Adventures in the Spirit World

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Adventures in the Spirit World is an article written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published in Collier's on 27 october 1923.

Adventures in the Spirit World

Collier's, p. 14 (27 october 1923, p. 9)
Collier's, p. 14 (27 october 1923, p. 33)

None of us but has wondered what comes after death. And although we may be wisely skeptical of reports of communication with the spirit world, such reports are undoubtedly important as well as interesting when made by investigators whose sincerity and honesty are beyond question. Conan Doyle tells here of his amazing adventures with spiritism. Sir Arthur lost ten members of his household during the war. He writes: "Thank God, I have since found that the gates are not shut, but only ajar. Of all these, there is but one from whom I have been unable to obtain clear proof of posthumous existence."

The unknown and the marvelous press upon us from all sides. They loom above us and around us in undefined and fluctuating shapes, some dark, some shimmering, but all warning us of the limitations of what we call matter, and of the need for spirituality if we are to keep in touch with the true inner facts of life.

Every materialist, as I can now clearly see, is a case of arrested development. He has cleared his ruins, but has not begun to build that which would shelter him. As to psychic knowledge, I was at first aware of its existence only by the account of exposures in the police courts and the usual wild statements in the public press. Years were to pass before I understood that in that direction might be found the positive proof which I constantly asserted were the only conditions upon which I could resume any sort of allegiance to the unseen. As a consequence, during all these long years my soul was often troubled within me.

I felt that I was born for something else, and yet I was not clear what that something might be. My mind felt out continually into the various religions of the world. I could no more get into the old ones, as commonly received, than a man could get into his boy's suit. I still argued on materialist lines. But I was sure enough of psychic phenomena to be aware that there was a great range of experience there which was entirely beyond my rational experience, and that, therefore, a system which ignored a great body of facts, and was incompatible with them, was necessarily an imperfect system. On the other hand, convinced as I was of these abnormal happenings, and that intelligence, high or low, lay behind them, I by no means understood their bearing. I still confused the knocking at the door with the friend outside or the ringing of the bell with the telephone message. All this was to clear in time, but my mind was still turbid, and much had to settle before it could clear. I will claim one virtue for myself in life, and it is that I have never faltered with this subject.

There is something within me which makes it quite impossible that I could say other than I truly think about this subject, or could bow my head to any system unless my heart and reason were bowed also. I have said "virtue," but it is an ill-chosen word, for this is as much part of myself as my hand or my foot, and at no time have I had any choice in the matter.

Two Nights in a Haunted House

But during every part of my life I had never ceased to take the psychic subject very seriously, to read eagerly all that I could get, and from time to time to organize séances which gave indifferent but not entirely negative results, though we had no particular medium to help us. The philosophy of the subject began slowly to unfold, and it was gradually made more feasible, not only that life carries on, in closed in some more tenuous envelope, but that the conditions which it encountered in the beyond were not unlike those which it had known here. So far I have got along the road, but the overwhelming and vital importance of it all had not yet been borne in upon me.

Now and then I had a psychic experience somewhat outside the general run of such events. One of these occurred when I was at Norwood in 1892 or 1893. I was asked by the Society of Psychic Research whether I would join a small committee to sit in and report upon a haunted house at Charmouth in Dorchester. I went down accordingly together with a Dr. Scott and Mr. Podmore, a man whose name was associated with such investigations. I remember that it took us the whole railway journey from Paddington to read up the evidence as to the senseless noises which had made life unendurable for the occupants, who were tied by a lease and could not get away. We sat up there two nights. On the first nothing occurred. On the second, Dr. Scott left us and I sat up with Mr. Podmore. We had, of course, taken every precaution to checkmate fraud, putting worsted threads across the stairs, and so on.

In the middle of the night a fearsome uproar broke out. It was like someone belaboring a resounding table with a heavy cudgel. It was not an accidental creaking of wood, or anything of that sort, but a deafening row. We had all doors open, so we rushed at once into the kitchen, from which the sound had surely come. There was nothing there — outside doors were all locked, windows barred, and threads unbroken. Podmore took away the light and pretended that we had both returned to our sitting room, going off with the young master of the house, while I waited in the dark in the hope of a return of the disturbance. None came — or ever did come. What occasioned it we never knew. It was of the same character as all the other disturbances we had read about, but shorter in time. Here there was a sequel to the story. Some years later the house was burned down, which may or may not have had a bearing upon the spirits which seemed to haunt it, but a more suggestive thing is that the skeleton of a child about ten years old was dug up in the garden. This I give on the authority of a relation of the family who were so plagued. The suggestion was that the child had been done to death there long ago, and that the subsequent phenomena of which we had one small sample were in some way a sequence to this tragedy. There is a theory that a young life cut short in sudden and unnatural fashion may leave, as it were, a store of unused vitality which may be put to strange uses.

I was never asked for a report of this case, but Podmore sent one on, attributing the noises to the young man, though, as a fact, he was actually sitting with us in the parlor when the tumult broke out. A confederate was possible, though we had taken every step to bar it, but the explanation given was absolutely impossible. I learned from this, what I have often confirmed since, that while we should be most critical of all psychic assertions, if we are to get at the truth we should be equally critical of all negatives and especially of so-called "exposures" in this subject. Again and again I have probed them and found them to depend upon prejudice or upon an imperfect acquaintance with psychic law.

Which brings me to another curious experience which occurred at this time, probably in 1898. There was a small doctor dwelling near me, small in stature and also, I fear, in practice, whom I will call Brown. He was a student of the occult, and my curiosity was aroused by learning that he had one room in his house which no one entered except himself, as it was reserved for mystic and philosophic purposes. Finding that I was interested in such subjects, Dr. Brown suggested one day that I should join a secret society of esoteric students. The invitation had been led up to by a good deal of preparatory inquiry. The dialogue between us ran somewhat thus:

"What shall I get from it?"

"In time you will get powers."

"What sort of powers?"

"They are powers which people would call supernatural. They are perfectly natural, but they are got by knowledge of deeper forces of nature."

"If they are good, why should not everyone know them?"

"They would be capable of great abuse in the wrong hands."

"How can you prevent their getting into wrong hands?"

"By carefully examining our initiates."

"Should I be examined?"


"By whom?"

"The people would be in London."

"Should I have to present myself?"

"No, no; they would do it without your knowledge."

"And after that?"

"You would then have to study."

"Study what?"

"You would have to learn by heart a considerable mass of material. That would be the first thing."

"If this material is in print, why does it not become public property?"

"It is not in print. It is in manuscript. Each manuscript is carefully numbered and trusted to the honor of a passed initiate. We have never had a case of one going wrong."

"Well," said I, "it is very interesting, and you can go ahead with the next step, whatever it may be."

Examined by Spirits

Some little time later—it may have been a week — I woke in the very early morning with a most extraordinary sensation. It was not a nightmare or any prank of a dream. It was quite different to that, for it persisted after I was wide awake. I can only describe it by saying that I was tingling all over. It was not painful, but it was queer and disagreeable, as a mild electric shock would be. I thought at once of the little doctor.

In a few days I had a visit from him. "You have been examined and you have passed," said he with a smile. "Now you must say definitely whether will go on with it. You can't take it up and drop it. It is serious, and you must leave it alone or go forward with a whole heart."

It began to dawn upon me that it ally was serious, so serious that there seemed no possible space for it in my very crowded and preoccupied life. I said as much, and he took it in very good part. "Very well," said he, "we won't talk of it any more unless you change your mind."

There was a sequel to the story. A month or two later, on a pouring wet day, the little doctor called, bringing with him another medical man whose name was familiar to me in connection with exploration and tropical service. They sat together beside my study fire and talked. One could not but observe that the famous and much-traveled man was very deferential to the little country surgeon, who was the younger of the two.

"He is one of my initiates," said the latter to me. "You know," he continued, turning to his companion, "Doyle nearly joined us once." The other ooked at me with great interest and then at once plunged into a conversation with his mentor as to the wonder she had seen and, as I understood, actually done. I listened, amazed. It sounded like the talk of two lunatics. One phrase stuck in my memory.

"When first you took me up with you," said he, "and we were hovering over the town I used to live in, in central Africa, I was able for the first time to see the islands out in the lake. I always knew they were there, but they were too far off to be seen from the shore. Was it not extraordinary that I should first see them when I was living in England?"

"Yes," said Brown, smoking his pipe and staring into the fire. "We had some fun in those days. Do you remember how you laughed when we made the little steamboat and it ran along the upper edge of the clouds?"

Belief Came Before the War

There were other remarks as wild. "A conspiracy to impress a simpleton," says the skeptic. Well, we can leave it at that if the skeptic so wills, but I remain under the impression that I brushed against something strange, and something which I am not sorry that I avoided. It was not spiritualism, and it was not theosophy, but rather the acquisition of powers latent in the human organization, after the alleged fashion of the old gnostics or of some modern fakirs in India, though some doubtless perhaps would spell fakirs with an "e." One thing I am very sure of, and that is that morals and ethics have to keep pace with knowledge or all is lost. The Maori cannibals had psychic knowledge and power, but were man eaters none the less. Christian ethics can never lose their place, whatever expansion our psychic faculties may enjoy.

I treasure deeply the associations and contacts that my interest in psychic matters have constantly brought me. I remember that on going down to Buckingham Palace to receive the accolade, I found that all who were waiting for various honors were herded into funny little pens, according to their style and degree, there to await their turn. It chanced that Professor Oliver Lodge, who was knighted on the same morning, was penned with me, and we plunged at once into psychic talk, which made me forget where I was or what I was there for. Lodge was really more advanced and certain in his views than I was at that time, but I was quite sure about the truth of the phenomena, and only doubtful whether some alternative explanation might be found for a disincarnate intelligence as the force at the back of them. This possibility I weighed for years before the evidence forced me to the spiritist conclusion. But when, among the cloud of lies with which we are constantly girt, I read that Lodge and I were converted to our present views by the death of our respective sons, my mind goes back very clearly to that exchange of thought in 1902.

During the next dozen happy years I did not lose my interest in psychic matters; but I cannot say that I increased my grasp of the religious or spiritual side of the subject. I read, however, and investigated whenever the chance arose. A gentleman had arranged a series of psychical seances, and I attended them, the mediums being Cecil Husk and Craddock. They left a very mixed impression upon my mind, for in some cases I was filled with suspicion and in others I was quite sure that the results were genuine. The possibility that a genuine medium may be unscrupulous and that when these very elusive forces fail to act he may simulate them is one which greatly complicates the whole subject, but one can only concentrate upon what one is sure is true, and try to draw conclusions from that.

I remember that many sheeted ghosts walked about in the dim light of a red lamp on these occasions, and that some of them came close to me, within a foot of my face, and illuminated their features by the light of a phosphorescent slate held below them. One splendid Arab, whom the medium called Abdullah, came in this fashion. I was looking hard at this strange being, its nose a few inches from my own, and was wondering whether it could be some very clever bust of wax, when in an instant the mouth opened and a terrific yell was emitted. I nearly jumped out of my chair. I saw clearly the gleaming teeth and the red tongue. It certainly seemed that he had read my thought and had taken this very effective way of answering it.

Our household suffered terribly in the war. The first to fall was my wife's brother, Malcolm Leckie of the Army Medical Service, whose gallantry was so conspicuous that he was awarded a posthumous D.S.O. While he was actually dying himself, with shrapnel in his chest, he had the wounded to his bedside and bandaged them. Then came the turn of Miss Loder Symonds, who lived with us and was a beloved member of the family. Three of her brothers were killed and the fourth wounded. Finally, on an evil day for us, she also passed on. Then two brave nephews, Alec Forbes and Oscar Hornung, went down with bullets through the brain. My gallant brother-in-law, Major Oldham, was killed by a sniper during his first days in the trenches. And then finally, just as all seemed over, I had a double low. First it was my Kingsley, my only son by the first marriage, one of the grandest boys in body and soul that ever a father was blessed with. He had started the war as a private, worked up to an acting captaincy in the First Hampshires, and been very badly wounded on the Somme. It was pneumonia which slew him in London, and the same cursed plague carried off my soldier brother Innes, he who had shared my humble strivings at Southsea so many years ago. A career lay before him, for he was only forty and already adjutant general of a corps, with the Legion of Honor, and a great record of service. But he was called and he went like the hero he was. "You do not complain at all, sir," said the orderly. "I am a soldier," said the dying general.

Thank God that I have since found that the gates are not shut, but only ajar if one does but show earnestness in the quest. Of all these that I have mentioned, there is but one from whom I have been unable to obtain clear proof of posthumous existence.

This is the first of a series of three articles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The next will deal with his adventures in politics. The third will tell how he discovered Sherlock Holmes.