About The Author
Lorna Gibb was born in Belshill, North Lanarkshire. She worked as a dancer in her teens before going to London University and then Edinburgh University. She has had a variety of jobs, both within and outside of academia, and in several countries including Qatar, Italy and France, but most have involved writing in some form or another. She now lives in London and lectures part-time alongside her own writing career.
She is the author of biographies of Lady Hester Stanhope and Dame Rebecca West and is currently working on a further non-fiction book that will combine memoir with an investigation of childlessness.
Her first novel is A Ghost's Story. Inspired by the Victorian interest in spiritualism. We follow the spirit of Katie King, who was supposedly channelled by mediums at séances in both Europe and America, as she tries to stay close to those she cares about, her ability to influence events and manifest herself ebbing and flowing over many years.
The story is narrated in part by Katie herself, as well as through mysterious writings that appear overnight in an Italian bookshop, supposed spirit writings held by the Magic Circle, and the notes of an academic whose disbelief falters as aspects of Katie's story begin to seem irrefutably true. A Ghost's Story is a mystery, a fantasy, a romance, a historical epic and the perfect book to curl up with as the nights draw in.
In our exclusive interview, Lorna talks about the awkward connections between spiritualism and Christianity, how the Victorians' scientific curiosity led to belief in the spirit world and Katie King's mysterious presence on Twitter.
Questions & Answers
You've previously been a writer of non-fiction, publishing well-received biographies of Rebecca West and Lady Hester Stanhope. Your novel is also full of historical figures, from Florence King, who was the perhaps famous channeller of Katie King, to Bob Loomis, a current member of the Magic Circle. Why did you decide to explore the phenomenon in fiction?
Non fiction as a genre wouldn’t have worked in this case simply because I would have been constrained to be completely factual. I thought it would be interesting to write a book that enmeshed fiction and non fiction and made the two very difficult to disentangle. It’s something that fascinates me, how documentation, witness accounts and artefacts can be used to create something believable or to reassemble a life. The whole question of what is real and what is illusion is central to the book so I wanted to make it central to the form and the structure too. I like the idea of blurring different fiction and non fiction genres too.
The other incredibly important factor was Katie’s voice. It started in my head, became more insistent as I learned about the various historical accounts and encounters and wouldn’t leave me. It was as if she was asking me to tell her story. I loved so many aspects of it, the idea of someone being in love with an illusion (Robert Dale Owen really did fall in love with a ghost), the fact that a bookshop in Italy was named after her, the Ohio photos I found of the grave of the little dead girl Filenia whose family really started the whole phenomena, the Davenport Brothers, science and politics at the highest level entangled with ghosts; I wanted to create a narrative that tried to understand it all.
By the way Bob Loomis is an amazing archivist and librarian at the Circle and helped me unearth some incredible (and little known) true sources, by ‘true’ I mean papers and items that actually exist. Because these were often surprising, almost surreal, unlike some of the fictitious ones which are mostly very mundane, they were good (I hope) for involving the reader, making them question what might be true or possible as well as for exaggerating the sense of unreliability.
The various spirit writings attributed to Katie King are investigated by one Adam Marcus, who moves from scepticism to belief over a five-year period, as he approaches his death. Why did you choose to set the story within the framework of an academic investigation?
Ah now that’s an interesting question because it was a very deliberate choice. Marcus’ journey within the book is a very personal one in particular circumstances so his own conversion and perception are brought into doubt. The academic background gave him a kind of gravitas that I hoped would add to the possibility that he wasn’t deluded but had been brought to his belief by a careful process of analysis.
However, when you think about it, the academe within the book is itself at times a querulous thing that thinks it is answering questions or ‘proving’ something when in fact it’s doing nothing of the kind. Of course the modern investigation in some ways mirrored the historical ones into the spirit world by well known scientists which are central to the narrative so there was that aspect too.
I was also interested in the power of referencing and citation and, again, it allowed me to play with the notion of what was real (in terms of source) and what was not. If I give a citation of a work that does not in fact exist but attach a well known name to it does that raise the profile of the writer in some small way, in the sense that he has written other related things which a reader might then turn to? How do we judge these things, especially within an academy? Again, it’s about creating an illusion, but additionally of exploring what I like to call the ‘emperor’s new clothes’ phenomenon. You know the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale where the Emperor is made an outfit by a couple of swindlers who say that people who are incompetent or stupid won’t be able to see it. Everyone in the crowd pretends that they can and it’s only when a little boy shouts out that he’s in the nude that the collective affirmation disintegrates.
Why do you feel interest in spiritualism reached such a peak during the Victorian era?
I think because it was an age of great change and high mortality. Inventions such as electricity or photography were akin to magic for many people; Darwin and Russell Wallace were exploring how wide and bizarre the natural world really is which led to the fairly reasonable conclusion that if they didn’t know about all this before, how many other things are there that they still didn’t know about. You know, the idea that if such a thing as Wallace’s flying frog can exist in the world, then why not another kind of creature, more spirt than human, and so on.
Then there’s also the whole Victorian fascination with death and mourning. I remember walking through Highgate Cemetery with my husband and an excellent guide and being fascinated by the statuary on graves and thinking that there was subtlety as well as macabre splendour in the their symbolism.
Spiritualism has a complex and ambiguous relationship with more orthodox religious beliefs. How did the major Christian denominations react to public embracing of the concept of a spirit world?
This is something that interested me a lot and I hint at it in some of the séance scenes. There was a short time after the Florence Cook manifestations of Katie (where a spirit had arisen from the dead and walked among ‘believers’) when ghostly appearances were seen as analogous to the resurrection of Christ. And there was the completely opposite reaction which was to try to prosecute and pursue mediums who were taking congregations from the church and into the séance room; ministers would preach that it was akin to Satanism and mediums would be ostracised and driven out of local communities.
Katie King's story is brought into the present day by the mysterious appearance of spirit writings at Libreria Katia King, a real esoteric bookshop in Cesenatico, Italy. Was its owner, Gigliola Ruscelli, able to shed new light on the Katie King story?
Aha! In fact Gigliola didn’t name the shop but bought it when it was already called the Katie King Bookstore so no, she couldn’t, except of course to say that the bookshop was haunted. The shop itself is a wonderful place. It stocks books on every kind of esoterica and when I’ve been there always seems to have customers despite Cesenatico being a small seaside resort, often overlooked in favour of nearby Rimini or Ravenna. It also sells lots of crystals and charms and things associated with meditation and the spiritual more generally so in a sense it’s a shop that sells things to transport you to a different reality or a different consciousness and perception. An ideal environment for a non corporeal spirit who likes people really.
The Katie King spirit became widely invoked at the height of spiritualism's popularity. Do mediums still claim to channel her today? And can you shed any light on the Twitter account operated in her name, @ghostlykatie?
The last major public sighting was in Rome in 1974 to my knowledge. There are a lot of mediums though and I couldn’t say for sure that there aren’t others who claim to still be in touch with her. That Twitter account is a strange thing. It appeared quite surprisingly and I assumed it was a joke by one of my friends but I still haven’t got to the bottom of it. She has a lot of followers and is amusing although quite self-obsessed! She’s great at tweeting about the book for which I’m grateful. Of course I follow her and rather enjoy her and like to imagine from time to time that it really might be a spirit Katie, out there somewhere in the ether, playing with the electronic medium, a ‘ghost in the machine’. But I have no idea at all.