Harry Houdini exposed seances because he felt they gave false hope to grieving survivors, so when that great magician visited the town of Lily Dale in the 1920s, some of the mediums there reportedly closed their doors and went into hiding. The attitude today is very different, as the psychics in the gated 167-acre community 60 miles south of Buffalo, New York, welcome skeptics and believers alike. One of 20,000 recent summer visitors, Christine Wicker, a Dallas Morning News religion reporter, made no attempt to hide her intent to write a book addressing the question: Are spiritualists good people who help others or are they cold-hearted deceivers gulling the weak? The result is the engrossing new book, Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead.

Wicker takes us into the lives of ordinary folks who, aching for word from departed relatives or friends, are willing to accept despite spiritualism's checkered history of hoaxes and trickery brief messages that clairvoyants claim to have received from those who have "passed over." No crystal balls, Ouija boards, tea-leaf or palm readings here. Instead, Wicker leads us to lectures, demonstrations and individual sessions conducted by some 36 seemingly sincere clairvoyants. One psychic runs a workshop on spotting angels among earthlings. Another medium, specializing in pets, informs a woman that her deceased dog was angry because her new puppy was using the former's food bowl. Two of Wicker's experiences are particularly arresting. During a one-on-one session, she is stunned when she is told things that she insists the medium could not possibly know. At one point, after brief training, she takes the psychic's role. This, too, yields remarkable results. Did these two episodes convert the author from skeptic to believer? Wicker answers that query in her book a volume that poses tantalizing questions to non-believers who insist the universe operates solely on scientific cause-and-effect principles.

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