Restricted to his wheelchair, his shriveled legs hidden by a warm rug, Augustus Auerbach pursues a sheltered existence in his finely-appointed mansion, attending to an exhaustive mail-order pornography business, the source of his private fortune. The intricate details of the artist’s poses consume him, as does the mass of correspondence from customers who demand his attention.
Averse if not completely unfamiliar with true intimacy, Auerbach prefers his structured routine, content to remain secluded. But when Augustus attends the séance of popular New York City spiritualist Verena Swann at the behest of a model, he is thrust into a foreign and seductive world. Mrs. Swann conducts her lucrative business with the aid of her brother-in-law, Leopold, who harbors feelings for her and is deeply disturbed when she shows an interest in the pornographer.
The widow of an explorer, Mrs. Swann purports to have daily communication with her husband, Theodore: “Verena Swann loved her husband so much that she would not abandon him, even in death”. Leopold, an accomplished con man in his own right, sets the stage for the adept’s spiritual diversions.
Making an easy living from the desperation of those who have lost their loved ones, Verena is aware that she is a charlatan and concerned that her powers seem to be receding with each passing day, but she has never fended for herself, relying on men for guidance - hence the long association with Leopold. Charmed by the handsome Auerbach, Verena entertains a promising affection for him, reciprocated by a surprised Augustus.
His future plans threatened, Leopold kidnaps Verena, delivering the resisting woman to the sanatorium of the enigmatic and cruel Dr. Mayhew, who is known to perform perverse operations on females who do not know their place. Sending a surreptitious letter to Augustus via her attendant, Mrs. Swann is precipitously delivered from her fate, Augustus triumphing over the petty Dr. Mayhew.
Skillfully contrasting the lives of his protagonists, Augustus, Verena and Leopold, the author paints a vivid portrait of a century besotted with the manifestation of all things spiritual, as well as an emerging psychiatric discipline with a plentiful supply of hysterical women to be used as subjects for experimentation, the city replete with Victorian excess, the bizarre tastes and curiosities of the era.
Thrust into unexpected intimacy with a loving woman, Augustus is amazed at the changes Verena has wrought in his life: “His first intimation that he had lived a life of loneliness was that he did not feel lonely anymore.” For her part, Mrs. Swann is content, secure with such a generous man to protect her. Only poor Leopold fails to profit from recent events. With a novel premise, this charming story steps blithely into a past where spirits rap on tables and lonely men buy packets of obscene photographs to view in the privacy of their illusions.