Regardless of what you’re writing, social media can be a valuable tool to connect an author with his or her readers. At it’s best, it will provide insights, education and entertainment to those you’d ideally like to transform from “followers” to “fans.” At it’s worst, it can become a marketing bludgeon which may eventually drive people away from your feeds — or at least cause them to ignore you.
After about a decade of working with social media, I decided to get serious about it in Fall 2015. I created a social media strategy, set benchmarks, watched my stats and attended workshops and other professional development opportunities to stay current on social media trends. I work at least an hour a day on my social media feeds, creating, scheduling and reviewing both new and curated content. Since then, my online following has increased by 160%. This hardly places me as a social media superstar, but it does underscore that having a plan and carrying it out faithfully can yield results.
As part of my new plan I began watching other author’s media streams, not just for inspiration but also to be mindful of annoying and counter-productive habits. Toward that end, and with my tongue somewhat in my cheek, I present my list of the top 6 things authors should NOT do on social media.
Don’t inflate your success. Have you noticed how every author you’ve never heard of claims to be both “best selling” and “award winning?” In many cases, this is completely disingenuous. There’s no universal standard for measuring a best seller, so unless you’ve made it onto the much coveted New York Times list, doing so is akin to labeling a food “organic” — it sounds good but what does it actually mean? As for book awards, well, these can actually be purchased by authors who have a few hundred (or thousand) dollars to burn. Both of these strategies may give someone bragging rights, but that’s not the same as connecting to your readership. I can’t ever recall purchasing a book just because it was “best selling” or “award winning.” I purchase books because I’m interested in what the author has to say — which is really more important than whatever epaulets they have on their shoulders.
Don’t fake your followers. Speaking of disingenuous social media trends, authors may purchase Twitter or Facebook followers in order to give the illusion that they’re popular. There are a tons of online services that will happily provide you with as many fake followers as you're willing to purchase. Once I published my first book, I was deluged with offers from companies and individuals who promised me thousands of followers for prices as low as $5. If you’re an author who’s just interested in playing a numbers game, more power to you but you may be wasting your money as Twitter, Facebook and the like crack down on "fake accounts." It you’re actually interested in building a loyal social media following, it takes time, dedication and creativity. Twitter has some free tools to help you do this, which you can access here.
Don’t make everything a sales pitch. Every writer wants to sell, but there comes a point where you really need to cool it with the constant sales pitches. Some authors I followed on social media were rebroadcasting the same ads / Amazon links multiple times a day. Does this actually translate into sales? Honestly, I don’t know. Certainly it makes for a dull, obnoxious social media feed that tells you nothing about that author except he or she is a very motivated seller. In my opinion, a better habit is to strategically promote your books (during a special event for example) and then provide occasional free content as well, such as a book giveaway, a short story or an ePub version of an older book. You want to stay in your readers’ mind — but not because you’re obnoxious.
Don’t just use other people’s content. To elaborate on my previous point, it’s important for authors to create something NEW for their followers. Curated and reposted materials are fine if the author’s selective. Simply hitting the “retweet” button on everything tagged #amwriting is not the same as being a thoughtful social media editor. Like a good book, a good social media feed has a voice, a soul and a story to tell. Figure out what those are and only share other people’s content if it helps enhance your message.
Don’t be afraid to follow back. Your readership may have interesting things to say and you can tap into that by following them back on social media. Not only can this be a great way to distill ideas for your next novel, it can also tell you what your audience is hungry for and allow you to engage with them one-on-one.
Finally, please don’t wear fedoras. This seems to be more of a trend among male authors who specialize in crime novels or spy thrillers, apparently borrowing a page from the handbook of Mickey Spillane. For Spillane, the fedora worn at a rakish angle may have been iconic in the mid-twentieth century, but today it’s just a schlocky affectation. This isn’t just about hats, of course. The larger message here is that ridiculous props and costumes can make an author seem pretentious rather than genuine.
Do you have additional tips for authors on social media? If so, use the comments section below to share them.
Back in December 2016, I went hiking with two of my best friends to Seven Falls, a natural area located just north of my home town of Tucson, Arizona. At first blush, such a thing would hardly seem blog-worthy, but for me it was highly cathartic. Before I reached my 50th birthday, which would happen two months later, I was making it a point to reconcile myself with a few things that had happened to me in the previous decades. This had been an ongoing process, started in earnest after I had left Arizona for Oregon in 2010. My reasons for leaving my home state were varied and complicated and I won’t bother addressing them here. But suffice to say that I left behind some unfinished business. In the author’s vernacular, these were incomplete stories, needing just a few more sentences before I could put them away for good.
Thus the hike to Seven Falls.
It’s been my tradition to share ghost stories and spooky legends on my blog for the Halloween season. Now that October is officially upon us, I’m decided to look at stories which originated in my own back yard — on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis, Oregon.
American universities are rife with ghost stories, many of them remarkably similar in their details. Usually these are tragic tales of aggrieved or grieving coeds who are either brutally slain, die in freak accidents, or take their own lives in particularly horrible ways. Some are thinly veiled morality tales about how sex, drugs, alcohol and even poor grades will lead to suffering and death.
The two OSU ghost stories which intrigued me centered around Sackett Hall, a sprawling dormitory located near the campus’s epicenter. Both of the ghosts in question were of murdered women. One was allegedly butchered by an infamous serial killer in the dorm basement; the other by a fellow student in her own bed. At first blush, both stories seemed to be simple retellings of common urban legends, but I wanted to know if there was any truth behind them.
I found much more than I expected
The Serial Killer
Of the Sackett Hall legends, the one about the basement was easier to research and document, although details have become skewed over the years. The legend claims that Ted Bundy, a murderer, cannibal and necrophiliac who stalked college campuses in the early 1970s, had lured a girl into the catacombs below the dorm. The story was partially true, as a Sackett Hall resident named Roberta “Kathy” Parks was abducted by Bundy outside the building on May 6, 1974.
Ann Rule's famous biography about Bundy, THE STRANGER BESIDE ME, provides an intriguing account of Kathy's last day on Earth:
The next girl to walk away forever lived in Oregon. Nineteen days after Susan Rancourt vanished — on May 6th — Roberta Kathleen (Kathy) Parks had spent an unhappy and guilt-ridden day in her room in Sackett Hall on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis, 250 miles south of Seattle. I knew Sackett Hall; I'd lived there myself when I attended one term at O.S.U. back in the 1950s, a huge, modern dormitory complex on a campus that was then considered a ‘cow college.’ Even then, when the world didn’t seem to be so fraught with danger, none of us would ever go to the snack machines in the cavernous basement corridors alone at night.
Kathy Parks wasn't very happy at Oregon State. She was homesick for Lafayette, California, and she’d broken up with her boyfriend who'd left for Louisiana. On May 4th, Kathy had argued in a phone call with her father, and, on May 6th, she learned that he'd suffered a massive heart attack. Her sister had called her from Spokane, Washington, with the news of their father's coronary, and then called back some hours later to say that it looked as though he would survive.
Kathy, whose major was world religions, felt a little better after the second call, and she agreed to join some of the other residents of Sackett Hall in an exercise session in the dorm lounge.
Shortly before eleven, the tall slender girl with long ash-blond hair left Sackett Hall to meet some friends for coffee in the Student Union Building. She promised her roommate she would be back within the hour. Wearing blue slacks, a navy blue top, a light green jacket, and platform sandals, she left Sackett for the last time.
Kathy never made the Student Union Building. Like the others, all of her possessions were left behind: her bike, clothing, cosmetics. [pp, 67-68]
So although Parks was abducted outside Sackett and probably killed at an entirely different location altogether, the history behind the haunting legend still had a firm basis in fact. But what about the girl murdered in her bed? Was this also based on a real incident?
It’s unusual that I write one blog and then have to write another on the same topic so soon, but sometimes things happen quickly and without warning.
On September 1, I posted a blog entitled The Monster Is Not The Most Terrifying Thing About Stranger Things. Ostensibly about the hit Netflix horror series which takes place in 1983, the blog detailed how the disappearance of one of the main characters reminded me of the real disappearances of children from that era. I wrote about several cases, but the one which impacted me the most was the 1989 abduction of Jacob Wetterling. I won’t repeat the content of the original blog other than to share the last line I wrote about Jacob:
“To this day, his fate remains unknown…”
Forty-eight hours later, everything changed quickly and without warning. Danny James Heinrich, the only person on Earth who for three decades actually knew the boy’s fate, confessed to abducting, molesting and then murdering Jacob. His confession lead authorities to where Jacob's remains were buried in a rural field in central Minnesota.
For 27 years, Jacob’s memory has haunted his family, friends, the people of Minnesota, and the American public. It haunted me as well. My recollections of obsessively watching the news for updates on his case during the Fall of 1989 are as clear and impactful as the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger and the fall of the Twin Towers.
As more details emerged, my mind reeled and my heart broke all over again. We now know that Jacob met his end shortly after being snatched by Heinrich, his body hastily buried on the edge of a cow pasture about 30 miles from his family’s home. Even more unbelievable is that Heinrich was a person of interest to the police as far back as 1990. But as with many missing person cases, the devil was in the details. Authorities were confounded by a lack of physical leads despite a massive search effort and Heinrich never flinched in maintaining his innocence. If he hadn’t been anxious for a plea bargain on child pornography charges and thus more cooperative with investigators, the Wetterling family might’ve never known what had happened to their son.
One would like to believe that Heinrich’s revelation, as horrific as it was, brought the Wetterling family some closure. One would like to believe that with knowledge came metamorphosis, that pain softened and some greater meaning was pulled from such senseless brutality. But when I put myself in the Wetterling’s shoes, having also raised sons, it’s difficult to imagine how you could ever find peace after such trauma.
Still, what’s touched me, amazed me and gratified me is how Jacob’s friends and family have been so consistently empathetic and decent throughout this ordeal. Patty Wetterling, the grieving mother who went on to be a national advocate for child safety, asked people to remember her son by celebrating life. People listened and responded. Athletic teams from high schoolers to the Cleveland Indians are honoring Jacob by wearing his hockey jersey number — 11 — on their uniforms. The hashtags #JacobsHopeLives and #11forJacob are flooding social media. Events, fundraisers and public memorials are being staged. Doubtless even more expressions of compassion and solidarity with emerge in the day’s ahead.
As for me, I’ve come to a few revelations about how Jacob’s case affected my life. Two months after his disappearance, I graduated from the University of Arizona and started volunteering at a local children’s shelter. A decade later I became a foster parent to five boys, ultimately adopting my sons Cooper and Myles. In fact, I’ve spent the better part of my adult life working with and advocating for abused and neglected children and all of it can be traced back to Jacob Wetterling.
My sons grew up — a privilege Jacob never got — but caring about the welfare of children shouldn’t end just because your kids are no longer kids. Or because you don’t have kids. Or because you think these things will never happen to your kids. If Jacob Wetterling has anything to teach us all these years later, it’s that we must be kind, we must be fair and we must be vigilant.
The Wetterling family has asked that people display the number 11 in honor of Jacob's memory. There are a few of these 11 For Jacob graphics already circulating on the internet, but since I don't know who they belong to I created my own. Anyone is allowed to use these graphics for the purpose of honoring Jacob's memory. They may not be used for any commericial purposes. If you have questions, feel free to email me. Thanks.
Like so many other Netflix viewers, I was blown away by Stranger Things. If you haven’t had the pleasure yet, the series takes place in 1983 and is a direct homage to the early films of John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg, with perhaps a little Joe Dante and George Romero thrown in for good measure.
In true Spielbergian fashion, the first episode introduces us to four boys playing Dungeons & Dragons late into the evening. The scene is clearly reminiscent of the first few minutes of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), not just for the RPG reference nor the suburban setting, but because of how the mundane is suddenly interrupted by the extraordinary. In the case of Stranger Things, the interruption is not caused by a potato-shaped alien botanist, but a bloodthirsty monster released from an alternate dimension by meddling government types. (Yeah, E.T. had those too if you’ll remember…)
Stranger Things isn’t the first to attempt this kind of throwback. J.J. Abram’s Super 8 (2009) covered similar themes with similar characters, but Stranger Things does it better thanks to its excellent writing, outstanding performances and the sheer creepiness of its execution. Abrams' work, by comparison, got bogged down by his typically over-the-top special effects and world-destroying violence.
But what I realized as I tore my way through the mere eight episodes of Stranger Things is that the creepiest aspect of the show had nothing to do with monsters and everything to do with the disappearance of one of the young role-players named Will (Noah Schnapp).
If you lived through the 1980s, you might recall it was the Era of the Missing Child. And I don’t mean that more children went missing during those ten years, but rather that Americans became suddenly, frantically aware of the issue thanks to the use of mass media.
If you have to put an iconic face to the problem of missing children during the 1980s, it must be that of Etan Patz. The six-year-old vanished while walking to a school bus stop in May 1979. His father was a professional photographer and made many portraits of Etan available to authorities and the media. For years afterwards, tow-headed Etan grinned back at you from the pages of the newspaper, the nightly news, thousands of MISSING CHILD posters… Etan’s face was also the the first to appear on the back of a milk carton, bringing the issue of missing children literally into the family kitchen.
Two years later, Adam Walsh vanished while playing video games in a Sears store. His head was found floating in a canal weeks later and this grievous crime launched his father, John Walsh, on a lifelong crusade to protect children and bring criminals to justice. Walsh’s television show, America’s Most Wanted, ran a whopping 24 years (1988-2012) and was lauded by law enforcement and American presidents alike as an essential public service.
If there was one 1980s child abduction case that impacted me the greatest, it was the 1989 abduction of Jacob Wetterling. The 11-year-old was riding home on his bike from the local video store when a man in a mask appeared and held he, his younger brother and a friend at gunpoint. The man told the other boys to run away and not look back. Jacob was never seen again. I was in my senior year in college when the Wetterling case broke and, coincidentally, was managing a video rental store. I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Jacob and the innumerable kids his age who wandered in and out of my store at all hours of the day and night. Were they at risk, I wondered? Most of them lived just around the corner, but in the Era of the Missing Child it didn’t seem to matter. Apparently you could vanish without a trace doing even the most innocuous things — going to school, playing video games, renting a movie. I remember watching the news night after night, hoping that Jacob would be safely recovered. To this day, his fate remains unknown.
As I watched Stranger Things, I realized that the scenes that affected me the most were those with Winona Ryder and Charlie Heaton (who played Will’s mother and brother, respectively) dealing with their grief of not knowing the boy’s fate. I don’t know if Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer intended Will’s disappearance to be so reflective of other boys like him during the same era. I guess it doesn’t really matter, because it struck a chord no matter what the intent. I can only imagine the anguish that the Wetterlings, the Walshs, the Patzes and other families of missing children still deal with daily. If Stranger Things did one thing for me personally, it was reminding me that monsters needn't come from alternate dimensions. We have plenty of them living among us…
Related Information: The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
I’m sorry to say that I’ve given up.
I’ve given up hoping that we’ll ever get a decent depiction of Wonder Woman — possibly the world’s foremost female superhero and certainly DC Comic’s — on either the big or small screen. I came to this conclusion after rewatching the 1970s TV show starring Lynda Carter. (Yes, I own the box sets. Shut up.) Those three season just dripped with lovely cornball goodness as only a show of the 70s could, complete with turtlenecks, disco music and sunglasses so big they would swallow your face. Yet despite all the goofiness, there was a certain heart and soul to Carter’s depiction of the princess from Paradise Island. She was likable. More importantly, she liked humanity. She believed in people and really wanted to help them, even as she was clucking her tongue at their stupidity.
I’m now pretty confident we’ll never see that Diana Prince / Wonder Woman ever again. Maybe she was the product of an earlier time and the modern moviegoer (or movie producer) is just too cynical to tolerate her strength-through-kindness schtick. I certainly don’t have much faith that the upcoming Zack Snyder produced film will reclaim her magic mantle. I might be a little premature in writing this, but I think I’m on pretty solid ground here.
Let’s start with the fact that it’s taken a bafflingly long time to bring Wonder Woman back to the screen at all. After numerous false starts like David E. Kelly’s horrific TV movie from 2011 and Joss Whedon’s unproduced script, we finally got a sneak peak at the Amazon princess in Batman v. Superman: The Dawn of Justice. But there was a problem. Like so many other elements of that film (the plot for example), Diana Prince as played by Gal Godot was almost incidental. She hobnobbed with the power elite in slinky dresses and was set up as a foil for Bruce Wayne despite their all-too-brief interactions. But when the going got tough, Diana hopped on a plane out of town and only returned at the last second to help battle Doomsday. Not only was this out of character for Wonder Woman, perhaps one of the most morally steadfast characters in comic books, but she lacked those essential qualities that made her more than a superhero, but also a feminist icon. Where was her empathy for others? Where was the intellect?
I can’t fault Gal Godot for any of this considering how little she as given to do in Batman v. Superman, but the film did underscore how she has some mighty big red boots to fill. And, considering the increasingly poor quality of DC Comic movies, I’m not expecting much when Wonder Woman hits theaters next year.
So at day’s end, I think I have to agree with so many other Wonder Woman aficionados, which include some notable comic book artists, when I say that for now, the definitive Amazon princess will remain Lynda Carter’s version. After waiting 40 years to see Wonder Woman on the screen, I've given up hope that Hollywood can get this character right.
On the discussion page for my novel The Men in the Trees, I have a variety of photos from an Arizona ghost town called Vulture City. Over the years, visitors have asked about the town and its mine so I've created this synopis of the area's history, legends and what you can expect when visiting one of the best preserved frontier communities in Arizona. It should be noted that the images and experiences shared here are from 2009, when my son Myles and I spent the better part of a day exploring the townsite.
The Beginning of Vulture City
Like many of the state's mining towns, the story behind Vulture City is an amalgam of fact, fiction and falsities. According to legend, the town's origins began in 1862 when a prosector named Henry Wickenburg shot a vulture while out hunting. Where the bird dropped to the ground, Wickenburg discovered some spectacular quartz formations infused with gold and promptly established a claim to the area. Although the dead vulture part of this story is most likely an affectation, Wickenburg's instincts about the quartz were spot on and the mine eventually became the most profitable gold producer in Arizona.
Wickenburg sold his controlling interest in the mine to Benjamin Phelps and a group of investors in 1866. Under Phelp's supervision, it is estimated that the Vulture produced $2.5 million in gold (or roughly $60 million in today’s dollars), with almost as much being snuck out by the miners and their corrupt foremen. The theft of raw gold was mentioned in The Men in the Trees in a conversation between Meryl and Rose (pp. 86-87):
Meryl exhaled slowly. “Okay, then. Let’s say you actually find the mine, which would be like finding a needle in a haystack I think, but let’s say you do it. Then what? I doubt if the U.S. government is going to let you go in there and dig out any gold. It’s a national forest, after all.”
“What if they don’t know about it?”
“Well, this mine is in the middle of nowhere. Who’s going to notice some old coot like me carrying out some ore in my backpack? It happened all the time during the frontier days. Miners would stuff a nugget or two into their boot and walk out with it. It was called ‘high-grading the gold.’”
“And if they caught you, they’d hang you?”
“And what would they do to you today?”
“Prison, I imagine,” Rose said with a casual shrug.
“High-grading” was such a persistent problem at the Vulture mine that there was actually a "hanging tree" on site for those who were caught. The tree was still around when Myles and I visited the site.
The mine changed hands again in 1878, being sold to a man named James Seymour who quickly identified another gold-rich vein and further increased profits. During this same era, Vulture became an important rest-stop in an otherwise unbroken stretch of desert. By the 1890s, the site included many houses, dormitories, an assayer's office, a general store, a post office and a school. At its height, the town was home to 5,000 people.
I'm going to make a brief argument against one of the most pervasive trends in Hollywood these days — the almost obsessive need to create reboots and sequels of just about every movie that's been released in the last 30 years. I've felt this way for a while, but it perhaps came to a boil for me when Netflix announced their sequel to Ang Lee’s game-changing martial arts film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Starring Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang, the original film was a gorgeously produced and multi-faceted story of unrequited love, misguided loyalties and enduring compassion. Moreover, it was an indictment of how traditional Chinese society repressed women. The film went on to win four Oscars, including Best Foreign Language Film which is really the Best Picture award for flicks where people speak something other than English.
Jump ahead sixteen years and we find Netflix producing a sequel entitled Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny. Even though they managed to talk Michelle Yeoh into reprising her role as Yu Shu Lien, make no mistake, this film is an imposter of the highest magnitude. Gone is any attempt at subtle storytelling. The plot is a simple retread of the “evil warlord must be stopped” trope with the Green Destiny sword now strangely imbued with almost magical powers where, in the original film, its power was wholly symbolic. The magnificent stunt choreography of the original is replaced with run-of-the-mill CGI effects, a lazy and galling substitution for so many reasons. The acting is horrendous.
Why Netflix felt the need to provide Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with a sequel may seem baffling, but this is the company that gave Adam Sandler an exclusive four movie deal, which, to a fair, has turned out marvelously for them (read more about that here.)
But Adam Sandler is not Ang Lee anymore than The Ridiculous 6 (shudder) is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There’s no expectation on anyone’s part that Sandler will ever be remembered as a great filmmaker while Lee certainly is. And this brings me to the crux of my argument… Frankly, I’ve come to believe that some films are so important, so culturally significant that reboots and sequels should not be allowed. Of course I write knowing this is impossibility for a variety of reasons. Who, for example, would determine which films are and are not “culturally significant”? Beyond that, filmmaking is often big business, which means little regard is ultimately given to the intrinsic value of a thing if there’s money to be made (hence that Sandler-Netflix deal.) In the end, I think it relies more on the viewing public to curtail this trend by withholding our attention and dollars when necessary. Yes, there will still be the occasional unwanted sequel and reboot, but maybe, just maybe, we can stop things before a franchise is born.
Once upon a time, kids, getting Star Wars toys for the holidays meant looking forward to an empty box. I don't mean this facetiously, because in the Winter of 1977 when Star Wars mania was at its height (the first time), the movie that would go on to become a phenomenon had precious little merchandising. As a result, ten of thousands of parents were desperate to find something to give to the tens of thousands of children pining anxiously for anything Star Wars-related.
It was Kenner Toys that came up with a novel solution: sell parents the promise of toys to come.
Officially, this was called the "Star Wars Early Bird Kit" and it consisted of a cardboard display stand, a few pieces of cheap swag and a promissory note that four actions figures (Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2-D2 and Chewbacca) would arrive in the mail sometime in the near future. This was either the most impudent or most ingenious marketing ploy ever... but since it worked I think we'll have to mark it as the latter.
This holiday season, the children of the world will have no "empty box" worries if my experience today at the local Toys R Us is any indication. Aisle after aisle of Star Wars toys, slickly packaged in an ominous red-and-black veneer, didn't just overwhelm my senses... it crushed them. Curious, I thought, that while in 1977 the movie was devoid of toys, now many of the represented toys are devoid of a movie and will be until Episode 7 hits theaters in December. To the dozens of people I saw purchasing them, however, it didn't seem to matter. They may not know exactly who Captain Phasma is, but at this point Star Wars is religion and merchandise its holy icons. And if you're not ready to snap up Episode 7 toys until you've seen the film, fear not as the whole pantheon is well represented from the first trilogy to the Clone Wars. In fact, the only thing I didn't see was merchandise for the 1978 Star Wars Christmas Special... but maybe that will come too?
I've been an avid Star Wars toy collector since 1977 when I tried to talk my mom into purchasing that "Early Bird Kit." (For the record, she didn't.) But with time I've come to see these toys in a different light. Most of what's out there is dreck and you have to be more circumspect about what you take home. A couple of decades ago I might've at least concentrated my buying power on one line of Episode 7 stuff — probably action figures — but I won't even do that now. Frankly, I know that line will never end I don't want to become the toy equivalent of a crazy cat lady.
But beyond the insane expenditure in time and resources, there's an argument to be made that Star Wars merchandise ceased to be special when it became so ridiculously commonplace. Whether it's the Death Star Chip and Dip bowl set or the Stormtrooper Silicone Oven Mitt or the AT-AT Halloween costume for your dog (all real things), the prevalence of Star Wars merchandise had burned me out. I guess there really can be too much of a good thing.
I recently just wrote a review of the movie Mr. Holmes and it's had me thinking about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Not the great author who created Sherlock and his world... but the fragile and highly superstitious man in search of comfort. For this blog I will discuss his tour of the United States in the early 1920s and how his obsession with understanding the metaphysical world began with great loss and ended with a tarnished reputation.
During his lifetime, Conan Doyle was known as much for his interest in Spiritiualism as for his literary works. His fascination with ghosts and spirits was not unusual for his time, when Spiritualism was at its height and professional mediums could enjoy the patronage of the rich and famous throughout North America and Europe. Spiritualism was often seen as a diversion for Victorian society’s elite, and certainly Conan Doyle was proof of this.
At a very young age, Conan Doyle was sent to Hodder Place, a preparatory school run by the strict Roman Catholic Jesuits. The experience was apparently a bad one for him and he emerged from his schooling agnostic. Later in his life, however, his religious views began to change drastically. Many sources link this transformation to the death of his son, Kingsley, who was serving with the British forces during World War I and was wounded during the disastrous Allied offensive known as the Battle of the Somme. While recuperating for his injuries, Kingsley developed pneumonia and died in a field hospital. His passing was certainly crushing to his father, but it was only one in a series of deaths that Conan Doyle had to endure. Eleven years earlier, his wife had succumbed to tuberculosis and Kingsley’s death was followed by that of Arthur’s brother, his brothers-in-law and two nephews. By all accounts, so much loss in such a short period of time sent Conan Doyle into a depressive tailspin and he turned to Spiritualism for solace.
By the time he reached California in 1922 as part of his tour of the United States, Conan Doyle’s reputation as a devout defender of Spiritualism was well established. And largely ridiculed.
One of the most sensational causes he championed would become known as the case of the Cottingley Fairies. In 1918, two English girls claimed to have taken photos of themselves interacting with several diminutive sprites in the Yorkshire woods. Conan Doyle was assigned by Strand Magazine to investigate. He consulted several experts in the field of photography. The results were mixed. The Kodak corporation acknowledged that the negatives were not tampered with, but also stated that such photos could be easily staged and duplicated. A second expert named Harold Snelling declared the photos genuine and it was Snelling who Conan Doyle chose to believe. Convinced of their legitimacy, Conan Doyle provided the girls with a new camera and over the next few years they were able to produce several more photos. The fact that the girls were allowed to use the camera without any witnesses didn’t seem to bother Conan Doyle; and his sense of Victorian honor compelled him to believe that no girl would be deceitful enough to perpetrate such a hoax or fool a man such as himself. Ergo, the fairies had to be real.
(The girls admitted in 1981 that the photos had been faked, but that their embarrassment at fooling Arthur Conan Doyle kept them from confessing earlier.)
Conan Doyle’s absolute belief in the Cottingley Fairies, and his subsequent publishing of a book on the subject, did little to shore up his credibility. The public seemed to expect a more impartial reaction from the father of Sherlock Holmes, a medical doctor and a renowned man of letters. Skepticism and ridicule continued to follow Conan Doyle as he began his tour of America. Read one U.S. newspaper editorial:
“Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and author of a number of other stories which have captured the imagination of tens of thousands of readers, is one person. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, making himself ridiculous with his profession of faith in pictures of fairies and other spiritualistic flapadoodle, is another. Of the two, the first is an admirable figure, but the latter has made of itself a fit mark for the mocking laughter of the world...”
Conan Doyle did not seem deterred by his detractors and continued to lecture publicly and give interviews to the press about spiritual matters. In June 1923, the Oakland Tribute provided Conan Doyle with the opportunity to defend himself in an article entitled “‘Sherlock Holmes’ Creator Tells Of His Bridge to Land of Hereafter: Doyle Admits He Met Spirits Via Medium Route.” Conan Doyle wrote:
“I was a confirmed materialist and fought against their facts [of spiritualism] until they were too much for me and I could not help realizing their truth. This process took many years of reading and experiment as detailed in my books. What nonsense it is therefore to say that I had a ‘great consuming desire to believe... etc.’ It was not so...”
Despite his assertions, Conan Doyle’s method for examining psychic phenomenon and the legitimacy of mediums was suspect even in his day. One author, in an exposé of the parlor tricks used by mediums to dupe their clients, wrote: “Doyle admits that the medium’s throat and lips showed movement during this singing, but he swallows the whole thing when, as he says, the ‘intelligence’ glibly explained that the medium’s throat and organs are used by the spooks.” The author asked, “In Doyle’s case is the wish father to the thought?”
As the author toured California, he met with a variety of mediums and visited many venues thought to be haunted, including the Whaley House in San Diego. He also continued to speak out on some of the most famous paranormal events of the day, including the rumored “Curse of King Tutankhamun.”
In November 1922, the western world was left stunned after archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of an obscure pharaoh and in the process the greatest treasure trove in history. Shortly after the tomb’s excavation, Carter’s patron and friend, Lord Carnarvon, died suddenly in Cairo. Rumors began almost immediately that the Lord’s demise was the result of ancient curses placed on Tutankhamun’s remains by Egyptian priests. Conan Doyle openly supported this notion, and even offered other example’s of the so-called “Curse of the Pharaohs.”
“...The son of Sir William Ingram, London publisher, met the fate prescribed by a mummy he discovered and brought to London. On the mummy was found the following inscription:
‘May the life of the one who disturbs me end rapidly and may his bones never be buried.’
Shortly afterward the son was killed in a hunting expedition in Somaliland. The body was placed in a dry bed of a stream, pending removal. When the party returned, the dry bed had been turned into a raging torrent and the body had disappeared...” [“Spirits On Guard At Tombs, Says A. Conan Doyle,” The Oakland Tribune, Tuesday, April 5, 1923.]
Ironically, it was during this same period that Conan Doyle met and befriended Spiritualism’s greatest critic — Harry Houdini. (The two men are pictured together below.) The renowned magician had developed an interest in Spiritualism following the death of his mother. In this respect, both men were united in their search for answers by the deaths of loved ones. But for Houdini, Spiritualism was a profound disappointment. His expert eye quickly identified the illusions and sleights of hand used by mediums during séances, and he became convinced that the entire movement was fraudulent. Conan Doyle hoped to change Houdini’s mind and eventually became convinced that the magician possessed supernatural powers of which he was either unaware or unwilling to acknowledge.
During the final part of his American lecture tour, Conan Doyle and his wife invited Houdini and his wife to a séance. Lady Conan Doyle had recently discovered her ability to produce “automatic writing” and she was anxious to help contact Houdini’s deceased mother. During the séance, she produced six pages of handwritten notes for Houdini which she claimed were created by his mother’s spirit. Houdini was far from convinced. Lady Conan Doyle’s notes were in English, a language his mother didn’t understand and the ritual had taken place on his mother’s birthday, although her spirit did not seem to acknowledge that fact. Concerned of offending Conan Doyle, whom Houdini believed was sincerely trying to help him, he said nothing about these discrepancies for months. When he finally broached his concerns to Arthur Conan Doyle, the man of letters had his usual convenient answers, claiming that the spirit world did not worry about things as trivial as language or dates on a calendar. Their friendship never recovered from this disagreement.
Conan Doyle continued to unflinchingly defend Spiritualism through the remaining years of his life, even publishing an impressive two volume tome called The History of Spiritualism in 1926. On July 8, 1930, he died of a heart attack while strolling through his garden but even death did not seem to sever his connection to Spiritualism. For years afterward, Lady Conan Doyle claimed to be in regular contact with her husband and came to rely on his advice for many everyday concerns. The Conan Doyle family also credited Arthur’s spirit with diagnosing his wife’s tuberculosis from beyond the grave, a feat that he had not been able to perform in life despite his medical training. Likewise, the mediums he had championed so ferociously seemed reluctant to give up his patronage after his death. Suddenly, Conan Doyle’s vaporous image began to appear in many “spirit photos” produced by various professional psychics. (See the photo of Conan Doyle at the top of the page for an example of this hoax.) But even this development could not delay the inevitable.
“...Many of the mediums whom Conan Doyle had supported were falling from grace,” wrote author Daniel Stashower in his biography entitled Teller of Tales. “Nino Pecararo, whose powers Conan Doyle had defended against the criticisms of Houdini, was soon hounded out of business by the magician Joseph Dunninger. “Spirit of Doyle’s Son Merely Nino’s Trick,” reported the New York Evening Journal; “Nino Pecararo, Who Helped Conan Doyle’s Faith in Mystic World, Admits Deceit,” announced the Herald Tribune. For the next ten years, similar headlines would appear at regular intervals as one “reformed medium” after another attempted to convert exposure into financial gain.
“Conan Doyle’s own messages from the spirit world were also held up to criticism. “Now the late Sir Arthur was an admirable writer of English,” noted one journalist. “If the post-death messages are exact copies of those messages, his knowledge of even the elementary rules of grammar must have suffered woefully since his death.”
In the end, Conan Doyle’s literary brilliance may have been overshadowed by his preoccupation with the supernatural and his Victorian conceit. However, we must be charitable in knowing that whatever folly he championed, he did so only as a reaction to his own great sense of love and loss.
The photos shown above are in the public domain.
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