by Louise Davidson
My father told me my first true ghost story when I was ten. It took place in my grandmother’s kitchen in 1969. He was eleven, standing with his sisters in front of a Ouija board, made from bits of paper and a glass from the cupboard on the Formica kitchen countertop. His older sister had convinced them to join her in a séance. Already an authority on such things, for reasons that had nothing to do with her age, my aunt placed a single, flickering candle on top of the fridge and urged her siblings to place their hands on the glass. By 1969, Ouija boards were nothing new, having been in the market for nearly one hundred years. Like most things in the modern age, they first found prominence in the Victorian era when an advertisement for the ‘Wonderful Talking Board’ promised not just answers but also ‘never-failing amusement.’ The board, born out of the nineteenth century obsession with spiritualism, also carried a promise of authenticity as it had been proven to work by the US Patent Office, although – it must be said – the patent never explained how the board worked, only that it did. By the early 20th century, the Ouija board was widely thought of as edgy fun, so ubiquitous that Normal Rockwell even featured a couple using one in his illustration for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. However, part of the board’s allure was the suggestion that it was not totally innocuous. Religious groups condemned the use of Ouija, claiming that it had links in satanic practice and was, to all intents and purposes, a form of necromancy. It was no surprise when research into the history of the boards or practice of ‘automatic writing’ revealed that it had been banned in contexts as far flung as the Qing Dynasty. When the 1973 movie ‘The Exorcist’ made a direct link between the use of a Ouija board and demonic possession, it seemed as though the board’s days as a harmless parlour game were over and it was now firmly seated in the collective mind as an instrument of the occult. Certainly, my father said, he felt a deep unease as he stood in the candlelit kitchen. When the glass began to move, he accused his older sister of moving it. She removed her hands. The glass continued to move. The answers they were getting suggested the speaker had been a sailor – a captain, Dad remembers – who had been sunk off the coast of Ireland by a submarine during World War One. This, he thought, was proof the whole thing was nonsense. There were, he said at the time, no submarines in World War One. Of course, later history lessons would prove otherwise as we now know the RMS Leinster and the SS Powell were torpedoed and sank into the Irish Sea in 1918. It was then, Dad says, that my aunt asked the visitor to prove that they were real. At that, the candle on top of the fridge died, plunging the kitchen into darkness, a wisp of smoke rising from the wick. For a moment, my father thought it was just a coincidence. Then the candle reignited again. He still remembers the glass falling to the floor and spinning on the linoleum as he and his younger sister fled the room. In the fifty years that followed, my older aunt moved to South Africa and met her first spirit guide, realising that the ability she had had to read people, to plainly see and hear things others didn’t, was an essential part of herself that she could either use or allow to fade away. Like the Ouija board, her childhood exploration was something more. As I grew up, I was aware that my aunt was able to see and do things that my sceptical working-class Irish family could not explain but simply accepted. Like the Ouija board patent, no one could say how it worked, only that it did. As she lived in Africa and then Australia, I didn’t see my aunt often and I was in my early teens when she gave me my first Tarot reading, sitting in our living room with her own deck. At that stage, I knew little of tarot. I knew it existed and what it did, but seeing the cards immediately fascinated me. Unlike Ouija boards, tarot held little danger to my mind, it was a form of play almost. Indeed, this is hardly surprising given that Tarot itself started off as a card game in 15th Century Italy. Wealthy families competed to collect the most elaborately illustrated decks and today, whilst there is great diversity in the types of decks available, the most widely recognised seems to be the Rider-Waite deck, which feature illustrations by the artist Pamela Coleman-Smith, and were originally published in 1909. Since my teens, I have had all sorts of readings, from tarot to tea leaves. I have not sought them out but have taken the opportunity when it came to me. And there have been many opportunities. I do not know how they work, only that they do. Often, I approach it as a form of play and sometimes, it tells me something deeper.
Louise Davidson is a gothic novelist, and her debut novel The Fortunes of Olivia Richmond (£18.99) explores the worlds of tarot, fortune telling and speaking to the dead – it’s the perfect autumnal read! It’s available in hardback from all good bookshops.