Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Other Worlds by Barbara Michaels (audio book read by Barbara Rosenblat)

Some interesting discoveries can be made through experimentation. I'd been experiencing a shortage of audiobooks for my hour-long commute when I saw one on the giveaway table where I work. I was aware of author Barbara Michaels as a romantic-suspense author, but I had only read one of her mysteries written as Elizabeth Peters and had not pursued any more. But any port in a storm, as they say, so I snatched it up — hardly missing a step, in fact — as I made my way out to the car that evening.

On my way home, I popped it in the cassette player (I drive a 2002 model), figuring to go ahead an try it out. If I didn't like it, I would drop it off again the next morning. To my surprise, I was completely enthralled by the opening paragraph. The tone, the irreverence, the mythic nature of the setup, all really spoke to me, not least of which due to their similarity to Rod Serling's introductions from The Twilight Zone:
The scene is the smoking room of an exclusive men's club, familiar through film and fiction even to those who have been denied admittance to such precincts because of deficiencies of sex or social status.... The tall windows are draped in plum-red plush, shutting out the night air and the sounds of traffic on the street without — the traffic, perhaps, of hansom cabs and horse-drawn carriages. For this is no real establishment; it exists outside of time and space, in the realm of imagination — one of the worlds that might have been.
Other Worlds begins with a meeting of the minds: Harry Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Frank Podmore, and Nandor Fodor all gather in the sitting room of this mythical men's club for their usual discussion of what is today called paranormal research. This time, someone has brought a guest, and Houdini offers up the story of the Bell Witch (a true story that has inspired a number of books and films, most recently An American Haunting).

The story, as Houdini tells it, is wonderfully eerie and filled with surprises as the ghost goes from mere noise-making to verbal and physical abuse. Subsequently, the others gathered each offer his opinion on the real explanation for the seemingly supernatural events.

Later, a different guest is invited, a female mystery writer who presents a similar case (based on the Phelps haunting) rewritten into a first-person narrative told from the point of view of a newly remarried woman and her family's supernatural experience with their new Connecticut home. Houdini wryly remarks that the guest would not have been allowed were this not a fictional gentlemen's club.

Despite a weak, abrupt ending, Other Worlds is an entertaining examination of paranormal occurrences given in an engaging manner. I especially enjoyed the narrative conceit (which is all it is — no effort seems to have been taken to create any genuine characterizations) of the discussion among the famous names of early paranormal research. There's nothing of real substance, and likely nothing new for anyone already familiar with these stories, but it's an interesting way to while away the time between work and home.

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