Is American letters in the midst of a paranormal boom? It sure seems like it. Recent acclaimed works of nonfiction like Jennifer Percy’s “Demon Camp: The Strange and Terrible Saga of a Soldier’s Return from War,” Alex Mar’s “Witches of America,” and Colin Dickey’s “Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places” have taken a highbrow approach to topics previously confined to the Mysteries of the Unknown series. But the reason for this is understandable: Books like Percy’s, Mar’s and Dickey’s use the uncanny to explore questions of trauma, whether on a personal scale or on a national one.
In her new book, “The In-Betweens: The Spiritualists, Mediums, and Legends of Camp Etna,” Peaks Island-based writer Mira Ptacin takes a similar approach – and adds an impressive entry into a growing canon of books using meticulously written nonfiction to explore the paranormal. In telling the story of this spiritualist camp located in Etna, Ptacin both uncovers a long, fascinating history and follows her emotionally intense 2016 memoir, “Poor Your Soul,” in exploring the aftermath of traumatic events in her own life. In “The In-Betweens,” she’s exploring a subculture while also addressing the larger questions of psychic hurt and how people heal from it.
Three primary threads unspool in “The In-Betweens”: Ptacin’s account of the people she meets in contemporary Camp Etna; a history of spiritualism in the United States, and Camp Etna’s place in that; and Ptacin’s own understanding of why spiritualism has brought so many people solace over the years. A recurring thread is the ways in which spiritualist life then and now overlaps with indigenous traditions – a topic that could probably support a book on its own. And while Ptacin’s explorations of history don’t quite come down on the revisionist side of things, she does make a convincing case that Harry Houdini’s fondness for debunking mediums was flavored with more than a little hypocrisy.
“Houdini declared that these séances were a form of legalized fraud (although he himself in his American manhood was now rich from performing magic tricks),” Ptacin writes. It’s indicative of her larger approach here: Ptacin is well aware of the vast, sometimes controversial history of her subject, but she’s more than willing to add her own commentary.
“The In-Betweens” is episodic: Ptacin speaks with a host of mediums, spiritualists and experts. She learns about multiple varieties of hauntings – not to be confused with “the releasing of ghosts.” Ptacin describes her own experience with dowsing – seeking water underground using a divining rod – and chronicles the different ways in which dowsing has taken root in communities in the United States and abroad. And there’s the matter of a spirit that several of the people she encounters see in her presence – a spirit who might connect to the author’s family history.
Ptacin explores both the contemporary appeal of spiritualism – her interactions with residents of modern-day Camp Etna make for some of the book’s most vivid moments – and how it got its historical foothold. Discussing the movement’s growth in the mid-19th century, Ptacin writes, “It appealed to people on many levels: as a reformation – a dismissal of Calvinism or Christian evangelicalism; as a quest for a more liberal theology; and as a desire to overcome mourning through not just prayer but communication with departed loved ones, and with empirical evidence to boot.”
Mourning abounds in “The In-Betweens.” For all that the book is about a particular system of belief and for all that it involves searching for ghosts and a penchant for dowsing, it’s also driven by the act of mourning, in the past and in the present. Ptacin writes of the aftermath of her younger brother’s death, when the musical director of the Catholic Church where the funeral was being held stopped the service and demanded that the family’s choice of music for the procession – The Beatles’ “I Will” – be changed on the spot.
“To me, American death culture is, for the most part, underdeveloped, unfledged,” Ptacin writes. What makes “The In-Betweens” such an achievement, then, is the way that Ptacin draws readers into the crux of her argument before they’re even aware that she’s making it. The personalities, visions and talents that Ptacin describes in “The In-Betweens” are often bigger than life. But in the end, the questions she’s exploring are as universal as mortality itself – and in venturing into these lines of thought, she’s found a subculture where candor about death flourishes.
New York City resident Tobias Carroll is the author of the novel “Reel” and the short story collection “Transitory” and has reviewed books for Bookforum, the Star Tribune and elsewhere.