“Myra was a sensitive, a medium, a para-normal. And a genuine one; she believed in what she did. She was a rarity among those of her profession, in that she didn’t have the usual curtained cabinet, or use trumpets, tambourines, guitars or any of the trappings synonymous with spiritualism; at her séances there were no table-movings, or raps or materializations; she didn’t even have a spirit control. But she understood why many sensitives, even highly gifted ones, employed all the fancywork; the public wanted a show, and even a medium has to live. But Myra couldn’t stoop to it, though she was sure that these manifestations sometimes had supranormal causation. She wanted no hint of charlatanism connected to her work. It was sacred to her.”
Séance on a Wet Afternoon is the story of a middle-aged British psychic named Myra Savage who longs to be famous in her field. She holds séances three times a week in her modest home, and while these séances grant a “bare living” for Myra and her pliable husband, Bill, money is not the motivating force behind her desire for fame. Rather, she longs to become “established as a sensitive of the first order.” Although Myra holds séances, she doesn’t believe that she communicates with the dead. Instead she relies on her powers of telepathy–several instances of this are revealed over the course of the book, and she also believes in the existence of discarnate spirits. Once Myra becomes famous and respected in her field, she fully expects to be embraced by the other “sensitives” and perhaps cross “the bourne of nature.” Finally, she wishes to develop a relationship with an older para-normal, “one almost ready for the journey beyond the veil,” so that she may then later have an “entity” to contact “on the other side.” Whether or not readers share, or partially share Myra’s beliefs is really beside the point because that’s not the issue here. Instead the novel concerns a woman who’s prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to get what she wants: she’s about to commit a criminal act in order to achieve her goals.
When the story opens, Myra has concocted a plan that will make her famous, and for that plan, she pressures her asthmatic husband into becoming her accomplice. The plan is to kidnap a child of wealthy parents, issue a ransom note and for Myra to then make an appearance on the scene and announce the location of the child–through her psychic powers–to the worried parents, the press and to the police. According to Myra, this will catapult her to psychic success. And here’s the curious thing about Myra–while she refuses to “stoop” to cheap tricks in order to enhance her professional image, she’s perfectly ok, morally, with kidnapping a child and thus manufacturing an event that will supposedly reveal her psychic powers:
The fact that her reputation would rest on a fraud didn’t disturb her. It was cheating for an honourable end.
Myra’s intensity (bordering on fanaticism) combined with her twisted morality have made her a dangerous person. There are no limits to her burning desire for psychic fame, and on her own perhaps Myra would spin endless fantasies that die a natural death, but she browbeats her husband into becoming her accomplice and then she’s unleashed….
Séance on a Wet Afternoon is a fascinating, unique read. Myra ultimately settles on crime as the solution for her desire for fame–just as bank robbers are driven to make the one ‘big score.’ In this sense, Myra isn’t so different from all the other people who dwell on their fantasies and then decide to take action to make those fantasies into reality through a criminal act.
On another level, Séance on a Wet Afternoon is the story of a marriage, and as the story plays out, it’s clear that Bill and Myra, pathetic people individually, make a toxic combination. With a husband, who was less complacent, Myra would be de-fanged; Bill, who’s clearly afraid to refuse Myra’s demands, empowers her insane ambitions, and make no mistake, Myra is insane. As the chapters unfold, Myra’s history is gradually revealed along with the significant psychic events of her youth and her past employment as a conjurer’s assistant, a clairvoyant’s aid, and a mind-reader’s assistant. It’s the introduction of the six-year-old kidnapped child into Myra and Bill’s household that highlights the true pathological nature of their marriage and their twisted thinking, for to Myra, the child is merely a means to an end–an object who exists to fulfill her greatest ambition.
While Myra is supremely confident about her plan, Bill is increasingly nervous and troubled, and here’s his twisted moral justification for the kidnapping diluted down from Myra’s arguments:
He hadn’t been able to concentrate, on anything, since the conception of the Plan. There was always a little worry nagging at the back of his mind. It wasn’t the implementation itself; he’d done the first of the two major jobs scheduled, and was so pleased with the way he’d succeeded that the fear of doing the second had been reduced; the rest was up to his wife. It wasn’t the rights and the wrongs of the scheme now; although he had never in his life knowingly done a wrong thing, he condoned the illegal act because Myra said it was a means to an end that would benefit mankind, and he believed what Myra said; she also said it was only technically illegal, since they had no intentions of keeping the money and the child would be returned safely; she conceded that it was in a way morally wrong to abduct a child, but it was only for three or four days, and there was no question of ill-treatment; it was almost like a little holiday.
For film fans, Séance on a Wet Afternoon was made into an incredible film directed by Bryan Forbes and starring Richard Attenborough and Kim Stanley.