Wednesday, October 2, 2013

With "The Seance Society" Michael Nethercott conjures a "fair" mystery

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?

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.        

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."


  1. Believer . . . when my twin sister and I were young [well, still small enough to sleep in a crib] my mom says we used to play with a little girl [read, ghost girl] all the time . . . she said she would hear us laughing. Later, I remember hearing my younger sister laughing and playing with her when she was upstairs in her crib by herself. Unfortunately, I don’t know her name, only that she came to play with the babies in the house. Nor do I know if she might have been related to the “grown-up” ghost, Pearl, who lived in the house. We often heard Pearl walking around upstairs, opening doors, slamming drawers, and whatever. When we moved from that house, I remember my mom saying she tried to get Pearl to move with us, but she stayed there. I’ve always assumed that it must have been her house before she was a ghost and she simply didn’t want to leave her home . . . .

  2. I've definitely know other people who claim to have a house with a resident ghost. Also plenty of kids with imaginary friends. My daughter had a pony she hung out with. For a while.

  3. As a kid and early teen, my first "true supernatural" readings were books by Hans Holzer, an Austrian psychic investigator. They had tantalizing titles like "Ghosts I've Met" and "The Lively Ghosts of Ireland." Holzer was arguably the best known of the modern ghost hunters. Did I believe the accounts in his books? Or the family tales that filtered down to me? I think I'd define myself as a probable believer, but one who is skeptical of embracing every overwrought paranormal TV show that pops up on the screen.

  4. This past summer I had an encounter with a ghost, at a motel in a state park in Wyoming.

    I got the last room in this tiny little town, Thermopolis, because they were having their annual all-class reunion and every available room was booked except this one. I was on my way from Boulder to my friends' ranch south of Meeteetse, and between construction and accidents my drive had extended by several hours. Since there isn't much between Casper and Meeteetse I had called ahead and booked this room.

    By the time I got there it was pretty late and I was exhausted. The state park is centered around natural hot springs and there is a pool at this hotel, so I gathered up my towel and swimsuit and hurried down for a much-deserved soak before they closed it. By rights I should have conked out in minutes, but I kept hearing footsteps in my room, and turning the light on to check, etc.

    There is no way in the world the footsteps were coming from anywhere but my room, which was on the top floor, and at the end of a blank hall, all by itself. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder, which caused me to bolt upright and grab the light switch again. Nothing there. The next thing was this overpowering smell of unwashed, alcohol-soaked male--the kind of strong body odor from a homeless person, or someone who spends all his time away from bathtubs. It actually brought tears to my eyes, it was that strong. Again with the lights. Then more footsteps.

    By now I'd realized it wasn't me, and so I just said to the room, "Please leave me alone; I need to sleep." And it finally quit.

    The next morning I was due at my friends', two hours away, because we were going to a ranch rodeo in town, so I hightailed it out of there without speaking to the desk person. When I got to the rodeo I was talking with other friends who've lived in that area their whole lives, and when I told them what happened they said there had been an old Indian murdered in one of the park hotels, but they couldn't remember the details.

    Now I need to do some research!

    Love the idea of a Spectricator. Wouldn't we all love to speak to loved ones who've passed on?

  5. I have a friend who told me that when she first moved into her house many years ago, she entered the small den and, for a fleeting moment, glimpsed a man in a doctor's white coat sitting at a desk writing. She promptly backed out of the room, assuming it was someone who had once lived there. Hearing my friend's story, I said, "Maybe. Or what if, several decades from now, your yet-to-be-born grandson or great-grandson --a doctor who's inherited your house-- is writing at his desk, when he feels a presence in the room. He looks up just in time to glimpse a woman, dressed in old-fashioned style, backing out of the room." Well?

  6. Karen - that's such a wonderful story. Belongs in a book :)

    If I get to talk to dead relatives, I hope I get to pick which ones.

  7. Michael, I'm so excited for you and your book! We can say we knew you back when...

    Joan, that is some story--what was the house like? Was there a way to explain the ghost girl with that history?

    Karen--wow! tell us what you find out, ok?

  8. Over the past several years I have met with many people in the Spiritualist communities of Lily Dale (in western New York State)and Cassadaga (in central Florida). The most remarkable thing about these men and women is how unaffected and natural they are. There is absolutely no "hocus pocus." It's just "This is who we are, and we have certain gifts."

    The Spiritualist religion is based in tolerance and kindness, and these people live what they preach. I am very drawn to them (although I still attend a mainstream parish).

    I am a believer in the idea that the energy of those who have gone before remains among us, and that we can access it.

    I don't know about a machine, but I am willing to learn!

  9. Denise Ann, as part of my research for writing The Séance Society I actually read a book about Lilly Dale by journalist Christine Wicker. Definitely an interesting community. An aunt of my, who I believe has "second sight," lives not that far from Lily Dale, but refuses to go there since she fears she'd be too inundated by the energies of the place. As with Joan and Karen's accounts, there are perhaps "more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy."

  10. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreampt of in your philosophy
    I figure it's safest to leave this open to debate and not presume to have THE answer

  11. Definitely a believer and would love the use of a Spectricator in my own living room.

    No direct experience but do have a niece whose first apartment (built in the '20s) has had some unexplained activities --- drawers flying open in the kitchen, things knocked off of tables, lights not just flickering but turning on and off whenever she was in the room. She finally named the "ghost" Fred and spoke with him on occasion before entering a room. The opened drawers and knocked over items subsided but never completely left, but my niece learned to live with it and watch visitors' deal with the same.

    And I agree with Hallie in that I'd love to choose which dead relatives I could communicate with!

  12. Well, actually, TFJ, if you happen to read my novel and see how things play out, you might not WANT a Spectricator in your living room!

  13. I just heard from librarian Nanci Milone Hill that she's "booked" Michael for the Dracut Library on November 7th! Dracut boasts its very own haunted forest and resident ghost hunter.

  14. Uh, Hallie, nobody at the Dracut Library mentioned no ghosts! Whoa! I hope the librarians haven't overestimated my paranormal bravado...

  15. Hi Michael! I've always loved books with a hint of paranormal, although I'm not sure I'm not sure I'm a believer. Not really a skeptic, either--more in the "more things in heaven and earth" camp.

    Have you ever read the English writer Phil Rickman? I love his books, especially the Merrily Watkins series, but they are seriously scary.

    Yours sound delightful. And congrats on the publication of your first novel!

  16. Deb, Thank you for your kind words. No, I haven't read Phil Rickman, but I'm making a mental note as we speak. How can anyone not like a protagonist named Merrily?

  17. I love this topic so much. Since reading THE EXORCIST at the age of 12 -- which surely warped me beyond belief and instilled in me a fascination with all things paranormal, espeically as related to the creepy Catholic Church -- uhm, what was I saying?

    Oh yeah: love this stuff! I'd call my an open-minded almost-believer. I'd love to experience something, but, alas, hasn't happened yet. I do, however, have an auntie is who a "mystic." She tells some crazy-ass stories. Is she just crazy? Or does she have something going on?

    Michael, I'll definitely read your novel. You hooked me with the spectricator.

  18. (Sorry, typos-ville up there. Pressed Publish too quickly.)

  19. Haven't actually met a ghost, but I do have a vacation photo in which a person (who was not there) appears. Not only the person, but the railing she was leaning on. It's not a double exposure - there was nothing like that on the rest of the film. Interestingly, the visitor's body is visible only up to her neck.

  20. Lisa, did YOU press the key too soon -- or was it some other unseen finger!?
    And, Jane, maybe you weren't the only one on vacation...

  21. Years back I was trying to sleep in my youngest sister's room. I had donated a kidney to her and was back from the hospital, recuperating at my parents'house. I saw a tall shadowman standing at the foot of the bed. Just standing there. Scared me motionless. I probably shut my eyes and he went away. I asked my sister if she had any haunts in her room, just being a smartass. It was a relatively young house. She said no. But it turned out one of the side effects of one of the pills I was taking is hallucinations. I quit taking the nightmare pill and no more shadowman. My feeling is no. No ghost there, but I'm open to the possibilities elsewhere.
    Looking forward to reading your stories Michael.

  22. Seattle Mystery Bookshop has its own ghost, a barber. Nothing really creepy about him; he's very polite. But he does toss books on occasion. And back in our old space, I always had the feeling that I needed to cut my hair!

  23. Yes, when 1st husband and I were young parents and moved into a rental house with a basement garage, I couldn't even set foot in the garage because of the horrible feelings it caused. Husband said it was because I was pregnant and hormones... But creepy things kept happening in that garage until we fled one night to his parents' house in another town and went back the next day to have the house blessed with holy water and blessed palms from Palm Sunday. The creepy stuff stopped then. I researched the house and learned eventually that a previous owner had killed his pregnant wife in that garage and buried her body, which hadn't been found for three years.

    Debs, I love the Phil Rickman books and recommend them all the time. They're "fair" mysteries like Michael's with lots of supernatural stuff going on as well. Smart books.

  24. I would certain prefer to encounter either Pat's lanky shadowman or Fran's civil barber over Linda's garage spirit (shudder.)

  25. Lucy:
    The house, in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, was an older one . . . huge weeping willow tree and lilac bushes in the yard; screen porch, all the bedrooms upstairs, a basement . . . my mom never knew the little girl's name, just that she always came to play with the babies in the crib when they were upstairs by themselves. She was not related to Pearl, nor did we ever know anything more about her. I remember my mom saying she saw her in the room with us when we were in our cribs, but I don't remember ever seeing her. [Of course, I don't remember playing with her, either, but my mom always insisted that we did.] My mom also saw Pearl . . . we moved out of that house when I was about ten . . . .

  26. Nonbeliever and sceptic*, though I love ghost stories and spooky settings.

    I'm fascinated by the business of "communicating with the dead," however. It amazes me that the flood of spiritualism that began at the end of the Civil War still continues, in things like "Long Island Medium" and "Crossing Over."

    *in ghosts. Inconsistently, I do believe in God. Isn't Episcopalianism wonderful?

  27. Hi Michael,
    Welcome! I barely want to communicate with people who are living - much less those who are dead.
    I'm with we get to choose ..?

  28. Running in..pant pant.... Michael, I LOVE this book! Congratulations...

    Ghosts in Dracut? Oh, my gosh. I'd love to see one...xoo

  29. Had a grand 'ol time today! Many thanks to Hallie, the women of Jungle Red, and our great commentators.

  30. I have a resident ghost/spirit that follows me from house to house....I believe it is my grandfather as it appeared not long after he died when I was 11.

    Every place I have moved, his presence has been made clear within first week or two of living in place

    Hubby doesn't believe, but cannot explain things that happen.

    When we moved to current house, we were in our bedroom with our 2 choc labs on our bed, we were unpacking and hear a crash in bedroom across hall - so go and look - dresser drawer had been pulled out and dropped on the floor........D's explanation, dogs must have jarred the dresser. pleasssssse, give me a break, like knocking into a dresser is going to cause a drawer to open and drop to the floor, I think Not, always something very noticeable each time I/We have moved.

    I also can hear someone walking the hallway some nights and see a dark shape - Mollyann, one of our choclabs was very intune with Gramps, on occasion Annabelle will perk up when I have heard the pacing or seen the shape

    I feel my ghost (gramps) is my protector, letting me know he is watching over me.

  31. I heard from my dead cat. I honestly did. If anyone wants to hear abut it sometime, Happy to tell you.


  32. I love to watch ghost shows. Last night I watched Paranormal Witness on the Syfy Channel. I also like A Haunting on Destination America and they have a new ghost series coming up; I think it starts on October 20. There are lots of cozy mysteries with ghosts or paranormal elements. I'm reading Pall in the Family about a town of psychics (like Lily Dale) in Michigan. I collect true ghost story books. I have two by Hans Holzer but haven't read them yet. Some books I picked up when traveling. I got some in Indianapolis (Haunted Indiana, etc.). I remember there's a story about Amelia Earhart working in Indiana at a college and then one about a football player (win one for the Gipper) who got locked out of the dorm and died from pneumonia. I also have some from a publisher called Ghost House Books. They have both Canadian and American ghost stories. Some I bought in Toronto and some locally at Barnes & Noble. I have one book from Ed and Lorraine Warren and another book is Ghosts for Dummies! Brad Steiger writes about ghosts but he also writes other stuff (Cats Impossible). I probably have at least 30 true ghost books. Hank, I'd love to hear about your deceased cat. I've never heard from any of mine.