The Catholic Register explores the transition of Conan Doyle from Catholicism to the charlatanry of spiritualism…

“from 1918 onwards, books and bookshops, lectures and lecture tours were to follow, as Conan Doyle became the “Saint Paul of Spiritualism.” From then on, he was to expend more energy on this newfound belief in Spiritualism than on anything else. As a result, by the time of his death in 1930, his reputation lay in tatters.”

Such a pity he didn’t transfer such stuff into some wild and weird fiction, although to some he might seem to have touched on such things by 1910. For instance, when Sherlock Holmes steps down to Cornwall in 1910 (“The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot”), the reader also gets a lecture on possible Cornish Phoenician links that may extend (it is later barely hinted) not only to the Mediterranean but even into lost empires in Africa. This might sound to us like crackpot territory, yet for the Edwardians this was still a plausible though as-yet unproven hypothesis.

But spiritualism is definitely crackpot territory, then as now, and one can’t help but regret not being able to read the adventures and science-fantasies Doyle could have written after the war if he had not gone chasing after the fairies. I’m no Doyle expert beyond multiple readings of Holmes and knowing a bit about the West Midlands biographical connections and some related provincial stories, but after 1918 I see only the spiritualist apologia novel The Land of Mist (1926). As Lovecraft remarked several times in letters of the 1920s (I paraphrase from memory): ‘why don’t these deluded fellows pour their delusions into fiction, as they’d be far more fulfilled and their readers far more entertained.’

Of course, at that point in time even spiritualism and its ilk wasn’t quite so clear cut. The state of science was such that it wasn’t altogether implausible to suppose that ‘the fairies might be proved by science’ at any moment, even if they turned out to be early-morning dew-shapes forming in the air on electrical ‘kirlian’ coronal discharges from flowers, rather than diminutive nymphs with floaty dresses and dreamy smiles. One can equally see how it could have been just-about supposed that mediumship, ‘spiritual healing’, ESP, precognition, time-travel, aether-inhabiting ghosts, stone-circle construction via telekinetic levitation of rocks on ley-lines, and many other previously nebulous or uncertain ‘psychic’ phenomena were about to be somehow ‘proved’ or even ‘enabled’ by the new sciences. That was part of the attraction of such things I suppose, at that liminal moment of circa 1918-1928.

Much the same was true of mainstream archaeology and sound philology, then revealing vast new sweeps of time and major lost civilisations such as the Babylonians. One can see how easy it would have been in 1921 to imagine the steam-shovels digging down just another few feet to discover traces of a Conan-like Hyperborea, or an irrefutable fragment of some lost Atlantean super-civilisation, or just a Phoenician city-port under Roman London.

For further reading on the science angle here, an excellent survey book on the close intertwining of science and the occult is TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information. I can’t immediately think of a similarly sweeping and high-quality history of the ‘lost archaeology and languages’ angle, on the interplay of real discovery and imaginative speculation, but I’d welcome hearing about it if one exists.