It was an evening at the end of summer.   Many of we students of English and other languages were contemplating our future.  

So it was with curiosity and a sense of intrigue that we accepted an invitation to go to a seance in an old stone house in Forest Hill, just down the street from Upper Canada College.

I say we and I mean those of us who felt a sense of kinship in our pursuit of art and knowledge.   We were a kind of elite, we thought, devoted to the study of literature for its own sake.   Among us there were Bob and Sue and Anne, Elaine and Elana and Debbie.  And me and my fiancee.

We gathered there around the empty fireplace and enjoyed wine and crackers and cheese.   This house was Anne’s father’s and he allowed her to use it for the evening although she usually lived with her mother.

Bob and Anne and Debbie were enthusiastically telling us of the seances they had already held and although they gave a surface impression of detachment and objectivity, I could tell they were hovering on the edge of true belief.

“Well, we got some messages that were a little garbled, but they were full, grammatical sentences,” said Debbie.

“We felt that if we got a larger group together this evening to use the OUIJA board, we could give a stronger channel for whatever spiritual energy is out there to manifest itself.”

“You mean a ghost?” I asked in disbelief and smiled.

Bob caught the smile.

“Not necessarily a specific ghost, maybe just a general spiritual energy that we cannot sense through ordinary means.  And I am not joking.”

This latter was for my benefit, I could tell.  As others around the room seemed to take this talk seriously I decided to keep my peace.

“Might as well see what happens,” I thought.

Anne invited us to come sit in the kitchen around the large wooden table where they had set up their OUIJA board, just as we heard the rumble of thunder and the patter of rain on the windows. 

The rain became heavier and we could hear the large trees shaking in the wind outside.

I could barely contain my mirth when Debbie explained how it worked, as we sat down, distributed as evenly as possible around the perimeter.

“There are all the letters of the alphabet around the table plus the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ opposite and across from each other.  There is a small glass in the middle of the table on which all of us will place one finger.  Bob will ask the Board questions and the glass, taking all our energies into account will go towards letters or the yes-no responses, depending of course on the kind of question asked.  You are all placed evenly around the table so that no one person can control the movement of the glass and the responses will constitute the sum of our individual psyches and perhaps, some outside energy if we can succeed in tapping it.”

Anne stood up and said, “I’ll get the lights.”

But as she went towards the light switch, there was a flash and loud crack.  All the lights went out and we were in the semi-dark of the summer evening.

We laughed nervously as Anne went to check on the power and came back with a flashlight and candles after about ten minutes.

“Well, we can start without these lights because there’s still a bit of evening light left, but if we continue, we’ll use the candles.  I phoned Hydro and apparently, there’s some kind of power failure.  They couldn’t tell me when we would have power back.”

I secretly suspected her of having someone pull the breakers to snuff the light, just to add to the mysterious atmosphere but I admit, I am a bit of a skeptic about such things.

We started the seance in the light of flickering candles and flashlight.

It turned out that, given out common interest in English literature, Bob decided to focus on literary mysteries such as whether the Bronte sisters had written other novels and whether their brother had written anything of significance that we did not know about.

Through our joint efforts we discovered that Mr. Bronte had written a book called “The Keep on Gallows Howe” but that it had been lost.

As we continued, I discoved a truth that the other participants had not considered.   I was a basketball player and athlete.   My arms and wrists were much stronger than anyone else’s.   Despite our all being equidistant from the glass, I could actually move it wherever I wanted.

So when Bob asked the board who had really written the plays of Shakespeare, I forced the glass to spell out the name, “Essex”. 

Everyone was surprised to have such a coherent answer to a thorny question.   We all knew that the Earl of Essex was suspected by some as being the true author of at least some Shakespearean works.

Further questions elicited the name of “Essex” and I spelled out “Robert Devereux.”  

Bob then asked if the person speaking was in the room with us.  Since I was in the room and I was the person speaking, I made the glass say, “yes”.

There was a murmur around the table.  People looked at each other in excitement and concern.

We asked if the person speaking would talk to us.  “Yes,” came the answer.

Bob then formulated a series of questions which I answered based on my knowledge of the Earl of Essex, whom I had studied as part of my second year English class.

Again, people were surprised at the coherence of the answers and did not seem to be aware that I was forcing the glass to move to the correct letters.

I was both annoyed and amused at their amazement and decided to reveal myself so I lifted my hand from the glass for the following questions, which resulted in answers that were not even English but gobbledegook.

I was sure they would notice that the spirit had stopped speaking coherently as soon as I removed my hand but to my surprise, no one picked up on it.  Bob pressed on.  When he was unable to elicit what he was looking for, he asked the spirit if it was essential to have someone here to whom it could talk.

I was fed up.  I put my hand on the glass and made it say, “yes”.  Then Bob asked the name of that person and I made the glass spell out my name.

Everyone looked at me in disbelief.   “That can’t be right,” said Debbie.  “Ask it again, Bob.”

This really got my dander up.  I made the glass change its answer from my name to “all of you”.

In what followed, I plotted an elaborate joke.  I made the OUIJA board claim that Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, had written other plays which had not yet been discovered.

When they asked to the board to give proof, it gave the title of a play, “The Death of Cicero.”

Everyone was enormously excited.  They wanted to have some part of the play, so I started to write an opening scene from this fictitious play.

As I composed, I started to find it easier to complete each line because, this being a group of English majors, they would often think of a word that rhymed appropriately and say it out loud or say things like, “it should be in iambic pentameter so the next word is the end of the line,” or “the next word has to have three syllables if it is going to fit the meter”.

Soon we had the opening short scene from the lost Shakespearean play (really written by the Earl of Essex) called, “The Death of Cicero.”

At that moment the lights came back on and we were all sitting there blinking at each other, some with mouths wide open. 

Everyone started to talk at once.  “Do you think we have really found it?  Did we really talk to the ghost of Essex?”

Bob was calm and magisterial throughout.  “I think we should look at this more closely and think about it,” he said as he adjusted his glasses.

I myself was both elated and baffled.   How had such intelligent people not noticed my role in writing the play?  How had they not noticed that the board descended into nonsense whenever I took my finger off the glass but the same did not happen when others left to go to the bathroom?

When I was in the car with my fiancee, I told what I had done and at first, she would not believe me.   Then I asked her to remember the behaviour of the board when I did not participate and how I had at one point told them that I had to be there for the ghost to talk.

I watched her face change as it dawned on her that I was telling the truth and she burst out laughing.   We were both excited that I had managed to pull this off in the presence of the English studies elite, when I myself was actually a student of French and Russian.   She noted that was probably why they did not believe it could be me.   They just did not realize I could write.

When we returned to school, the first edition of the university newspaper in September had a long article by Bob on the happenings of that evening.

As I read the article, I realized he had fallen for the idea of the ghost, hook, line and sinker.   He noted that after the first evening, when some of them had gathered to try to get the rest of the play, all that came out was non-sequiturs and non-English!  Of course they had not invited me, the great skeptic.

I felt upset by this.   I had not intended things to go so far.  Now Bob was a convert to spiritualism because I had played a little trick on him!  I phoned him immediately and asked to see him the next day at lunch.   We met in the quadrangle outside the library and I carefully explained everything that happened that evening.

He did not believe me.   He would not change his beliefs he said because even if what I said was true, how did I know that I wasn’t simply a channel through which some spritual energy had expressed itself.   He couldn’t believe that I had written the play.   When I explained that I had used the clues and cues given by the English majors around the table, he said that proved his point.   It wasn’t just me.  It was a group effort.

Forty years later, I can no longer remember the opening scene of “The Death of Cicero”.   What is particularly troubling is that it was perhaps the best writing I had ever done.   I am going to look for an old copy of the Varsity to find again those lines I managed to create.

Perhaps then, I can claim my rightful place in the pantheon of either great writers or great frauds.