Duckworth | 2021 | 304p | Bought copy | Buy the book | Listen to the audiobook
Belfast, 1914 and it is two years since the Titanic sank, taking with it to the cold dark depths William Jackson Crawford’s brother-in-law Arthur. William’s wife Elizabeth looks for comfort from medium Kathleen Goligher, who claims that restless spirits can speak through her. But William is a sceptic and a scientist who is determined to prove Kathleen a liar and fraud. But, when he attends an event to expose her, he hears voices that he cannot explain, intensified after further tragic events. Could it be that the rational scientist and teacher is himself haunted? William Jackson Crawford must know and his obsessive investigations attracts celebrity attention. But then William, the famous Spirit Engineer, begins his own experiments and enters the darkness.
I’m a big fan of historical gothic novels and The Spirit Engineer is a novel I couldn’t wait to read. I actually listened to the audiobook, which is wonderfully read by Dickon Farmar. This is a story that really lends itself to that format and gave it an extra creepy atmosphere. Excellent. The novel begins with tragedy and the reader is well aware that soon, this being 1914, there will be many more restless souls, people dying before their time on the battlefields of northern Europe. But, for Belfast, the loss of the Titanic is an immediate source of grief and questions about the nature of life and death. William Jackson Crawford, a real person and Professor of Engineering, can’t reconcile his wife’s need to commune with the dead with his own scientific query for fact. But then he hadn’t suffered his own tragedy quite yet.
This is an extremely atmospheric and pretty disturbing novel. It begins in normality, with William suspecting his wife of having an affair, thanks to some strange letters from their former maid who left in mysterious circumstances. But the more William becomes obsessed, the darker the book becomes. And it’s then that you start to take notice of the shadows in the room.
There are moments of surreal lightness, such as when William attracts the attention of celebrities of the day, such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Houdini, but we’re entering the world of the macabre and gothic melodrama as we descend deeper into William’s mind. My one stumbling block in the novel was how absolutely despicable William Jackson Crawford is and being in his mind is not a pleasant place to be as the novel and his madness progress. His cruelty and the distress he causes are upsetting. But The Spirit Engineer is a powerful novel and it presents a compelling portrait of a man’s spiral into darkness.
The Spirit Engineer is a genuinely frightening novel, steeped in atmosphere, with a witty edge. The author’s achievement is even more incredible when you realise that this is a true story. AJ West finds the heart of it. Perfect reading or listening for these winter nights.