HALLIE EPHRON: Michael Nethercott looks like he could be a character in his debut mystery novel, "The Seance Society," in which a scholarly Irishman with a penchant for quoting Celtic bards and Shakespeare solves mysteries.
Michael, I was fascinated by the machine that your characters use to communicate with the dead. Tell us about the Spectricator. Did you invent it or is it based on a historical (I hope) artifact?
MICHAEL NETHERCOTT: Well, Hallie, if my brain can be considered an historical artifact, then I could say yes to that. But, to be honest, I conjured up the Spectricator myself.
No doubt, various devices were used in the past to try to reach or record the deceased, but this particular machine was my own idea. It was fun coming up for a description of the thing: “a chaos of coils, wires, dials, meters, glass tubes, antennas, and God knows what else.”
Since the contraption popped out of my own head, I had free range to fashion it in any way I saw fit.
In coming up with the name, I actually ran through about a half dozen choices before landing on Spectricator. Each time I’d come up with what I thought was a nifty one, I’d Google it and find out that there really was a machine with that particular name. None of those instruments were ghost-related though— more’s the pity.
HALLIE: Did you ever mess around with anything like a Ouija board or a crystal ball or magic tricks when you were a kid?
MICHAEL: Owned a Ouija board, and fooled around with it a bit, but nothing too devoted or intense. It was pretty much relegated to the game shelf with Clue and Monopoly.
However, in our large extended Irish family, there were plenty of haunted tales that filtered down to us kids: the ghost of a little girl in my grandparents’ house, an invisible line in that basement dividing the living from the dead, deceased relatives who’d return to say farewell... I didn’t fully learn most of these stories till I was older, but even as a child the whispers of them seemed to hover around family gatherings.
Those spooky Irish accounts have certainly influenced my writing in general and this novel in particular.
HALLIE: Even (and most especially) the great Arthur Conan Doyle was obsessed with communicating with the dead -- but that was after the Great War when so many young men had been lost and so many were grieving. Still I've spoken to so many people who have had vivid dreams that they were visited and often comforted by dead relatives.
Is your book full of believers or disbelievers?
MICHAEL: I’d say they run the gambit. There are characters in this novel who claim to frequently see spirits, some who believe in them without any actual encounters, and some who scoff at the notion entirely.
My detectives, Lee Plunkett and Mr. O’Nelligan, in a sense represent two sides of the coin. Lee is a true-blue skeptic, very dismissive and suspicious of those who champion the otherworldly. He cheerfully mocks “all this ghostly, bump-in-the-night malarkey.” Mr. O’Nelligan, on the other hand, has a different take on things. Irish-born and poetic, he’s much more open to paranormal possibilities.
At one point he tells Lee, “In my own ramblings, I’ve beheld a thing or two that lean towards the supernatural.” Later in the book, he spins a fireside ghost story about his younger days in the old country.
Did it truly happen? Did any of the ghostly claims in the book happen? I leave that up to the reader to decide. The Séance Society is a “fair” mystery, meaning that a flesh-and-blood agency is responsible for the murder, but there are certainly supernatural undercurrents in play.
HALLIE: When I met you, you'd just won the Black Orchid Novella award for "O'Nelligan's Glory." We have a lot of aspiring writers who read Jungle Red, and I'm wondering if you have found shorter forms a good avenue to nailing a contract for a full length novel?
MICHAEL: With my O’Nelligan/Plunkett mysteries, I had a nice progression in developing the characters. I’d completed a novella and a short story with those sleuths before I wrote my full-length novel. So, craft-wise, I was able to expand on my protagonists and really get to know them over several adventures.
This may have paid off in terms of landing a contract—in that I was hawking a manuscript with characters that already had a publishing history (in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.) Also, having won the Black Orchid, I think I had a bit of “street cred” when I went to find an agent, and also when my agent approached the publishing houses. At the very least, they perhaps figured, “Well, this guy has already penned a thing or two that was print-worthy, so let’s see what he’s got.”
I guess my takeaway from this is that If you have laurels, don’t rest on them—and don’t hide ‘em under a bushel either. (And I’m pretty sure that’s all the metaphor mixing I’m allowed for one day.)
HALLIE: Though I'm firmly on the skeptic side. In fact, a background character in the book I'm writing now is the great magician Milbourne Christopher who founded CSICOP, a society of skeptics.
The whole question of what we mortals think comes after fascinates me. I once went to a "spiritualist" group meeting and watched them (try to) commune with the dead. I also went to memorable weekend conference of skeptics where my main takeaway was the word badonkadonk (long story). For another project I interviewed grief counselors who spoke to the enormous potential therapeutic power of dreams of the dead coming back to reassure the living.
So what you about you? Reds? Are you a believer or disbeliever? Seen a ghost? Talked to a dead relative? We're dying to hear from you.
Michael Nethercott will be part of or conversation today, and one lucky commenter will win a copy of his new book, "The Seance Society."