Public Letter: Caryl Pagel

Dear Reader,


When I attempt to inhabit again my initial fascination with the Society for Psychical Research (and the tangled mess of tales I was introduced to through this trail of research and reading), I am always reminded of the year I spent in Iowa City, post graduate school, working for a writing program and attempting to compose a series of gothic, spooky sonnets. It was a particularly eerie year; at each turn—in a small city that by then I knew quite well—I would catch in the periphery of my vision the slippery shadows and familiar figures of friends, most of whom had left town the previous summer, and many of whom I knew I would not see again for quite some time. As part of a university fellowship I had been installed in a bleak and gorgeous A-shaped Tudor that was settled amid widening pines on the elbow of Church Street and which has since become the refuge of some other academy project. It was there that I was to dwell in a massive and cavernous space that was dark enough, bare enough, and echoic enough to create the sensation of a haunted house. The lines of the interior walls scrawled looping nooks and crannies, disclosed dreary windows, and wrote a spiral of circular pathways that drew one ever further from the center. In this house there were handsome earth black built-in bookshelves lining the walls of the library, a soot-speckled hearth, and everywhere medieval arches. At night I would startle to the creak and boom of floorboards as strangers (ghosts or guests of a roommate) stomped around the house, absent again by morning, and some evenings I perceived quick liquid shapes scurrying across the stairs or felt the heavy presence of some sinister force reach toward me through the hollows of the warped walls. At work, too, my mind was burdened with the imperceptible energies I was sure lurked around each border. The building where my office was located, Seashore Hall, was situated in a particularly difficult-to-find wing of the second floor toward which one had to aim from a specific entrance or else suffer the fate, so said A. on my first day, of endless rotation within a mostly vacant maze of corridors; I was told that our suite was—and had been for quite some time—condemned. I never knew quite what that meant but the rooms seemed to manifest themselves as a sizeable and spacious secret from which our daily proceedings were hidden from the remaining population, the irony being that the structure emerged in such a trafficked and familiar location as to stand almost invisible in the center of downtown. It was during this year that I obsessively and for the first time read Shirley Jackson’s fiction; I raced through her stories and followed with We Have Always Lived In The Castle and The Haunting of Hill House. In The Haunting of Hill House Dr. John Montague remarks (after the residents sense an apparition) that there is no actual material threat in what one cannot see. “No physical danger exists,” Montague assures us, “No ghost in all the long history of ghosts has ever hurt anyone physically… One cannot even say that the ghost attacks the mind, because the mind, the conscious, thinking mind, is invulnerable… the menace of the supernatural is that it attacks where modern minds are weakest, where we have abandoned our protective armor of superstition and have no substitute defense.” An account of a ghost is merely that, Jackson suggests: a transformative story. Seashore Hall stands seven stories tall with yellow brick walls and a human-sized rust stripe edging the base like a blood-colored flood line. In describing the building (from within its walls, years later, back in town for the same job) I find myself staring at a Googled still-shot taken by a stranger. Each morning I endeavor to recall exactly what it is I see as I enter the building but my focus fades, my mind blurs, and somehow this picture—in distance, traveling toward me from the past through backlit ether—makes the fact of the place where I sit even clearer. Seashore is nowhere near a seashore, it resides in the lowlands of Iowa. Further research leads me to a series of photographs from the university’s online archives. One particularly captivating image depicts the old operating theater that still exists in the building and I observe in the black and white picture, taken in 1905, an audience of formal, sober young male scientists who are presumably waiting to witness an instructive medical performance. The table, settled in the center of the photo, rests empty. There are tools for slicing, a sink to wash, and a clock hovering just above with vague, unreadable hands. The stage looks blank, foreground stark, and one notices that the room is tense with the stress of a procedure that has yet to occur, or, I realize, squinting—envisioning myself in the room—perhaps what we see are the remains of an experiment recently completed, possibly the patient was saved in surgery and we can all amble home or instead the poor soul has actually absented itself from its corporeal cage and is right now—this instant—occupying the atmosphere, aimlessly adrift among the very air that—a century later and in the same space—I can’t help but inhale. The spirit that escaped this photo could be searching for a door, a hole in the floor, or some other certain release from the labyrinth that is Seashore. Here, the entrances are wide enough for gurneys and there are peeling cracks in the window frames. One time I recall, in the midst of a summer storm, my co-worker’s ceiling started dripping. S.’s office was located near mine and in order to investigate the source of the leak he requested that a janitor lead him into the locked rooms right above us. When the door was opened, S. later reported, the room exposed a long and narrow, untouched and ancient space crammed with furniture from the turn of the century; there were decrepit wooden desks, crooked bookshelves, and in one corner a gorgeous rotten, damp and forgotten baby grand piano. It was here, during the year that I stuck around town, that one day while waiting out bad weather (I had misplaced my umbrella) I stumbled into the Psychology Library that was at that time concealed just around the corner from my office. When I first lifted a volume of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research off a high and grimy shelf I only rested my eyes inside its pages out of boredom. I can tell you now that I was transformed then. The text’s antiquated tone was mesmerizing; I was enchanted by the attention to indiscernible worlds as well as an urgent desire by its authors for a thorough investigation of the unknown. I was also in awe of the objects these ideas resided in; my hands refused to let the books go. The tomes implied another time through parched pages, ancient fonts, faded marginalia, and finger stains; each leaf was as cracked and fragile as the skin of a taxidermied animal, each turn a whispered message from the long dead. When I checked out every journal I could carry (later returning for the remaining), the librarian laughed as the faded crimson stamps revealed the fact that several of the volumes had not been on loan since 1931. At home I spent hours studying the lengthy and curious intros, the collections of first-hand testimonies, and the complex analyses indicating each author’s struggle to report relevant evidence. There were chapters on coincidence and hypnotism, telepathy, clairvoyants, copies of automatic writing, transcriptions of conversations with apparitions, and published confirmation of the scientists’ reservations. The journals existed in some extraordinary space between rationalism (through process, procedure) and chaos (of results, human testimony), between poetry (metaphor, connection) and fiction (character, narrative). As a result I found myself more frequently considering perceptions that occur outside of experience—beyond the senses—and how they relate to the language we employ to explain them. For example, my friend V. offered, the instant where one is sitting alone in a coffee shop, expecting no one, and feels the graze of the gaze of a stranger behind them. Or when one senses out of nowhere a friend in danger or their beloved’s trouble. In the midst of reading the Proceedings (which have taken several years to get through) curiosity has repeatedly recalled me to the work of William James—an integral member of the SPR—who, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, described the sensation of something existing that does not exist or episodes that refuse understanding by established methods: “It is as if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of which we may call ‘something there,’ more deep and more general than any of the special and particular ‘senses’ by which the current psychology supposes existent realities to be originally revealed.” For this reason James included multiple case studies in his various publications as indication of mental discernment. These informal but organized narratives read as the sort of twice told tales performed around a campfire, or, in the town in which I lived, in a crowded booth at George’s. There, on so many summer evenings we would discuss and dissect our own premonitions, sightings, and forecasts, hallucinations or insight. I now long for the sort of evidence that might have been compiled had I transcribed the conversations that occurred spontaneously in this common space, but as it is nothing remains of those ominous and instructive anecdotes but our collaboratively straining memories. I do still recall that once M. illustrated a particularly unusual nightmare predicting the man she was to marry and V. famously witnessed a family of phantoms while driving cross-country on a road trip. When he turned back, V. said, to confirm their presence, the apparitions had vanished but his passenger attests that he saw the same thing. James writes, “The unreasoned and immediate assurance is the deep thing in us… the reasoned argument is but a surface exhibition.” Explanations mutate during delivery but the SPR demonstrated that although no single story serves as absolute proof there is reality in the totality of the tellings. That year I convinced K. to explore the mute corners of Seashore with me and we rode up a trembling elevator, losing ourselves in peach and pale blue hallways that refused connection. Most rooms were closed off, whole floors were dark, and others looked like the setting of ‘70s obedience experiments. When we returned to the office R. relayed a rumor indicating the existence of underground tunnels beneath the city, one of which purportedly connects the basement of Seashore to the lower levels of the town’s old capitol. I pictured the lot of us—me and A. and S. and J. and K.—borrowing an ancient key to burrow below the building. We would descend the until-then unnoticed stairs some sunny winter morning only to approach the secret tunnel in an anxious single file. In ten steps, or maybe twelve, we would stand under Van Allen. In another half a block we’d cross beneath Biology. The tunnels—pitch black and damp—would grow difficult to breath in and after a while our flashlights would die forcing us to guess at the remains of the route in supreme bewilderment. Eventually craggy halls would slim and constrict around our bodies, their circular frame like an overworked vein in trauma. Soil walls would close in and one by one we’d sink to our knees in order to continue crawling; we’d pass through circuits of the earth, faces flushed and frozen as strangers strolling the street above shuddered at the sound of distant voices improbably gossiping underground.

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