Take an investigative journalist and non-fiction author like Michael Schmicker, with a history of reporting on unusual phenomenon, turn his imagination loose and what you get is an engrossing historical novel like The Witch of Napoli. What happens when someone with faith in gifts she doesn’t understand comes up against skeptical scientific minds at the turn of the 20th century?
“I shall not commit the fashionable stupidity of regarding everything I cannot explain as a fraud.” Carl Jung, Speech to the Society for Psychical Research. 1919.
It’s 1899 and we’re in Naples, Italy. Alessandra Poverelli has only one thing going for her in her life, she has an amazing gift. She can communicate with the dead. It brings great comfort to those who come to her, seeking one last visit with someone close to them who has passed away. And at that time in Italy, for example, every family has children who died far too early in the cholera outbreaks that sweep the country from time to time. It soothes grieving mothers to know their children are at peace and to tell them one last time how much they love them.
As a medium, Alessandra doesn’t just communicate with the Napoli dead; she also moves objects and even lifts séance tables. A young local newspaper reporter, Tomaso Labella, is quite taken with her even before he sees her do these things in person and deduces that she is performing her feats legitimately. He finally gets her permission to try to capture some of her feats on film for the newspaper, and is ecstatic when he manages to capture a great photo of the table in mid-flight.
“I was 16 years old.
When the Mattino sent me out to do the first story on her, Allesandra was almost 40 years old. She was performing weekly séances at the apartment of Dr. Ercole Rossi, a professor of philosophy at the University of Naples and the head of the Spiritualist Society of Naples. He was her principal admirer at the time…
Professor Rossi attended one of Allesandra’s séances, watched a chair waltz itself across the floor without anyone touching it, and converted to Spiritualism.
Rossi wrote a letter to the Mattino about what he witnessed, and Venzano, our editor, sniffed a good story. The séance and table-tilting craze was sweeping Europe…and the Pope was issuing papal bulls warning us about talking to spirits, so why not do a story on our own Allesandra.”
“I owe her.
Alessandra was my first photograph for the Mattino – the assignment that launched my newspaper career. Of course, she owed me as well – my photo made her famous…She never forgot that.”
That photo changes Alessandra’s and Tomaso’s lives for good because it’s seen all over Italy, bringing it to the attention of Camillo Lombardi. Lombardi is a spiritualism skeptic, a scientist, and an evolutionist. He comes to Naples intent on exposing Alessandra for the fraud he believes her to be. How dare she take advantage of grieving widows and mothers? What he didn’t bargain for was what he found when he experienced one of her séances. Not only did she connect with his mother but, through her, his mother spoke of things no one but the two of them knew. The impossible had suddenly become a possibility.
“Her large eyes, filled with strange fire, sparkled in their orbits, or again seemed filled with swift gleams of phosphorescent fire, sometimes bluish, sometimes golden. If I did not fear that the metaphor was too easy when it concerns a Neapolitan woman, I should say that her eyes appear like the glowing lava fires of Vesuvius, seen from a distance in a dark night.”
Although Lombardi’s staunch beliefs have taken a direct hit, he’s determined to test Allesandra further and proposes to her that she tour Europe with him and allow various scientists of note to put her abilities to their tests to validate them. Although Alessandra loves Naples, she lives with Pigotti, an abusive man with gang ties who she can’t wait to escape. Lombardi’s financial offer, if she perseveres throughout the testing period, would also mean she could move to Rome and have her dream apartment with a balcony. Lombardi even contracts with Tomaso to join them as her translator and to help support her in sticking to their deal even if the testing gets difficult. Tomaso is thrilled because he’s fallen head over heels for this older woman and is happy to get her away from her toxic situation with Pigotti.
And so they begin Lombardi’s own rigorous scientific and medical testing, a very trying ordeal to say the least and one that takes a toll on Alessandra’s health. Still she remains optimistic, continuing to have faith in her gifts and to demonstrate them as instructed – often despite onerous conditions. As they tour Europe, she astounds the leading scientists and other skeptics everywhere she goes. Soon she’s the talk of the continent. This fame, however, takes a further huge toll on her health. No one has bargained for what her gift takes from her when overused but she’s determined to see it through. Her reputation grows to a celebrity status none of them could have predicted as more and more scientists come on board, believing she actually has some kind of gift or talent they cannot explain away despite their comprehensive tests. Could spiritualism and the ability to communicate with the dead be real?
And the more they are together, the more Lombardi comes to not just believe in Alessandra but the more he begins to care for her – and, although she hesitates to believe it, she begins to think it might be possible that she could have a kind of normal life she never dreamed of. He worries for her health, urging her to cut back on her demonstrations until she can recover. He doesn’t want to lose this amazing woman but she resists, insisting that she fulfill the contract they made.
What Alessandra, Tomaso, and not even Lombardi realize is that the attention she has been getting has not escaped the attention of someone obsessively determined to prove that no one on earth can perform such feats. Alessandra has made a powerful, cruel, and ruthless enemy without even knowing it.
Nothing is simple in this novel, including all of the people in it. Is Alessandra telekinetic (a talent unknown at that time)? Can she legitimately communicate with the dead or is she gifted in ferreting out information to use on the naïve and unsuspecting? Alessandra is not just some run-of-the-mill medium and the men who grow to adore her are just as complex. Has Lombardi become a love-struck fool or is he able to keep his scientific objectivity? Who is this shadowy enemy and what sinister plans does he have for her?
In The Witch of Napoli, Michael Schmicker has taken the turn of the century’s intense love of spiritualism and juxtaposed it against still prevalent Victorian mores and ruthless scientific inquiry – all while providing us with an insider’s view of the European continent in that period. He actually was inspired by a real Italian medium, Eusapia Palladino, who allegedly performed baffling and amazing feats. On top of that, he’s given us characters whose story creates instant empathy. I was glued to this novel from Page 1 and stayed glued, even when I suspected how it might turn out. The Witch of Napoli will make an excellent read for historical fiction fans, whether you believe in ghosts and such powerful gifts or not. And the e-book is only $3.99 – a real steal!
Can’t wait to read it?
The Witch of Napoli was published on January 2, 2015, so it’s available from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks). Although it’s available in all formats, you can download it as an e-book and have it to read instantly! And if you’re a Kindle Unlimited member, it’s free – can’t beat that!
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