Book Review: ‘The Spirit Engineer’ by AJ West

The Spirit Engineer by AJ West: This fictionalisation of a true story was probably one of the creepiest tales I’ve ever read.

The Spirit Engineer by AJ West was published in July 2022.

Its creepiness does not come from the purported spirits conjured up by the deceptive Goligher family in 1920s Belfast, but much more from its portrayal of perverse behaviour by the living, specifically the spiritualists of the time. Why they ever thought their theatrical activities in near darkness would ever give any bereaved person any comfort at all will mystify the contemporary reader.

But the story is set in the context of a society still reeling from massive loss, following the sinking of the Titanic, and the horrors of the First World War. The modern reader may wonder how the bereaved could ever have imagined that so-called “spirits” might be likely to behave in this way. Grief and despair, however, would have driven those who attended the seances to discount the ludicrous, and cling on to any opportunity for some sort of communication with their departed loved ones.

The Spirit Engineer by AJ West is well researched and this is attested to by the plentiful information on the author’s website.

To my mind, the most disturbing thing of all about this novel is the increasingly deranged mental state of Dr William Crawford himself, a highly accomplished engineer and academic, who penned three books about his investigations of the Goligher Circle. With their equipment, tricks and subterfuge, the members of the Circle – and specifically Kathleen, their talented 16 year old medium – somehow managed to fool him for three years, without it occurring to him to actually shine some light on the subject (literally).

Within this story, the Golighers are portrayed as having some sort of vendetta against Crawford: they appear to be persecuting him personally. He is tormented by these spiritualists, who have gained information about his relationships and situation. This information, of course, he and the other believers attribute to the spirits themselves. The ingenious plot twist at the end turns that perception on its head in the most shocking way. It still doesn’t change the fact of the highly unsavoury, manipulative behaviour of the Golighers and other spiritualists like them.

Crawford’s own character, as portrayed in the novel, is highly flawed from the start: he comes across as childish, emotional, and intemperate.  He bullies his family members and is rough and abrasive with anyone he considers of inferior social status. Despite this, his academic superiors clearly admire him on a professional level. He strikes the reader as a brilliant engineer, theoretically, but on a personal level, extremely immature.

He starts to get caught up in the fervour of contacting the dead. He’s drawn in by his wife Elizabeth, following the tragic loss of her brother Arthur on the Titanic, and their most recent loss of five year old Robert, in circumstances for which Crawford must take partial blame, and which torment him with guilt. At the centre of the Goligher Circle, apparently offering comfort and consolation, we find 16 year old Kathleen, their star medium.

I began to see a similarity between this story and that of Arthur Miller’s play ‘The Crucible’, where primitive emotions stirred up by young girls lead those around them to believe in supernatural danger. However, there is another way of seeing this phenomenon, which is fully outlined in the author’s research notes on his website. For young girls in many patriarchal societies, spiritualism offered their one opportunity for ‘agency.’ A young girl usually featured at the centre of this: the only way she saw to gather attention, status and some sort of power in her life.

In addition to his other failings, the fictional Crawford is presented as an irascible, short-tempered man; abusive and curt to those he looks down upon. The seances he investigates are violent, with a lot of histrionics, screaming, and high emotions.

It seems, however, that this man, no matter how accomplished as a scientist, is now in the grip of a delusion, which grows ever stronger as the story progresses. His obsession reaches the level of a frenzy. He displays sadistic, controlling behaviour, especially to women. It astonished me that the women of the Circle, not least his assistant Rose, and the medium Kathleen, consented to be so physically abused: but of course Crawford himself wrote three highly successful books about his investigations of this group, purporting to prove the existence of the afterlife, which proved irresistible to a large audience of readers and netted him a fortune. During his investigation, the Golighers would have benefited financially too.

My overall impression of this novel is that of a highly dramatic account of one man’s descent into madness. The story does offer a sobering reflection upon human gullibility, not least that of another brilliant man, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who appears in the story. I have occasionally reflected on the irony of Conan Doyle’s belief in spiritualism despite his own genius in creating such a well-loved character, Sherlock Holmes, renowned for his superlative intellect and a scrupulous and questioning mind.

Alongside this, we have the counterinfluence of the magician and escapologist Harry Houdini, who demonstrates to both Conan Doyle and to Crawford how he can easily replicate the effects produced by the spiritualists. Unfortunately his efforts do not convince Crawford, which shows the fatal weakness of human nature, enabling some of us to hold on to what we most want to believe in, despite all evidence to the contrary.

An electrifying read.

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Published by SC Skillman

I'm a writer of psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction. My latest book, 'Paranormal Warwickshire', was published by Amberley Publishing in November 2020. Find all my published books here:

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