(Kernpunkt Press, 2021)
Well before personally knowing anyone who had actually died, I had an incessant urge to connect with the dead. For this reason, Spiritualism, a movement founded on attempts to communicate with those who have passed, attracted me at a young age. Since then, I've been to séances at the Spiritualist Church here in NYC, visited the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp in Florida (I had the honor of staying overnight in the haunted hotel but, sadly, did not partake in psychic bingo), and not too long ago attended a lecture on Spiritualism at Governors Island. Thus, I do not come to this subject uninformed. Still, Sister Séance, the most recent novel by Aimee Parkison, far surpassed my proclivity toward all things strange and unusual and emparted a new context for one of the greatest and most fascinating movements of the 19th century.
Satisfying the death-obsessed Gothic genre, Sister Séance goes beyond the veil to dredge up America’s unsavory past, a past which comes flooding back to haunt those present. Supported by a Creative Artists Fellowship from the American Antiquarian Society, Sister Séance seats Spiritualism at the table alongside abolitionists, Civil War veterans, the formerly enslaved, former slaveholders, and those in mourning.
The story begins on Halloween 1865. The Civil War ended months prior, though soldier’s wounds are still healing and many are heavily mourning the loss of their loved ones. Inside a boarding house in Concord, Massachusetts we find one of our main characters, Viv Hayden, preparing a photo shoot for the Town Hall's prize-winning costumed couple of the year contest. It is here we first learn of the dumb supper, a silent dinner party used to attract ghosts and serve as a conduit for Miss Ruby Turner’s matchmaking. We also meet two of the novel’s most elusive characters, who are grimly mistaken for the prize-winning couple, and discover Viv’s “circumstance,” all threads which will slowly unspool, creating the chaotic cobweb which makes this novel so strange and intricate.
At the dumb supper, where silverware is placed upside down and the meal begins with coffee and dessert, Maggie and Valerie Usherwood, two surprise guests deemed the “Sisters of Séance,” act as a catalyst to confront the past and spark total pandemonium. What follows is an unraveling, slightly soap-operatic story about two families, the Haydens and the Turners, whose shadowy lineage orbit around a cast of desperate and desirous ancillary characters.
As in her last work, Girl Zoo, a short story collection co-authored by Carol Guess, Parkison is interested in the lives of women and girls, particularly those missing or dead. Described as a “historical feminist horror” novel, Sister Séance keeps the focus on women and the powerful manifestations of sisterhood, no matter how grisly or tortuous. Spiritualism, a keen follow-up subject to Parkison’s other work, created new opportunities for women and gave voice to those who were voiceless. “A pity, though, that so many of the first female speakers anyone paid attention to were in a trance,” as her character, Ruby, concisely observes. Still, seeing difficult women strike terror is gratifying enough.
Like a stage play or a fever dream where boundaries are blurred, characters emerge and fade without reason, likenesses are confused, and secrets are carried over generations; this is a story that haunts. Shadow women and children are found in photographs and heard behind walls. Bat-like women with spider web hair lurk about, slithering through holes and crawling across attic floors. Aching ribs shiver under whalebone corsets. Bones are diseased, removed, shattered, and worn as masks. The wounds of women and soldiers are seen draining and dripping beyond tattered bandages while tired, pregnant, battered, bludgeoned, amputated, mutilated, and sometimes dead bodies, many belonging to women, appear, disappear, then reappear.
Plenty of flashbacks and shifting narrators create a mystifying, dreamlike sense of unreality. Are we in a dream or the waking world? Are we in the past or the present? In one moment, Ruby uses her skeleton key to unlatch a bloody padlock. In the next beat, broken by a new chapter, she realizes the key is lost and is unable to recall the last time she used it. Time and space are eerily disheveled; however, the many characters and the ways in which they intersect are a bit confusing and hard to keep track of. Perhaps this was the author’s intent, but for me, a slow and steady reader, the tactic is somewhat vexing—though, a second read proved more gratifying as my familiarity with the characters allowed an easy slip into perspectives and a clearer map through the madness. Note: this should not dissuade a reader, rather implore them to remain sharp. After all, Faulkner used a similar approach for his Southern Gothic tomes.
Similar to how memory works, the shadowy, fractured narrative of Sister Séance left me feeling haunted by the past while forced to reckon with the present.