Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

In philosophy the term refers to any system of thought that affirms the existence of an immaterial Reality, but in modern parlance Spiritualism refers to a religious faith asserting that communication is possible between our world and the Souls which have passed into an immaterial Afterlife. Such communication is achieved via a medium, associated with a "control" in the spirit world, who may orchestrate various kinds of signals and ectoplasmic manifestations during a Séance, which continues with the control summoning other spirits to answer questions posed by participants and deliver messages from the Astral Plane. Spiritualism received its initial boost from the (fraudulent) "rappings" of the Fox sisters, which became a sensation in New York State in 1848, and the writings of their near neighbour Andrew Jackson Davis (1826-1910).

An entire subgenre of fiction deals with Spiritualism, much of it wholeheartedly credulous and some of it scathingly sceptical (and thus Rationalized Fantasy). In most Spiritualist fantasies credulity and propagandistic intent succeed in effacing virtually all literary and imaginative interest; the few which contrive to retain a reasonable measure include Urania (1889) by Camille Flammarion, The Land of Mist (1926) by Arthur Conan Doyle and Time Must Have a Stop (1944) by Aldous Huxley. Sceptical cautionary tales include The Vasty Deep (1890) by Stuart Cumberland (real name Charles Garner), Vera the Medium (1908) by Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916) and Other Eyes Than Ours (1926) by Ronald A Knox (1888-1957). Modern fantasy tends to be sceptical and the medium has become a comic figure whose archetype is Madame Arcati in the play Blithe Spirit (1941) by Noel Coward (1899-1973), filmed as Blithe Spirit (1945), although the medium Tangina in the Poltergeist movies has genuine power. A notable recent work in the farcical vein is Strong Spirits (1994) by Elisa de Carlo. [BS]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.