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The Spirit Engineer by AJ West: Imaginative gothic tale set in Edwardian Belfast

Review: Home Rule, sectarianism, the first World War are all here there but as stage hands

Prof William Jackson Crawford is an engineer and a man of science, not of spiritualism.
The Spirit Engineer
The Spirit Engineer
Author: AJ West
ISBN-13: 978-0715654330
Publisher: Duckworth Books
Guideline Price: £14.99

“Certain men are liable to be duped, and there is no creature so gullible as the certain man.”

Can a medium really commune with the dead? Do knocks through the floorboards, voices from beyond the grave, and levitating tables mean spirits in limbo, ghosts with unfinished business, or are they tricks of misdirection, of the light?

Set in a darkly atmospheric Edwardian Belfast, Prof William Jackson Crawford is an engineer and a man of science, not of spiritualism. Having lost her brother to the Titanic, his wife Elizabeth attends a spiritualist circle, led by medium Kathleen; they try to make contact with the drowned man. Both Crawford and the reader are then drawn into a world of uncertainty and menace.

The story has all the salient ingredients of Victorian and early twentieth century gothic novels; it summons the ghosts of The Invisible Man, or The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, evoking Katherine Thurston’s The Masquerader in its ominous atmosphere and unpredictability.


By turns it is light then sinister, the dialogue often taut as an Austen drawing room, with witty one-liners and wonderful sparkle, not an easy task when recreating authentic yet fluid language of the time.

Belfast in 1914 is the unexpected backdrop to this story of the paranormal, with vivid details about the city in that era, both from its middle-class Protestant narrator, and in depictions of less salubrious areas where the séances are held. It’s satisfying to read of the tram from Stranmillis to Botanic Gardens, or the eminent department store Robinson and Cleaver, instead of the expected details of the political tableaux.

Home Rule, sectarianism, the first World War – these are all here, but as stage hands. The real theatre is in the faces, amber in the gloom around a table, hands joined, a continued suspension of what is real, and what is imagined.

Based on the true story of medium Kathleen Goligher and Prof Crawford, who became possessed by his research into the dark arts, this novel does not allow the reader to rest. Each section skews perspective, the narration unreliable, each turn unsettling; the novel itself is full of misdirection and tricks of the light. Full of blithe spirit and malign intentions, it’s an inventive, imaginative delight.