The Making of Smithy
Somewhere in my storage unit are my notes from Dr. Des Lauriers’s physical anthropology class sixteen years ago; scribbled in the margins is the phrase, “Leonora Piper = Kanzi.” Perhaps even then I was connecting primate language with the psychic world. Still, it was another ten years before I began to write my first published novel, Smithy, which would blend elements of both.
Back then, I was struck by a common criticism of primates using language. Many times, researchers fail to obtain consistent results with their non-human subjects (much as different paranormal researchers may not be able to obtain the same number of hits from their sensitives every time). The results are open to varying interpretations. Some critics suggest that researchers see what they want to see and allow themselves to be manipulated by their subjects.
Where psychic research was concerned, Piper was considered to be a highly gifted psychic (so good, that British researchers even hatched a test: to have her steal the crown jewels using telekinesis) until she began to commit flagrant fraud. Though Piper claimed she was having a bad day and simply didn’t want to disappoint her expectant testers, the documented instances of chicanery threw all her prior accomplishments into doubt.
Where primate research was concerned, many of the messages from ape subjects—such as Koko, Nim Chimpsky, and Kanzi—communicated through hand signs or lexigram symbols, are vague and elliptical, generating different translations from different human investigators. Not only do the content of primates’ messages come under fire; skeptics also suggest that the apes are not actually communicating at all, they’re just responding to cues from the humans, delivering the responses they’ve been conditioned to understand will result in a reward.
Smithy is a story about a chimpanzee who may or may not be able to communicate using American Sign Language. The question of whether he can or can’t turns on the meaning of the messages he produces, messages that make no sense unless the researchers examining Smithy are willing to consider a wild possibility.
Smithy is able to communicate—with a ghost!
This premise occurred to me through lucky happenstance. While searching the local library for a DVD to watch one night, I ran across the documentary Project Nim about Nim Chimpsky, the subject of an early primate language study. I remembered studying Nim in my college anthropology class, and I was interested in his story. The documentary unfolded a fascinating, often painful, history of an idealistic study and an animal exploited by humans. Students from Columbia University moved with the chimp into a mansion called Delafield that the university provided gratis for their use. There, they raised Nim as if he were a child, dressing him in clothes and teaching him to do chores and perform basic hygiene, and also teaching him sign language.
At the same time, I was reading A Natural History of Ghosts by Roger Clarke. I had been fascinated by the paranormal when I was young and frequently read “true ghost story” books, but this was the first one I had picked up in about 10-15 years. It touched on a number of familiar stories, but provided information I hadn’t known before. For instance, I had read many discussions of the haunting of Borley Rectory, said to be the most haunted house in England and investigated in the 1930s by flamboyant ghost hunter Harry Price. However, what I didn’t know was that Price recruited members of the idle rich to help him investigate the house. His assistants had to be independently wealthy because he made them pay their own room and board.
I read this information about Price and Borley Rectory the day after I had watched the documentary, and I thought, “What a cheapskate! The volunteers in Project Nim got to stay in their house for free.”
Boom! In comparing the investigation of the chimp to the investigation of the haunted house, I inadvertently linked them. I began to think about what would have happened if Nim Chimpsky had been raised and taught at Borley Rectory instead of Delafield. After all, if the student researchers hadn’t had university housing available, they would have had to find their own place—and they might have ended up in a place like Borley Rectory: large, empty, and highly affordable to rent. Most houses are so affordable for a specific reason.
How might the phenomena recorded at Borley Rectory—mysterious fires, flying bricks, messages scrawled on the walls—have been blamed on a chimpanzee, which animals are notorious for being able to get out of “secure” enclosures and for getting into mischief, instead of attributed to a ghost? Moreover, what would the language researchers have thought if their chimp had suddenly started signing as if in conversation with someone when no one else was in the room? Or what if he signed about another person being in the room when no one else was visible? Would they assume that he was only making signs at random and their experiment was a bust? Would they believe the chimp could see and talk to another presence invisible to the human eye? After all, animals are supposed to be able to see ghosts even when people can’t.
In keeping with the epistolary format of Smithy, here is the e-mail in which I first discussed my idea for the novel with a friend, almost six years to the day before, Smithy was finally published:
I kept thinking about the scenario of the chimp in a haunted house, but it seemed more like a joke than a viable plot. Several months went by before I finally decided to try writing the story. Initially, I considered writing a screenplay, a faux documentary in the style of The Atticus Institute, to mimic Project Nim, the film that had inspired me. I wanted my story to feel believable despite being so far-fetched. In order to make it seem like something that could really happen, I wanted to treat it as something that had really happened. Although parts of Smithy were written in screenplay format (in fact, I wrote chunks of it in a screenwriting class that I was taking through the community college), I ultimately decided that prose would be the best way to explore he scenario and get into my (human) characters’ heads. But I still wanted to maintain a sense of verisimilitude. The best way to do that, I thought, was by making Smithy an epistolary novel, like Dracula or Carrie, and telling the story through letters, diaries, journal articles, news reports, and transcripts.
I still had a big problem though. My concept for Smithy was largely based on details of famous British hauntings, specifically Borley Rectory. However, I had never been to England. I didn’t think I could credibly fake an English setting no matter how many books I might read about life in the countryside or in a manor house. I was already set on the idea that the purported ghost might have been a servant in the big house during its heyday.
Fortunately, I have been to New England before. Every year, for the past 11 years (except 2020—hiss!), I have visited Newport, Rhode Island. Newport is renowned for its mansions. Those mansions would have had servants. I thought I could write about people living in Newport, RI and working with a chimpanzee in a haunted mansion. After all, when I stay in Newport, it’s in a purportedly haunted mansion.
Over the next few weeks, I plan to share more details about the influences that have shaped this novel. I hope that you will find them as fascinating as I did. Perhaps they will inspire you too.