The Spirit Engineer (2021) by A. J. West

The Spirit Engineer
The Spirit Engineer
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Spoiler Alert: OK, not a true spoiler–it doesn’t give away the ending. Still, this review may tell you more about the book than you want to know. No big deal. Read it anyway.

A fictional account of real people and events, The Spirit Engineer (2021) by A.J. West tells the story of Professor William Jackson Crawford’s six year investigation of medium Kathleen Goligher, head of the Goligher Circle. Crawford describes his seances with the family and details the steps he takes to prevent trickery. However, for the reader, the true import of his narrative is that the most dangerous deceptions occur, not in the dark at the hands of hucksters, but, rather, in the light of day through the lies we tell ourselves. Many recent novels have capitalized on the romantic trappings of Spiritualism–the dark seance room, creaky boards, gentle flirtation, etc. If you are looking for a cozy ghost story or murder mystery, you won’t find it here. A dark, gritty and disorienting mix of humor and horror, The Spirit Engineer is a memorable contribution to an area that is increasingly filled with forgettable books. 

It’s 1914 in Belfast. The Titanic sank two years before, the Home-Rule Crisis continues, and the Great War is about to begin. Against this bleak background, Professor William Jackson Crawford teaches engineering at The Municipal Technical Institute, where he feels overlooked by the Principal and undervalued by his colleagues. Even his wife, Elizabeth, seems to disrespect him. Suspecting that her evening church meetings are actually assignations, he follows her to a plumbing shop on the bad side of town and crashes a seance. Elizabeth has been meeting with the medium Kathleen Goligher in an attempt to contact lost loved ones. Embarrassed by his wife’s deceit and gullibility, Crawford vows to expose the Goligher family, but his resolve is complicated by his desire to hear the voices of his dead mother and son. While Crawford’s work with the Circle eventually brings him fame and fortune, it also exposes him to questions from critics who, scrutinizing his character and experiments, suggest that he is a quack and Kathleen an obvious fraud. Can he devise tests strict enough to solidify his status as an expert and prove Kathleen’s innocence once and for all?

Crawford bills himself as a seance auditor on the lookout for legerdemain, but he emanates the menacing energy of a fraud who is about to be exposed. He tells anyone who will listen that he is a respected professor of engineering from an elite institution, who is about to publish an important work in his field. The reality is that, far from being a key figure at the center of British scientific inquiry and cultural production, he comes from the periphery of the empire and teaches foulmouthed boys in a Belfast vocational school. His crucial contribution to engineering is a basic textbook. Crawford fancies himself a gentleman, a man of means, but his house is falling apart and his family lives off of a gentlewoman’s charity.  He poses as a traditional patriarch, pretending to shield his wife and children from external threats when, actually, the question of who protects whom is, as we discover, much more complex. In other words, Crawford misunderstands his position in the imperial, social, economic, and familial contexts that, taken together, create his sense of identity. As a result of these misalignments, there is a friction within Crawford, a growing sense of pressure that threatens to explode his facade of middle-class success. 

The novel’s most spine-tingling scenes dramatize Crawford’s  jarring internal dissonance. For instance, while moving heavy statuary on the upper floor of the Institute, an unenviable job assigned to him by Principle Forth, the professor looks across the courtyard and sees an uncanny figure in the east corridor. Staring back at him, this eerie doppelganger imitates his movements and mimics his call:

Slowly, I raised my hand to them and nodded, whispering ‘who are you?’ then watched, mesmerized as they reached out their own hand and pointed at me, a strange, plaintive cry drifting across the abandoned courtyard. I knew their voice, though could not think who it was. (78)

The Spirit Engineer (78)

The voice is familiar because it’s probably his own. Crawford is often admiring his reflection in darkened windows and this is just a more sinister version of that mirroring. It’s interesting to note that this moment of self-division comes while he is engaged in manual labor, an almost janitorial task that, as Professor Fjorde notes, should not have been given to an instructor. This kind of labor is so below Crawford’s pretensions, that he literally cannot see himself doing it. 

While Crawford’s inner divisions generate much of the novel’s horror, the contradictions of the Spiritualist movement are also deeply unsettling. Spiritualists argued that life after death was a fact that could be proven if scientists would only investigate. Those who accepted this challenge–and there were many both in-and-outside of the movement–claimed to be completely objective, unmoved by anything so low as emotion or sexual attraction. But, as The Spirit Engineer shows, despite the stated intentions of these investigators, their experiments amounted to nothing more than elaborate scenarios of sexual abuse and even torture. Crawford’s seeming innocence about sex is a reliable source of humor. He unselfconsciously uses the phrase “plasmic rod” and, with complete earnestness, fondles the clammy, snakelike appendages that emerge from Kathleen’s crotch. He’s a fool, and these scenarios are so ridiculous that I couldn’t help but laugh. Still, throughout the novel, my laughter alternated with moments of deep disgust. After having Kathleen bound, gagged, and clothed in nothing but a thin cotton shift, Crawford introduces her to a room of spectators as “[t]he most powerful woman you have ever seen” (234). Here, he makes explicit the sadistic power dynamic at Spiritualism’s heart: It “empowers” female mediums by silencing their voices and immobilizing their bodies; it renders them vulnerable to any attack. Fortunately, Crawford reassures the reader, the women of the Goligher family are completely safe with him. Spoken like a true psychopath. 

Over the past 15 years, writers have taken a renewed interest in Spiritualism, and this old subject has inspired dozens of new novels. In this crowded field of murder mysteries and cozy ghost stories, The Spirit Engineer stands out for its originality, meticulously researched setting, and disturbing tonal shifts. The surprise ending relies on an old trope that, in this rendering, feels completely new and chilling. 


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