“The meaning of life is that it stops” – Franz Kafka
The next great novel or timeless short story is out there being written as we speak, capturing the ethos of a generation, changing our view of literature, or merrily sending the moral majority into righteous seizures. That is, if the author doesn’t die first. Death has some unfortunate repercussions on an author’s productivity. As Johnny Carson observed, “For three days after death, hair and fingernails continue to grow, but phone calls taper off”, and for most would-be wordsmiths literary output goes into sharp decline. Without a functioning nervous system, it’s kind of tough to hold a pen. And most agents are strangely reluctant to take calls from the undead, even for 10% of your posthumous earnings. There are a few notable exceptions where a writer achieves fame in death that eluded them in life, but most dead writers just rot quietly and hope their existing corpus of work represents a portfolio worthy of eternal reward. Surprisingly, there are other options. Philadelphian native-son, writer, and humorist Franklin Richard Stockton, best known for dashing off decidedly unpreachy, but nonetheless popular fairy tales for children, had the misfortune to die from a cerebral hemorrhage on April 20, 1902 at the age of 68. Funerals tend to be a turning point in most people’s lives in so far as they assume their work is done. Not Stockton. He still had something to say, and he wasn’t going to let a minor technicality like being dead get in the way of his literary career.
In order to ensure the continued publication of his work after his expiration, Stockton had a few hurdles to overcome. Most notably, being dead. Luckily, the turn of the 20th Century was the heyday of Spiritualism in English-speaking countries. Spiritualism wasn’t so much a monolithic belief system, as a loose theological confederation of millions of folks who shared the belief that the dead have both the ability and the inclination to communicate with the living. Now, the spiritualists had a plethora of ways to chat with the dead, usually through some sort of spirit medium, or rather a human gifted with the ability to see dead people. Well, talk to dead people, anyway. Séances get old after a while. You can only take so much ectoplasm and table rapping before it seems a little trite, so spiritualists were always on the lookout for new ways of getting the most out of their incorporeal conversation partners, and one method that developed was “automatic writing”. Spiritualists maintained that sprits could take control of the hand of a medium, and with practice could guide a Ouija planchette, or write a message on a piece of paper. Dead people can be surprisingly clever. The cryptic figures that often resulted were held to be Enochian, Martian, or one of many obscure languages attributed to the deceased or spiritually enlightened, and frequently required learned interpretation by those versed in occult linguistics. But Frank Stockton prided himself on being a man of letters, and like most writers tended to resent editors. He had to find the right medium if he was going to publish from the grave. Enter amateur medium Miss Etta De Camp.
How exactly Stockton and De Camp entered into their strange working relationship is not clear, as it seems they never knew each other in life, and De Camp only vaguely remembered reading one or two of Stockton’s stories as a child. In 1909, De Camp, in an appendix to her work with Stockton described herself as teaching seven hours a day and simply engaged in material affairs when she decided to try her hand at automatic writing, quickly finding she had a knack for it. At first she seemed to be unconsciously producing only doodles and geometric figures. I’m going to assume she was an English teacher, as the relative incomprehensibility of her first forays into automatic writing peeved her so much, she declared aloud, “If there is a spirit here who would like to communicate with me he must write more legibly” (Stockton, 1913, p286). Once these parameters were established, her automatic writing became more prolific and legible, with messages purportedly arriving from two Native Americans named “Blackfoot” and “Two Feathers”, a male named “Lafayette” (although Ms. De Camp said she did not know if it was the famous French aristocrat Marquis de Lafayette), and her deceased father (with information she did not know, corroborated by her mother as being true). It seems that perhaps Stockton had found himself some undead literary representation, since shortly thereafter, during an automatic writing session, she wrote, “We will bring you the spirit of an author who wishes his stories written.” The next night Frank Stockton took control of her hand, and work began. It seems like there ought to be union rules about this sort of thing, but Stockton used De Camp to write out a series of new short stories, culminating in the book, which I feel we can only refer to as Stockton’s “magnum corpus opus”, The Return of Frank R. Stockton. We must credit Stockton with at least having the common decency to die first before boasting of his “return”, whereas many other authors are simply referring to a second attempt after an initial critical failure. As the circumstances of his undead authorship were novel to say the least, Stockton, through De Camp felt a little explanation was in order, so he dictated a preface in the form of a letter to Ms. De Camp.
January 27th, 1912. My dear Madam: We must work with all possible speed on my stories as I have to give way soon to the others who are to follow me. They feel I have written enough to make myself known to the public and so wish me to retire and give them a chance. If you want a few good short stories before I go I will give them to you and go over any of the old ones you wish to keep. The first were intended merely for exercises, training you to receive the others, and were really given to you as practice Work. The stories have all been thought out here on this plane which accounts for some difference in style, plot and location. One on this plane can readily visit any part of the world he wishes. This seems strange and hard to believe, yet it is true. I now know the London fog as well as I do the worst features of New York climate in its extreme changeableness. My association with many English writers, whom I have met in this life, has taken me to London most of my time, and that accounts for the difference in style and the English atmosphere of the stories which were thought out under those conditions. My “Pirates Three” are New England boys, for that story I had in mind before the great change overtook me and stopped my work for a while, it naturally is typical of my old stories. You see, my dear Madam, while we do not change our personality here, we can change our environment. There is now no reason why I cannot spend as much time in England as in America. But it was necessary for me to get back to my old haunts to do my writing in order to prove my identity, which would have been impossible for me to do while in London, just as it will be necessary for the English writers to return to and write in their own environment, as I informed you before, and which may be the reason for your going later to England. Their work could be done here but they would not do as well as in their own natural surroundings. We have taken up much of our time with this talk, but I feel it is necessary to make the explanation as a preface to the short stories with the English atmosphere. Frank R. Stockton (Stockton, 1913, p11-12).
The Theosophist, a major spiritualist organ gave glowing reviews to Stockton and De Camp’s unique literary achievement, although arguably dead people have been forcing the living to take dictation for thousands of years. Yeah, I’m looking at you Jesus. At any rate, the editors of the Theosophist concluded that stylistically, the work could be none other than that of Stockton.
The claim made for this collection of short stories is that they were automatically written through the instrumentality of Miss Etta de Camp, an amateur medium. Mr. Stockton was anxious in this way to convince the public that he is still able to write. His letters to Miss De Camp automatically written down and a chapter, ‘ Why I know that Frank R. Stockton writes through me,’ give circumstantial evidence as to the truth of Mr. Stockton’s claim and to Miss De Camp’s bona fides, which latter seems indubitable. The Society for Psychic Research in America has investigated the case and taken possession of her original MSS. Mr. Floyd B. Wilson, an investigator of experience, in his summary which concludes the book, and after a thorough investigation, writes: “Stockton evidently wrote these stories.” For having carefully compared them with Mr. Stockton’s other work, he finds internal evidence, “the inexplainable something” which stamps an author’s personality and output in this curiously produced book. The stories and their mode of production have naturally aroused a great deal of comment in America, but to the Theosophist who has learnt something of the after-death conditions, Miss De Camp’s story, the part she personally plays, and Mr. Stockton’s ability to work through her, and his continued literary interest and activity after death are no new things, but are valuable as adding to the gradually accumulating mass of first-hand and positive evidence that “at death not all of me shall die”. The stories are of the humorous nature generally associated with Mr. Stockton’s name, though two or three have a psychic interest, and the book is well worth reading by all who like a good story or are interested in psychic phenomena (Theosophical Society, 1914, p771).
This is a cautionary tale for those struggling authors out there. Perhaps you feel you’re in a hurry. Maybe you worry your staggering work of genius must be published before you draw your last breath, or the world will be deprived of deep and meaningful insights and complex symbolism that English teachers can fawn over for generations to come. Maybe you’re right, and all the misunderstandings and heartbreak of your mortal existence have been distilled in a work of monumental importance, if you can just finish it before the alcohol, the drugs, insanity, or poor choice of acquaintances consumes you. Well don’t fret my friend. It turns out an author is an author, even after he’s dead. Slow down. Mellow out. Don’t take yourself so seriously. After all, as author Gene Fowler said, “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead”.
Stockton, Frank Richard, 1834-1902 (Spirit). Return of Frank R. Stockton: … Stories and Letters Which Cannot Fail to Convince the Reader That Frank R. Stockton Still Lives and Writes Through the Instrumentality of Miss Etta De Camp. London: William Rider & Son, 1913.
“Reviews”. Theosophical Society (Madras, India). The Theosophist 35:5 (February). Adyar, etc.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1914.