In the 1870s, the spirit known as Katie King was the subject of particular controversy. Her "manifestations" at séances were common and her medium Florence Cook was endorsed by the spiritualist researcher William Crookes. But the question remained: was Katie King real or fraudulent? In Lorna Gibb’s debut novel, the ghost has come to set the record straight, by telling her story in her own words.
Gibb’s Katie King is not the ghost of a specific deceased individual (or, if she is, she doesn’t remember it) but an entity that first comes to self-awareness in the early 19th century and has some capacity to interact with the physical world through certain of its human inhabitants. A Ghost’s Story is presented as a series of texts written by Katie which detail her various manifestations. Cook and Crookes make appearances along with other historical figures, with Gibb blurring the line between fiction and history until it’s scarcely relevant. Intriguingly, Katie’s mediums often turn out to be charlatans in other respects, with the spirit working in ways outside of their knowledge. Ultimately, it seems, humans need the ghost as much as she needs us.
There are several layers of metafiction in A Ghost’s Story. Katie’s writings have been annotated by one Adam Marcus, the late Magic Circle librarian who was previously researching the spirit. Marcus’ first round of commentary is sceptical in tone; but he revisits his annotations a few years later with a rather different attitude. Also included is correspondence between a fictional Lorna Gibb and Marcus’ successor, who has been sending her copies of the Katie King texts. These two are in no doubt that the King spirit is a hoax.
But here Gibb plays with the expectations of a contemporary audience. If a character in a ghost story insists that the ghost isn’t real, we might well assume that they’ll be proved wrong in due course. A Ghost’s Story, however, just gives you the texts and lets you decide whether to believe the supernatural or mundane explanation. After all, in the world of fiction, why should one option be more far-fetched than the other?
A Ghost's Story by Lorna Gibb (Granta) is out now in £12.99 hardback.