Before he invented telegraphic code, Samuel Morse was a portrait painter. In the winter of 1825, he left his family in Connecticut and traveled to Washington, D.C., for a sitting with the Marquis de Lafayette. On February 9 he sent a letter to his beloved wife, Lucretia. Three days later he received word that Lucretia was dead. She had been dead when he wrote to her. “What had it meant that he had thought he was communicating with her?” asks Peter Manseau in THE APPARITIONISTS: A TALE OF PHANTOMS, FRAUD, PHOTOGRAPHY, AND THE MAN WHO CAPTURED LINCOLN’S GHOST (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27). “Had she not been fully alive in his mind as he scratched his ‘ardent affection’ on the page?” If necessity is the mother of invention, grief must be a kind of need. Morse would go on to patent the telegraph and to help found the first daguerreotype portrait studio, ensuring, as Manseau puts it, that “no man should remain as unknowing for so long as he had been of his lover’s fate, and should never more fear forgetting a single detail of her beauty.”
Manseau is the curator of religion at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History, as well as the author of four books of non-fiction, a novel, and a memoir. “It is my hope,” he writes,
that this story of photography’s infancy will provide a fresh view of a time shaped by war, belief, new technology, and a longing for connection across ever greater distances — a time not unlike our own.
The Apparitionists is breezy, clever, and exuberant. (Only a fusspot would ask: Was an inflating hot-air balloon “like a pimple on the face of the earth”? And about that mourning band on Lincoln’s hat: “a ring on the finger of a nation now married to Death”? Really?) In addition to Morse, Manseau’s cast includes Mathew Brady, P. T. Barnum, and William Mumler, a spirit photographer. In the 1860s, Mumler was working as an engraver, with a sideline peddling a homemade digestive remedy, when he met a pretty medium (in the parlance of the day, a “battery”) named Hannah Stuart, who ran her own photo studio. Mumler liked to help her by organizing the chemicals in the darkroom or testing the camera’s focus, and along the way he picked up a few fundamentals. One day he was developing the negative of a self-portrait when he discovered the ghostly image of a little girl next to his body. Mumler assumed that he had improperly washed the glass plate before coating it with collodion, but Stuart knew a visitation from a carte de visite. Soon the gallery was thronged with spiritualists and curiosity seekers willing to pay the outrageous sum of ten dollars for their own spectral snapshot, and Ms. Stuart became Mrs. Mumler. Mumler was brought up on charges of fraud in 1869.
Spiritualism, which arose in the 1830s, was a “hangover” from the Second Great Awakening. Its proponents flubbed public trials of their skills, and its influence was waning — “the automatic writing seemed to be on the wall” — when the Civil War broke out and “a hokey parlor trick turned into the receptacle for the most intense collective grief the nation had ever known.” Spiritualists, however, were divided on the validity of spirit photography, and the spirits themselves were no help. At a séance in the early 1860s, they spoke through the medium Fannie Conant to explain that determining the truth or falsity of Mumler’s pictures was “your work, and not ours.”
As Manseau shows, Mumler’s more reputable contemporaries were also in the business of necromancy. Jeremiah Gurney took a picture of Lincoln’s corpse lying in state. (The corpse then popped up and placed a loving hand on Mary Todd’s shoulders, in a photo that Mumler took in 1872.) Brady displayed photographs of fallen Confederate soldiers in his gallery on Broadway. Brady’s associate, Alexander Gardner, trawled Southern battlefields in a rolling darkroom known as a “whatsit wagon.” Mumler’s enemies were never able to say exactly how he achieved his supernatural effects, but we know Gardner’s tricks. If gunfire didn’t do its worst artfully enough, he dragged the bodies to more scenic locations, or carefully inserted a prop rifle into the frame.
To THE BACK OF BEYOND (Other Press, $15.95), by the Swiss writer Peter Stamm, is also a ghost story. A nice bourgeois family has just returned from a vacation in Spain. The parents, Astrid and Thomas, are drinking wine in the yard; the children are upstairs in bed. The son calls out and Astrid goes to tend to him. Left alone with his thoughts, Thomas imagines what will happen the next day: the newspaper and the wineglasses damp with dew, the morning rush to school and work, the house cleaned up and in order by the time he comes back for lunch.
The next paragraph:
Thomas stood up and walked down the narrow gravel path that ran along the side of the house. When he got to the corner, he hesitated momentarily, then, with a bewildered smile he was only half aware of, he turned away to the garden gate.
“Then” permits anything; “then” can change everything — such a small word, but, in a novel, enormously powerful. Does “then” imply a relationship of cause and effect, or an inexplicable tear in the fabric of daily life? Neither, both: It doesn’t matter. Stamm isn’t interested in the why of Thomas’s walkabout, which he takes for granted as being, if not inevitable, then at least as possible as the alternative. Thomas opens the gate; he walks down the road; he keeps going.
Any man who walks out on his family should hope for a wife like Astrid. Her response is exemplary. No hysterics. “She tried to be furious with Thomas, who was to blame for everything, but she didn’t manage it.” She rationalizes, sympathizes. She, too, has felt the need to get out; when her daughter was a screaming, colicky baby, Astrid sometimes left the house for as long as half an hour to collect herself. She thinks this is somehow equivalent.
In his previous life Thomas was an accountant — literary shorthand for steady, reliable, unfulfilled, repressed. In an American novel sex would be the issue, but Thomas doesn’t have a wandering eye. He takes temporary shelter in a brothel but refuses the women’s come-ons. He travels like a man escaping a catastrophe, but he never completely sheds civilization or becomes wild. All he really wants, it seems, is a little time alone in nature.
Michael Hoffman’s translation from the German is cool and precise. To the Back of Beyond follows Thomas and Astrid in alternating sections; his give a careful account of his route, procuring provisions, the footpaths, slopes, valleys, and streams, the landscape with its “thin shreds of mist.” She waits, searches, tries to calm the children. One month after Thomas disappears, there is a twist in the plot. It is masterfully timed, arriving exactly when the narrative has become arid. It didn’t make me care about Thomas — nothing could — but it complicates matters, and makes us see Astrid differently. Both of them, it is clear, are in thrall to fantasies — one dreams about slipping the ties of responsibility, the other about seamlessly restoring what has been broken. That Stamm treats these as distinctly male and female is predictable, and, frankly, annoying.
But I wouldn’t entirely trust what is reported about these characters. We are told that they were happy before Thomas’s flight, but in their ennui at least they are well matched. Astrid remembers the first time she asked Thomas up to her apartment. “Not everything you did had a reason. It was no big thing, more a sequence of small decisions, aimless in themselves, part negligence, part giving in.” Has there ever been a bleaker thought? She wonders if it would have been better if they had never met, but can’t excise his memory.
It wasn’t possible to take Thomas out of her life like an object that had lost its utility, he was a part of her, just as she was a part of him, no matter what had happened and would happen.
Camilla Grudova’s story collection THE DOLL’S ALPHABET (Coffee House Press, $15.95) was published earlier this year in England, and it has already garnered comparisons to Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Leonora Carrington, Ben Marcus, and Franz Kafka. To this list let me add another name: George Orwell. Not the dystopian Orwell of 1984 or the allegorical Orwell of Animal Farm but the down-and-out, grubby-oilcloth Orwell of The Road to Wigan Pier and Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Grudova does mermaids and magic, but she also does moldy, dingy, scratch-and-sniff interiors that reek of cabbage and old shoes.
Several stories feature unintended pregnancies or strange births. “Every night the same thing happened,” says the narrator of “The Mouse Queen.” “I would put the twins to bed, read a while then, yawning, around 9, turn into a wolf.” This is risky business for the twins; I’m sorry to say that they don’t make it. In “Rhinoceros,” which seems to take place in the wake of an unspecified disaster, the narrator expels “a pink lump” that resembles “a tuber with the tips sliced off.” She wraps it in a towel and puts it in a porcelain jar. Eventually she throws it into the zebra cage at the zoo, while her boyfriend, Nicholas, is off drawing a wolf.
Grudova’s descriptions are crooked and revelatory. Armpits, for example, are “those pathetic, damp and silent mouths of the heart.” She is damning on the subject of relations between the sexes. In “Unstitching,” women discover how to pull their bodies apart to reveal something like a sewing machine (a recurring motif), while the men are
divided between those who “always knew there was something deceitful about women” and were therefore satisfied when they were proved right, and those who lamented “the loss of the female form.”
In “Notes from a Spider,” a man with eight legs falls in love with a sewing machine named Florence and hires seamstresses to work themselves to death treading her “beautiful iron limbs.” The title character of “Agata’s Machine” has outfitted a sewing machine with wires, regulators, a cigar box, an earpiece, and a light bulb to create a movie projector for the mind. The narrator of the story is Agata’s schoolmate, who becomes obsessed with the contraption. Agata uses it to conjure a dancing Pierrot; the narrator, an angel in a sailor shirt. But these spirits aren’t visiting from afar — they seem to come from within. When the narrator puts on the earpiece, she doesn’t hear anything. “It was more like being listened to, as if there was a piece of shivering flesh behind the plastic.”