Spirits of Desire

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(HOST) For a short time during the 19th century, Vermont was the center of the paranormal universe. Commentator Joe Citro joins us today to tell us of a new novel about that era.

(CITRO) Longtime listeners have heard me talk about one of Vermont’s most vexing bits of paranormal lore: the incidents at the Eddy Brothers farmhouse in Chittenden. During the late 19th century, the heyday of American Spiritualism, folks traveled from all over the world to witness full-body manifestations of phantoms in the Eddy’s seance room. People recognized – sometimes dialogued with – the ghosts of long dead friends and relatives.

Was it legit? Clever trickery? Or maybe something else? Investigators visited, but couldn’t agree whether the Eddys were villains or visionaries?

1874 saw Vermont’s first official ghostbusting. Henry Steel Olcott, lawyer, detective, and journalist from New York, remained in Chittenden for 10 weeks. In some ways, those were probably the 10 most exiting weeks in Vermont history. Now, Burlington author Greg Guma has written a historical novel that fictionalizes the events of that exciting time. It is titled Spirits of Desire, which makes it sound for all the world like a romance novel. But don’t be fooled. What Mr. Guma has given us is a fascinating portrayal not only of the Eddys and Col. Olcott, but of the times that made such characters possible.

Like E. L. Doctrow’s novel Ragtime, Spirits of Desire is a story that plays out against a tapastry of social, intellectual, religious, political and scientific forces. In the microcosm of the Eddy farmhouse we meet Col. Olcott, a scientist looking for spiritual truth, Theodore Noyes, son of Perfectionist John Humphrey Noyes, who has wearied of his father’s utiopian aspirations, and Dr. George Beard, the villain of the piece, who would go to any ends to debunk spiritual reality.

Perhaps the star of the book is Russian occultist Helena Blavatsky, a charismatic character who may be the only one who really understands what’s happening at Chittenden. She also understands the risks involved in the Eddys seances and in mediumship in general.

Because this is a novel – and a good one – I don’t want to give away too much. Suffice it to say that Mr. Guma has done a fine job of bringing these characters and their fascinating epoch to life.

But has he brought the Eddy spirits to life as effectively? Readers will have to judge for themselves. A lot depends on which version of reality you ascribe to. Ultimately, Col. Olcott and Madam Blavatsky went off to New York to found the Theosophical Society. So, for the most part, the reality of the book is the reality of the Theosophist. They believed that evil exists as a product of human desires.

So that may give you some hint about the book’s title and story: Spirits of Desire, by Greg Guma, the first and only novel about Vermont’s enigmatic Eddys.

This is Joe Citro.

Novelist Joe Citro is a native Vermonter. He lives in Burlington.

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