Excerpt from The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Ghost of the Mary Celeste

by Valerie Martin

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2014, 320 pages
    Feb 2015, 320 pages

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Sarah Sacha Dollacker

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Some hours later she woke up in her own bed. Her mother rose from her chair nearby, laying her knitting on the side table as, with tremulous lips and moistened eye, she approached her daughter. "Where's Granny?" lisped the winsome child. "I know she's here. She called me."

Late that night the telegram arrived from Philadelphia with the woeful news that Violet's grandmother, a sprightly widow of independent means and spirit, who had, until that day, enjoyed excellent health, had collapsed on the sidewalk outside her townhouse. Before a doctor could be summoned to her aid, she had passed from this life, expiring, speechless, in the arms of a stranger.

I've never been able to determine whether this story had some basis in the original trauma that resulted in the peculiarity of Violet's eye, or was entirely fabricated to take advantage of condition pre-dating her first experience of spirit communication. Apart from the autobiographical sketch and another carefully documented article that has to do with her accurate prediction of a shipwreck during the war, Violet Petra's history is a carefully guarded secret. She appeared in Boston, like Venus, full blown from some westerly town she refuses to name. She was, she claims, eighteen at that time, but she may have been younger. Like many of her co-religionists, she has a thorough knowledge of the Bible, which book she holds in contempt. She has a strong background and a keen interest in geology, suggesting to me that Petra is not her real name.

That evening, in Mr. Wilbur's lavishly furnished drawing room, I knew nothing about her. When she raised her face to her attentive audience, the alteration in her features - for it wasn't just the eye; her complexion was deathly pale and her lips dark and tumid - was so striking that I joined in the general intake of breath. She coughed, bringing two fingers to her sternum, as if opening a path from her heart to her throat. When she spoke her voice was deeper than her ordinary speaking voice. It wasn't an entirely different voice; it wasn't, as is sometimes the case with female mediums, a masculine voice, but it had a sonorous, humorless gravity, an irresistible authority that held her listeners in her sway.

"Bridget and her baby son have come over," she said. "They are happy, they send love to Aunt Jane." She paused while Aunt Jane, who had revealed neither her own name nor that of her niece, burst into tears. "I hear another name," Violet continued. "It's Jack. No, it's Zachary, Bridget is watching over him. All will be well."

Zachary, the sobbing Aunt Jane testified, was Bridget's younger brother, a boy of ten who was very ill; in fact, it was feared, near death's door, and under the doctor's watchful care.

Violet closed her eyes, her head tilted to one side in an attitude of listening. The room grew silent, but for the subdued weeping of the questioner, as all attempted to hear what the medium was evidently no longer hearing. Perhaps thirty seconds passed before she fell back in her chair and opened her eyes, a smile of pure serenity lingering about her lips. "Have I been helpful?" she asked pleasantly, hopefully. Mr. Wilbur's enchanted guests burst into wild applause.

How wild a guess was it that a pregnant girl on her way to California wouldn't survive the trip. Or that a child sick with fever would recover. The odds are even, and an educated surmise tips the scale this way or that. In the case of the sick child, his death could be passed off as the result of his dead sister's calling him home to her. Either way, Violet Petra's prediction was pretty safe.

Of course, diligent journalist that I am, I spent the following morning tracking down the ailing Zachary, which wasn't difficult, as the family was eager to give out the glad news that the boy's fever had broken during the night, that he was cheerful, hungry, eager to be out of bed, and that his full recovery was confidently anticipated by all who loved him.


After that first trance-lecture in Mr. Wilbur's lavish New York flat, I didn't see or hear of Violet Petra, nor did my thoughts linger upon her, for ten years. During that time the Spiritualist movement flourished until its adherents were so numerous that a confession of orthodoxy was called for and briefly embraced. As Mr. William James has observed, "When a religion becomes an orthodoxy, its day of inwardness is over; the spring is dry," and so it was for the quarrelsome Spiritualists. In 1872, failing to achieve unanimity at their national convention, they splintered into diverse camps. And by camps, I don't mean associations of co-religionists with conflicting views, but actual meeting places, complete with grounds, tents, and cottages, materializing like ectoplasm at a séance on the shores of sparkling New England lakes, and serviced by railroads, restaurants, furniture movers, cleaners, farmers, farriers, florists, resident musicians, photographers, and butchers. No one knew where the spirits of the dead spent the winters, but once the last trace of frost had retreated from the hinterlands, they gathered at Lake Silver and Lake Pleasant in anticipation of their devotees among the living. These camp meetings were so popular that they came to the attention of the press, and so, one hot afternoon in August, having boarded the train at Fitchburg, I alighted at Lake Pleasant clutching my valise, and followed the wooden walkway through a shady grove of white pine, past the open air dance pavilion, and down the sturdy staircase to the wide and welcoming verandah of the gleaming new Lake Pleasant Hotel.

Excerpted from The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin. Copyright © 2014 by Valerie Martin. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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