The Painter of Spirits

by Brian Stableford

cover by Daniele Serra

Paul Furneret, a young artist working in Paris in 1901, is invited to attend a séance at Camille Flammarion’s observatory after having participated in an experiment in “automatic drawing” at another séance a week earlier, in which he drew a picture, while unconscious under hypnosis, of a young woman recognized by one of the participants as his dead daughter. Paul’s friend Victor Marvaud is unable to accompany him to Juvisy, as arranged, because a ship carrying another of their friends, Gaston Lambrunet, has struck a rock in the Channel, and although all the passengers have been put into lifeboats, the lifeboat containing Gaston’s mother and sister has not yet reached land. Victor insists however, that Flammarion’s séance is too important for him to miss, and in order to make sure that he gets there he has asked his physician, Antoine Cros, to take Paul to the observatory in his stead.

The skeptical Cros is also escorting the writer Jane de La Vaudère to the séance, who has previously taken part in Flammarion’s experiments, and the two of them provide Paul with a great deal of food for thought on the journey. Their contrasted perspectives become all the more significant when Paul, hypnotized by a “magnetizer” named Zosima, produces four images, including one of Gaston’s sister, whose lifeboat still has not landed yet, Dr. Cros’s late brother Charles, and a woman tentatively identified by a member of the audience as Jane’s long-dead mother. Cros tries hard to provide a naturalistic explanations of what Paul has done, but the uncertainty as to the fate of the lifeboat helps to makes Paul’s art-work and its apparent supernatural nature into headline news, spurring the chief participants in the séance to meet up again in Dr. Cros’s house the following night in order to discuss the personal and theoretical implications of Paul’s seeming ability to draw the dead, albeit unconsciously.

A second experiment produces even more challenging results, which throw Paul’s life into dire confusion, nearly cost a young model her life, and also affect the lives of his new acquaintances, at least peripherally, leaving Paul with difficult dilemmas to address and an intriguing metaphysical mystery to resolve.