Kansas author Max McCoy talks ghosts, con artists and Old West spiritualism while signing copies of his latest novel at Boot Hill, the home base of his series' surprising heroine.
Audiences always seem surprised to hear that not only the 19th century Dodge City in his latest series about a trans-medium investigator comes from the history books, but also the ghost whispering and spiritualism, author Max McCoy said.
McCoy signed books and described the Victorian-era spiritualism at a launch event for the second book in his Ophelia Wylde series, "The Spirit is Willing," at the Longbranch Saloon in the Boot Hill Museum.
The paranormal abilities discovered by series star Ophelia Wylde after being buried alive on Boot Hill in the first book, "Of Grave Concern," were rooted in manuals about spiritualism, a trend that followed the mass death of the Civil War, he said.
"Death became an industry of its own," McCoy said. Some of those practices, like the modern funeral industry and embalming, follow from that era.
It has a contemporary feel to it, McCoy said, though "It has remained unchanged since the 19th century trans-mediums." Some of the rules of trans-medium communication — speaking with the dead — both preserves the narrative tension and stays close to the rules created — or discovered, depending on your point of view — more than a century ago.
Among those rules are that the spirit survives corporeal death and can communicate with the living, though with catches. All ghosts, as viewers of the film remake of "Casper the Friendly Ghost," "The Sixth Sense," or "Dead Like Me," will know, have unfinished business that keeps them from passing onto the next realm.
Ghosts also cannot lie but they can also not be asked direct questions like, "Who killed you?"
This knowledge and "blue books", names and information about prominent families, was passed among members of spiritualist networks as guidebooks for getting people to exchange cash for knowledge of loved ones beyond the veil.
There was less skepticism about the paranormal then. In his research for the novels, McCoy came across news clippings of walking dead in Guthrie, Okla., and sightings of "mystery airships," UFOs, were relatively common items in newspapers, though several hoaxes by bored, underpaid newspapermen were also exposed.
McCoy, a former investigative reporter and a professor of journalism at Emporia State University, said that while paranormal experiences might extend beyond believability for some readers, the people, places and time have to be thoroughly researched.
Authenticity is a major part of creating a world for the stories to live. McCoy tried to get Dodge City as right as he could, he said. "I feel that's my responsibility as a writer." Plus, "A reader knows when you're just faking it."
Ophelia Wylde is a different kind of character for McCoy in that she has a generally benevolent view of the world, and unlike his other Old West characters, she doesn't know a lick about guns or gunplay.
Wylde, a dedicated suffragist, is based on the first woman to run for the U.S. presidency, Victoria Woodhull, who also fought for labor and women's rights, made a fortune on the New York Stock Exchange and claimed to be a medium.
"She's been sort of surprising in her reactions," McCoy said of Wylde, and a lot of fun to write.
McCoy is working on his third Ophelia Wylde story.
Though Wylde travels out of Dodge City to Colorado in the latest novel, "Her home base is always going to be in Dodge City, particularly here at Boot Hill," McCoy said.
"What better place for a psychic detective in the Old West than Boot Hill?" he added.
"The Spirit is Willing" was released on July 1 by publisher Kensington Books and is now available in paperback and e-book at major retailers.
The first novel of the series, "Of Grave Concern," was named a 2014 Kansas Notable Book.