It’s supernatural month at the Sheffield Popular Fiction Reading Group, and I’ve been looking at Conan Doyle’s The Land of Mist, in which Professor Challenger and the other characters from The Lost World are brought in to explore Conan Doyle’s great obsession – the world of the Beyond, as revealed to spiritualists. Thank goodness Doyle managed to resist the temptation to make Sherlock Holmes convert to spiritualism; in this book Challenger and Co are more or less reduced to puppets for his enthusiasms.
The book has several references to the Great War, as one might perhaps expect; it was the desire of so many of the war-bereaved to feel that their loss was not final that gave such a boost to the spiritualist movementt in the early twenties. Mediums were often accused of exploiting war widows, however, and perhaps that is why Doyle does not stress this aspect of things. Instead he twists the standard situation to comic effect:
The clairvoyante suddenly darted out her finger towards the crowd at the door “It’s for the soldier.”
A soldier in khaki, looking very much amazed, was in the front of the knot of people.
“Wot’s for me?” he asked.
“It’s a soldier. He has a corporal’s stripes. He is a big man with grizzled hair. He has a yellow tab on his shoulders. I get the initials J. H. Do you know him?”
“Yes —but he’s dead,” said the soldier.
He had not understood that it was a Spiritualistic Church, and the whole proceedings had been a mystery to him. They were rapidly explained by his neighbours. “My Gawd!” cried the soldier, and vanished amid a general titter.
Another twist on the standard situation comes when two women come to see a decent and honest medium. One asks:
“I lost my poor husband in the war — killed at Ypres he was. Could I get in touch with him?”
The medium gets no message from beyond, but tries to help the women – realising too late that they are policewomen, setting him up for prosecution under the Vagrancy Act.
The most remarkable mention of the war, however, comes later in the book, when a clergyman is using a medium in order to get in touch with troubled spirits, whose spiritual falings are keeping them earthbound rather than heading for heaven. The medium makes contact with a Chinese spirit control, who introduces a sailor:
“Well, I’ve lost my bearings, that’s true. I know I am dead ’cause I’ve seen the gunnery lootenant, and he was blown to bits before my eyes. If he’s dead I’m dead and all the rest of us, for we are over to the last man. But we’ve got the laugh on our sky-pilot, for he’s as puzzled as the rest of us. Damned poor pilot, I call him. We’re all taking our own soundings now.”
“What was your ship?”
“She that went down in battle with the German?”
“That’s right. South American waters. It was clean hell. Yes, it was hell.” There was a world of emotion in his voice. “Well,” he added more cheerfully, “I’ve heard our mates got level with them later. That is so, sir, is it not?”
“Yes, they all went to the bottom.”
“We’ve seen nothing of them this side. Just as well, maybe. We don’t forget nothing.”
“But you must,” said Mailey. “That’s what is the matter with you. That is why the Chinese control brought you through. We are here to teach you. Carry our message to your mates.”
“Bless your heart, sir, they are all here behind me.”
“Well, then, I tell you and them that the time for hard thoughts and worldly strife is over. Your faces are to be turned forward, not back. Leave this earth which still holds you by the ties of thought and let all your desire be to make yourself unselfish and worthy of a higher, more peaceful, more beautiful life. Can you understand?”
“I hear you, sir. So do they. We want steering, sir, for, indeed, we’ve had wrong instructions, and we never expected to find ourselves cast away like this. We had heard of heaven and we had heard of hell, but this don’t seem to fit in with either. But this Chinese gent says time is up, and we can report again next week. I thank you, sir, for self and company. I’ll come again.”
In this novel of 1926, the eternal verities are obviously imbued with the spirit of the Locarno Pact of 1925, which declared a union of amity between Europen powers such as France, Germany and Britain. The Locarno spirit became the political correctness of the day (It was this spirit that Dawn, the Edith Cavell film, would fall foul of in 1928.)
The Monmouth, a cruiser, that was one of the four British ships that, on 1 November 1914, confronted a German squadron in Chilean waters outside the port of Coronel. The Germans sank two of the British ships with the loss of over 1,600 lives. Not a single German sailor died. This was the first British naval defeat in a century, and caused much concern. Here is how the Daily Mail reported it:
Now I’d have thought that if any ghost had a right to harbour a grievance against Germans it would be a British sailor whom they had killed. But the vicar considers that he has the right to tick off a ghost, and insist that he must lose his resentment, or he will be kept in limbo and won’t be allowed into the higher realms of heaven. I wonder whether spiritualists actually preached this sort of thing in wartime, or whether (like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, I think) they had moved with the times from a nationalistic viewpoint to a League of Nations one.
The Land of Mist is a very silly book, but has all of Doyle’s usual narrative gusto, and is fun to read.