opinion wherever he went. Hated by Dickens and defended by Thackeray, denounced by Faraday yet mysterious to Darwin, insulted by Tolstoy but patronised by the Emperor of France and the Csar of Russia. The astonishing feats he performed, and the bizarre personal life that attracted so much controversy, are little known today outside the esoteric world of psychical research. He rarely appears in the biographies of the many great Victorians who knew him as few could openly admit to such a controversial acquaintance. This book will finally introduce one of the most remarkable and enigmatic figures in history, and the strange and seemingly inexplicable events that occurred in his presence.

Review and Response:

Reading this book, it is incredible that Home isn’t better remembered today. John Anderson, The Wizard of the North and Home’s rival, is better known.

Born in Scotland, near Edinburgh, he immigrated with his family to the US at a young age. He suffered from poor health. Throughout his childhood, strange events followed him–he predicted several deaths and recounted strange visions that proved to be true.

He eventually decided he simply must inform the world about Spiritualism, and traveled the world, offering seances and hoping for patronage. He became most well-known for his extraordinary levitations.

Scandal also followed him. A wealthy widow “adopted” him and gave him large amounts of money, who later recanted and claimed Home had tricked her under spritualistic distress and sued him. He married a young daughter of Russian royalty and Alexander Dumas was his best man. By all accounts, he loved her deeply, but she died of tuberculosis. He later married an older, wealthy Russian.

Home was a study in contradictions. He claimed to be fervently devoted to his cause. Most knew him as earnest and mild-mannered. Yet at the same time, what he did was most likely all trickery, meaning that his very personality might also have been a ruse. Did he manipulate most of those around him, or was he actually who he claimed to be? But if he was a fraud–he was never caught, despite how often people tried to expose him.

A very interesting and recommended read.

Recommended Read: The Housekeeper + The Professor by Yoko Ogawa

This is a beautiful little book that was an absolute joy to read. The unnamed narrator, a 28-year-old housekeeper and mother of a 10-year-old son, is sent to work for an unkempt retired math professor who lives in a cottage behind his sister-in-law’s house. The Professor is disabled—in 1975 he had a terrible accident that impacted his short-term memory, which only lasts 80 minutes. He still believes it is 1975 and not 2003. He’s taciturn and a bit difficult to work for, but the housekeeper feels sorry for him. The Professor cuts a pathetic figure—a small old man in a worn suit and moldy shoes, little slips of paper with messages to himself clipped to lapels and pockets. The most prominent note reads “my memory only lasts eighty minutes.”

Every morning, the Professor does not know who the Housekeeper is, and asks her a question relating to numbers—what is her birthday, her phone number, her shoe size? He finds meaning in all of her answers. The Housekeeper, a high school dropout, starts trying to learn more about mathematics in order to connect with him. But the equation of the housekeeper + the professor is missing a factor of the equation: the housekeeper’s son.

When the Professor learns that the Housekeeper has been leaving her son home alone, he is distraught and demands that he comes to the house after school. He writes himself a note to make himself remember. And when the boy comes, the Professor greets him warmly, even though he has no idea who he is. He nicknames the boy Root.

An unlikely family arises out of this. Even though the Professor has no idea how long he has known them, he cares for them. The language of mathematics overcomes the barrier of his memory. They learn about Euler’s forula, Fermat’s Last Theorem, prime numbers and amicable numbers. I have a rather limited grasp of mathematics, but it’s laid out more like poetry and I understood it all. It’s a gorgeously written book, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Yoko Ogawa has won many prestigious awards in Japan. The Housekeeper + The Professor has won the Hon’ya Taisho award, became a bestseller, and was adapted to film (The Professor’s Beloved Equation), which I plan to watch soon, if I can find it.

Random Research: Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible – Jim Steinmeyer

This is one of the main resources for my WIP, the sequel to Pantomime.

Back copy:

In 1918 Harry Houdini performed a single illusion that has been hotly debated ever since: he made a live elephant disappear on stage. How did he do it? The answer lies in this dazzling tale of innovation, chicanery and keen competition that is the backstage story of the golden age of magic. Hiding the Elephant chronicles the race among history’s most legendary conjurers to make things levitate and disappear. A master illusionist and captivating storyteller, Steinmeyer introduces us to the eccentric personalities behind floating ghosts, disembodied heads and vanishing ladies and takes us backstage to reveal the mechanics of their mysteries. He carries us to a time when Queen Victoria held private seances and all of England believed in magic.

‘Simply the finest, best told, most graceful history of the Golden Age of magic I’ve ever read. It belongs on that elite shelf of historical explorations, like Longitude or The Professor and the Madman, which are so entertaining, so informative, that the reader with no prior interest will feel educated and enthralled on every page… A terrific yarn.’ — Glen David Gold, author of Carter Beats the Devil

I’d agree with Gold. The language and organisation of this book was perfect. I sank into it almost as I would a fiction book, which is high praise indeed. Steinmeyer obviously has such an overwhelming interest and love of magic, and that comes through the pages. It was fascinating to learn more about the greatest magicians of the age.

Magicians are sneaky. Many of them had long-standing feuds, stole each other’s tricks and names, and found ways to slight each other. Some pretended to be from other countries to give themselves a more exotic air. Many of them became hugely successful, making relatively as much as an A-list celebrity would these days. But they were not easy lives, doing 2 or 3 shows a day 7 days a week for months sometimes, or traveling from city to city around the world.

Another aspect of this book that makes it very interesting is that Steinmeyer explains some of the famous illusions shown onstage during the Golden Age of Magic. The Circle of Magic probably wasn’t very happy about that. But I find that learning the secrets behind the trick does not take enjoyment away. It makes me respect them all the more, for some of these are so complicated and require everything to be done just so. Even with the description and the diagrams, I still didn’t quite see how they could work onstage.

If you have an interest in magic, this is an excellent starting point for an overview of the greatest era of magic.

Random Research: Hocus Pocus by Paul Kieve

I’m doing quite a lot of these random research posts just now…but there’s not a lot else to blog about. I’m spending my days writing and refreshing my inbox every 5 minutes. And so, onward!

When I listened to the History of Magic podcast series, one of the episodes interviewed Paul Kieve, who did some work on the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban film (hence the introduction by Daniel Radcliffe). Kieve mentioned that he had a book coming out, and so I picked it up as a starting point for my research on magicians.

The book is targeted at MG kids, and is framed around Paul, as a young magician in the Egyptian theatre, interacting with the great magicians of the past, who come out of their posters that line his office. Each magician explains his past and discusses the tricks he was best known for. The book is also dotted with some simple tricks for readers to try on their own at home.

It was a quick, delightful little read. The frame narrative made the book interesting and I could see it entrancing younger kids. From my other research into the history of magic, I came across so many instances of magicians seeing a travelling show when they were around 11-14, and that sparking their lifelong obsession with magic. However, once I worked my way into adult biographies of magicians, I did notice all the salacious details that Kieve understandably left out.

Definitely recommended for the MG age group.

Random Research: The Giant Circus Book

For this week, I’m sharing the book that has been wickedly helpful for my book set in a circus.

The Circus Book – Linda Granfield et al (Taschen, 2010)

Product Description from Amazon:

During its heyday, the American circus was the largest show-biz industry the world had ever seen. From the mid-1800s to mid-1900s, traveling American circuses performed for audiences of up to 14,000 per show and crisscrossed the country on 20,000 miles of railroad in one season alone. The spectacle of death-defying daredevils and strapping super-heroes gripped the American imagination, outshining theater, comedy, and minstrel shows of the day, and ultimately paving the way for film and television. The circus offered young Americans the dream of adventure and reinvention. This book brings to life the grit and glamour of the circus phenomenon. Images include photographic gems by early circus photographers Frederick Whitman Glasier and Edward Kelty, many of the earliest color photographs ever taken of the circus from the 1940s and 1950s, iconic circus photographs by Mathew Brady or Cornell Capa, and little-known circus images by Stanley Kubrick and Charles and Ray Eames. For the first time, contemporary readers can experience the legend of the American circus in all its glory.

Me with the Circus Book. Note that I am 6 feet tall, so it's not like I'm super petite.

Firstly, this book is absolutely massive. It’s definitely a book that can only be read at home.  It’s also extremely heavy. This is not something you can cart around with you, unless you want some decidedly odd looks on the street. And a good workout.

The book is divided into different subsections:

Introduction: Something Wicked This Way Comes

Chapter 1: Worldwide Roots of Circus: Invention, Performance, and Play

Chapter 2: Wonders of the World Await You

Chapter 3: Venuses of the Age: The Female Performer Emancipated

Chapter 4: Strange Beasts from Foreign Lands

Chapter 5: Circus Acts: Controlled Mayhem to Dazzle and Delight

Chapter 6: Eating Fire, Throwing Knives: Freaks & Wonders of the Sideshow

Chapter 7: Tent City: Backstage at the Circus

Chapter 8: Seconds from Death: Risking Life & Limb for the Crowd

Each essay is also translated into French and German, but the hundreds of photographs are captioned in all three languages. I speak French passably well and German rather poorly, so it was also a chance to practice my language skills. Bonus!

But this book was absolutely extraordinary and showcases why print books will never leave us entirely: this is a work of art. It’s solidly made and the colour plates are fantastic. The photographs and old circus artwork truly brought the circus to life. There are plenty of full-page spreads and a good range of time periods, though there’s a bit more of the more recently 1940s-1950s than the 1870s, for instance.

The essays were also extremely helpful, especially the chapters about the freak shows and the daily life in the circus, as most of my other research focused far more on the acts and their social significance than the day-to-day details of living in a nomadic circus. I loved the candid photos of circus folk laughing and fooling around on the back lot to pass the time between shows. I also really enjoyed reading about how the circus was a way for the audience to learn and experience foreign lands, and nevermind that most of the people in the fantastic costumes were not from the land they pretended to be.

Of all the research I’ve done in the circus, this was the source that best showcased the wonder and magic the circus evokes.

I desperately, desperately want the Taschen book on magic, but it’s £98 on Amazon, whereas the Circus book was only £27. I keep hoping it will go on sale because I know it’ll be invaluable for my sequel. If it doesn’t, I’ve decided that if I sell my first book, I’m buying this as a well-deserved treat. Maybe I’ll be able to write it off my taxes, heh.

Random Research: The Circus and Victorian Society – Brenda Assael

I do a fair amount of research for my books, most notably on: Victorian society, the circus, magicians, Victorian medicine and science, gender studies and sexuality, and various postulations on the future of architecture, technology, weapons, et cetera. I figured that once or twice a week, I’ll post a bit about some sort of research I’ve done–a short book review of a book I’ve read, podcasts I’ve found inspiring, links and photos, what have you. As I’m always researching, I’ll always have plenty to share.

This week I’m posting a review of a book I first read several years ago, and have recently been flipping through to refresh my memory.

The Circus and Victorian Society

The Circus and Victorian Society – Brenda Assael – 168 pages (5 stars) 

When I first started researching my novel, I was not sure if there would be any books about circuses and Victorian society…but thankfully Brenda Assael, a history professor in Wales, wrote about just that. It’s an amazingly well-researched book that clearly lays out how the circus integrated itself into Victorian culture and played upon its imagination and fears.

The introduction gives an overview of the beginnings of the circus from the fairgrounds into lavish, fixed affairs in amphitheatres. The line between high theatre and the circus became blurred, and those from the highest to the lowest class enjoyed them all just the same.

Each chapter afterwards focuses on a specific aspect of the circus and then links it to Victorian society. First, Assael focuses on equestrian shows and trick riding, and how the elaborate staged battles paralleled the growing patriotic spirit as England became a world power. Next, she focuses on clowns, who were often sad, destitute, and on the lowest rung of the circus performers’ hierarchy. The last section focuses on women and children performers—specifically the sexual threat of women in their costumes and earning their own way, and the fight against children performers in the Industrial Era.

Throughout its formation, the circus has been both loved and despised by the public. It was hugely successful, but that success made it dangerous and various sects have tried to shut it down due to their perceived lack of morality of the circus. While a little pricey for the casual researcher, this book was an excellent insight into the role of the circus in Victorian society and well worth the read if the subject interests you.

Review: Department 19 – Will Hill

Whoops. After an unintended mini-blog hiatus, I’m back.

I totally forgot I was going to do a review for this–got distracted by NaNoWriMo and then looming school work assessments and my own writing. Shame on me!

Disclaimer: I met Will Hill personally at Fantasycon, but I tried not to let that bias the review.

Department 19 – Will Hill

Background:

Dracula and Frankenstein were not works of fiction, but history lessons.  Product description stolen from Amazon:

In a secret supernatural battle that’s been raging for over a century, the stakes have just been raised – and they’re not wooden anymore.

When Jamie Carpenter’s mother is kidnapped by strange creatures, he finds himself dragged into Department 19, the government’s most secret agency.

Fortunately for Jamie, Department 19 can provide the tools he needs to find his mother, and to kill the vampires who want him dead. But unfortunately for everyone, something much older is stirring, something even Department 19 can’t stand up against…

Strengths:

The novels play with the traditional view monsters–the vampires are cruel and twisted, and the secret M15-type department to fight them is good fun. Jamie’s quite a strong protagonist–he’s a bit whiny at the beginning but he quickly rises to the challenge of his new world he has been thrown into.

Jamie’s chemistry with the young female vampire is chillingly good at the beginning as they speak across a UV barrier that reminds me of the Hannibal Lector scenes in Silence of the Lambs. In fact, for such an action-centric and tightly-planned plot, the character development is not ignored, which I appreciate. Jamie has stumbled into a snarl of intrigue left behind by the older generations of D19, and Jamie learns that adults make their fair share of mistakes as well–including his own father.

The demographic is teenage boys, and it has a lot to appeal to its intended audience. There’s lots of action, lots of blood, and lots of violence, but it never feels like it’s gratuitous.

I love that the book makes allusions to classic Victorian monster literature and has flashbacks to D19 in differing time periods, as I think Department 19 will be a sneaky way to get kids to go back to the original text to see how Frankenstein compares to the character in the book, for instance, or understand the allusions to Dracula. D19 is an excellent way to bridge the gap between modern, fast-paced reading to the classics that inspire so many books today.

Weaknesses:

This isn’t really a weakness, but last I checked, I’m not a teenaged boy, and as such I didn’t fully connect with the character of Jamie Carpenter, though I’m sure others won’t have that problem.

I also would have liked a bit more struggle as Jamie develops his skills to fight in Department 19. It all comes a bit too easily and quickly for him. With almost no training he’s the best hunter the department has ever seen, which stretches credulity.

Overall Recommendation:

A strong debut that and a great gift to teenage boys, though there’s plenty to appeal to girls and adults as well. It’s very different from a lot of the vampire literature currently out there and it’s a quick, fun read. I read most of it in a day during my Read-a-thon not long ago. I’ll pick up the sequel without hesitation.