“The Demon Spell” is a chilling short story by Hume Nisbet, first published in 1894. Set in England during the height of spiritualism’s popularity, the tale explores the eerie and unsettling experiences of a skeptic drawn into the supernatural realm. Nisbet, a Scottish-Australian author and artist, crafts a narrative that weaves horror and suspense, capturing the psychological torment of a man confronted by the unknown.

Comprehensive Plot Summary

It was about the time when spiritualism was all the craze in England, and no party was reckoned complete without a spirit-rapping seance being included among the other entertainments. One night, I had been invited to the house of a friend, who was a great believer in manifestations from the unseen world and who had asked for my special edification a well-known trance medium. He assured me she was a pretty as well as heaven-gifted girl, whom I would be sure to like.

I did not believe in the return of spirits, yet, thinking to be amused, I consented to attend at the appointed hour. At that time, I had just returned from a long sojourn abroad and was in a very delicate state of health, easily impressed by outward influences, and nervous to an extraordinary extent. To the hour appointed, I found myself at my friend’s house and was then introduced to the sitters who had assembled to witness the phenomena. Some were strangers like myself to the rules of the table; others, who were adepts, took their places at once in the order they had attended in former meetings. The trance medium had not yet arrived, and while waiting for her, we sat down and opened the seance with a hymn.

We had just finished the second verse when the door opened, and the medium glided in, taking her place on a vacant seat by my side, joining in with the others in the last verse. After that, we all sat motionless with our hands resting upon the table, waiting for the first manifestation from the unseen world. Although I thought all this performance very ridiculous, there was something in the silence and the dim light, for the gas had been turned low, and the room seemed filled with shadows; something about the fragile figure at my side, with her drooping head, which thrilled me with a curious sense of fear and icy horror such as I had never felt before.

I am not by nature imaginative or inclined to superstition, but from the moment that young girl entered the room, I felt as if a cold iron hand had been laid upon my heart, compressing it and causing it to stop throbbing. My sense of hearing also had grown more acute and sensitive, so that the beating of the watch in my vest pocket sounded like the thumping of a quartz-crushing machine, and the measured breathing of those about me as loud and nerve-disturbing as the snorting of a steam engine. Only when I turned to look upon the trance medium did I feel soothed; then it seemed as if a cold-air wave had passed through my brain, subduing, for the time being, those awful sounds.

My host whispered to me that she was possessed and that we should wait for her to speak and tell us whom we had got beside us. As we sat and waited, the table moved several times under our hands, while knockings occurred at intervals in the table and all around the room—a most weird and blood-curdling, yet ridiculous performance, which made me feel half inclined to run out with fear and half inclined to sit still and laugh; on the whole, I think, however, that horror had more complete possession of me.

Presently, she raised her head and laid her hand upon mine, beginning to speak in a strange, monotonous, faraway voice. She declared that this was her first visit since passing from earth-life, and that we had called her here. I shivered as her hand touched mine but had not the strength to withdraw it from her light, soft grasp. She revealed herself as a lost soul, in the lowest sphere, having died down Whitechapel way only a week prior. She described herself as an unfortunate woman who met a tragic end.

The medium’s eyes were closed, and whether it was my distorted imagination or not, she appeared to have grown older and decidedly debauched-looking since she sat down, or rather as if a light, filmy mask of degrading and sodden vice had replaced her former delicate features. No one spoke, and the trance medium continued to narrate her grim tale. She had been out all day without any luck or food, dragging her weary body through the slush and mud, drenched to the skin and utterly miserable. Her attempts to solicit help from passersby were ignored until a dark-faced, middle-sized man, with a soft voice, and much better dressed than her usual companions, approached her. He asked where she was going and left her with a coin in hand, for which she thanked him. Upon reaching the bar, she found the coin to be a curious foreign currency, which the landlord would not accept. Disheartened, she returned to her lodgings, intending to get some sleep, when she felt something touch her from behind.

She turned to find herself alone, with nothing but fog and a half-lit street lamp. Yet, she felt an unseen grasp tightening around her throat, choking her until she fell down and lost consciousness. When she woke up, she found herself outside her mutilated body, watching the horrific scene. She described the vision of her corpse lying on the muddy pavement and a demoniac, dark, pock-marked face bending over it, with lean claws outspread. She warned that the entity responsible was neither man nor woman but lived as she did and could be with us tonight. She offered to keep it back if we wished for her with all our might.

The seance became too horrifying, and by general consent, our host turned up the gas. I saw the medium, now free from her evil possession, as a beautiful girl of about nineteen, with the most glorious brown eyes I had ever seen. When I asked her if she believed in what she had spoken about the murdered woman, she appeared genuinely unaware of the trance, only remembering sitting at the table. Her dark eyes conveyed truth, and I could not doubt her.

That night, back at my lodgings, it took me some time to muster the courage to go to bed. I felt decidedly upset and nervous, regretting my attendance at the spirit meeting and vowing never to attend such gatherings again. For the first time, I could not put out the gas, feeling as if the room was filled with ghosts, and the spectres of the murderer and his victim had accompanied me home. Instead, I pulled the bedclothes over my head and eventually fell asleep.

At the stroke of midnight, I awoke suddenly, hearing the far-off echo of a cry beckoning me. The bedclothes were pulled from the bed and left in a confused mass on the floor. Remembering the spirit seance and the name Polly, I called out, and three distinct knocks on the bedpost signaled a reply. When I asked if she could speak or be seen, an echo rather than a voice responded. I felt a light, cold hand touch my brow and face. Terrified, I asked what she wanted, and she implored me to save the girl from the seance, who was in mortal danger.

In an instant, I was out of bed, hastily dressing with the unseen help of Polly. Grabbing an old Kandian dagger from my table, I followed the light grasp leading me through the snow-covered streets to the medium’s home. Guided through the wild, blinding snow-drift, I finally arrived at a silent square and instinctively knew which house to enter. I noticed a man standing across the street, looking up at a dimly-lit window, but paid him little attention as I rushed inside, driven by the unseen hand.

Entering the house and ascending the stairs in a dreamlike state, I reached the medium’s bedroom, where she struggled in the grasp of the same demonic claws. Her half-naked form and disarranged bedclothes were starkly visible as the unformed demon clutched her delicate throat. I attacked with my Kandian dagger, slashing at the cruel claws and evil face, leaving blood streaks in the wake of my knife. The entity eventually ceased struggling and vanished like a horrid nightmare, freeing the half-strangled girl, who woke up the house with her screams. From her releasing hand dropped the strange coin, which I took possession of.

Leaving her safe, I descended the stairs and exited the house without attracting any attention from the other inmates rushing to the bedroom. In the street, I saw the man who had been looking up at the window, now lying in a confused black mass among the white snow, his throat gashed from ear to ear. His dark, pallid, pock-marked face and claw-like hands bore the dark slashes of my dagger, staining the snow with crimson pools. As the clock struck one and the distant chant of carolers reached my ears, I fled blindly into the darkness.

Main Characters

  • The Narrator – A skeptical yet curious man who becomes the unlikely hero, confronting his fears and the supernatural to save the medium.
  • The Trance Medium – A young, beautiful woman gifted with the ability to communicate with spirits, unknowingly becoming the vessel for a tormented soul.
  • The Spirit – The ghost of a murdered woman from Whitechapel, whose tragic tale and unfinished business drive the narrative’s supernatural elements.
  • The Host – A believer in spiritualism who organizes the seance, inadvertently exposing his guests to genuine horror.

Themes and Motifs

  • Spiritualism and Skepticism – The story explores the tension between belief and doubt, highlighting the thin line between skepticism and credulity.
  • Supernatural Horror – The presence of spirits, possession, and the struggle between good and evil are central to the narrative, creating a sense of dread and suspense.
  • Redemption and Salvation – The narrator’s journey from skeptic to savior underscores themes of redemption and the power of human agency in confronting evil.
  • Victimhood and Justice – The spirit’s tale reflects the harsh realities faced by marginalized individuals, and the narrative seeks a form of justice for the wronged.

Writing Style and Tone

Hume Nisbet’s writing style in “The Demon Spell” is characterized by its atmospheric detail and psychological depth. He employs a first-person narrative, allowing readers to experience the protagonist’s fear and skepticism intimately. The language is vivid and evocative, creating a palpable sense of dread that permeates the story. Nisbet’s use of descriptive passages, particularly those depicting the supernatural events, enhances the horror and suspense, making the reader feel as if they are witnessing the eerie occurrences firsthand.

The tone of the story shifts from skepticism and curiosity to intense fear and urgency. Nisbet masterfully builds tension, using the narrator’s internal struggle to heighten the sense of impending doom. The detailed and immersive descriptions of the seance, the spirit’s possession, and the climactic confrontation with the demonic force create a gripping and unsettling reading experience. Overall, Nisbet’s writing effectively conveys the horror and psychological torment of the characters, making “The Demon Spell” a compelling and haunting tale.

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