Theater archives

Houdini and Holmes Creator Debate Fairies, Ghosts, Miracles


Harry Houdini, the best in the world at escaping from coffins, declared in 1926 that there was no such thing as an
afterlife. His disinterest in the spiritual realm enraged many of his fans—particularly his close friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and a firm believer in ghosts. In one of the most publicized intellectual debates of the time, the two argued over the skills of a medium named Margery by staging séances and bickering over “real-life” photos of fairies.

Without adding much plot, Gabriel Brownstein’s The Man From Beyond chronicles this celebrity feud through the eyes of a young, breathless reporter named Molly. She follows the two men wherever they go with the hope that she’ll eventually escape her usual beat: writing about lipstick. She does, and soon exudes the confidence of a sultry movie star—she’s glamorous, pissed off, and usually smoking. Both Conan Doyle and Houdini confide in her, revealing details about Margery, the famous psychic, who oozes goo from her naked body while screaming in the voices of dead people.

As he observes the channeling process, Conan Doyle, unlike his most famous character, has no interest in getting to the bottom of the mystery. He’s developed, in his late age, the “credulousness of a five-year-old boy.” These scenes of spiritual contact are slow and poetic, with many floating tables and blobs of slime. In careful prose, Brownstein evenly portrays both the beauty of these bizarre “miracles,” as Conan Doyle calls them, and the intellectual desperation it takes to believe that they’re real.