A Blue Room, far from Crimson Peak

13 October 2015

History | Literature | Theatre

With chilly mornings and the leaves changing colour we’re reminded that Halloween is just a week away. Any excuse to restock our snack shelf is always widely celebrated at Adam Matthew so we’ll be favouring treats over the tricks. However, the release of Crimson Peak in all its Gothic splendour has got us thinking about the spookier side of the season.

A poster for a Victorian sĂ©ance. Image Â© Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin​. Further reproduction prohibited without permission

Amongst the Spiritualism, Sensation and Magic material in Victorian Popular Culture is a neat volume entitled The Blue Room. The setting is 1920s Dunedin, a city named after the Gothic marvel of Edinburgh and with its own share of Gothic grandeur. The book describes the author’s experiments in contacting those who have departed and his experiences with them. 

Another poster for a Victorian sĂ©ance. Image Â© Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin. Further reproduction prohibited without permission

A group gathers to hold a sĂ©ance and invites the spirits to communicate; so far, so much like the start of a classic horror film. However, this is by far the most cheerful and benign psychic gathering you’ll ever come across. These crossed-over souls don’t shriek or go bump in the night, extinguish candles or take possession of the unwitting, rather they sing hymns and grant interviews, all in the comfort of modern electric lighting in a New Zealand suburb. 

The author, Clive Chapman, and his niece, Pearl, who acts as the medium, discover that playing the piano allows the voices of the deceased to come through as song. Through practice and perseverance the souls from the other side master speaking as well as singing to the listeners on the earthly side. Others are invited to attend these meetings to enjoy the concerts and witness this new phase in communication. Chapman does not appear to charge for these sessions and the reader is told his motivation is simply to educate and enlighten.

From The Blue Room. Image Â© Senate House Library, University of London. Further reproduction prohibited without permission

We meet a music hall cast of characters, all blessed with tuneful and pleasing voices. The popular favourite seems to be a spirit Shirley Temple in the non-corporal form of Wee Betty. In any modern Gothic tale Betty would of course be the most chilling and unnerving of the visitors but true to the jolly and celebratory tone of The Blue Room she remains a charming moppet. Even her occasional night-time visits to bang on walls are taken as normal and cheerful and not remotely threatening.
Wee Betty from The Blue Room. Image © Senate House Library, University of London. Further reproduction prohibited without permission

And so, despite early promise from The Blue Room, the scariest thing in Dunedin remains Baldwin Street, the steepest residential street in the world. Seekers of Gothic thrills will have to look elsewhere.

 

The Spiritualism, Sensation and Magic material can be explored in the Victorian Popular Culture portal. Full access is restricted to authenticated institutions who have purchased a license. For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

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