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The Arcanum

Best Seller
The Arcanum by Thomas Wheeler
Paperback $14.00
Jun 28, 2005 | ISBN 9780553381993

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  • Jun 28, 2005 | ISBN 9780553381993

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  • Dec 18, 2007 | ISBN 9780307418364

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Product Details


"Cinematic…. Vividly written."
Publishers Weekly

"THE ARCANUM is a first-class thriller; superbly crafted, it moves like lightning, creating a world where historical fact and wild invention are interwoven. Marvellous stuff!"
–Clive Barker, author of Coldheart Canyon and The Abarat

“From some dark bridge between history and fiction, Thomas Wheeler’s THE ARCANUM throws the reader into a midnight’s maelstrom of mystery, thrills, and pure adrenaline fun. Hold your breath and enjoy the ride!”
–Wes Craven, director of the Scream and Nightmare on Elm St. series

Author Q&A

The Arcanum: The Hidden History
by Thomas Wheeler

I fell in love with the idea of a story set in the early twentieth century during the peak of the Spiritualist Movement. Other projects had led me to research this era and I couldn’t stop. Everything drew me in: The music, the customs, the politics, the scandals, and the people, of course. This was a fascinating time: the world was transforming technologically at a pace unmatched in the history of man. The advent of telephones, automobiles and airplanes compressed time and fueled the acceleration into a new and frightening twentieth century. It seems evident that the Spiritualist Movement was a reaction to this unsettling progress. I saw enormous opportunity for comparisons with our own pre-millennium anxiety that seemed to be giving birth to a culture of conspiracy and renewed superstition. I thought a great supernatural tale could be told that would speak to some of these ideas while standing alone as a terrifying ride into a world of séances and shadows.

My efforts to invent a character that would embody the essence of the times and fulfill the needs of a noirish-adventure hero were falling flat. My sensibility was leaning too modern. Besides, who could you invent that would have the physical attributes of Houdini, the sleuthing skills of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creepy intellect of H. P. Lovecraft, and the otherworldly skill-set of a Marie Laveau? And obviously, that was my breakthrough. Since all my reading and research kept leading me back to these icons, why not simply cast them? From there, it was no turning back.

My brain spilled over at the possibilities. It was almost too much. Because the age is so rich with fascinating personalities, just choosing was agony. Luckily, there are more Arcanum adventures left to be told, because the first roster was too unwieldy. It took months and drafts of outlines and copious notes and false starts until I narrowed it to our beloved four and their enigmatic leader—Konstantin Duvall. The notion was always that Duvall would be the mind behind a secret society comprised of some of the most well-known names of the day, and they would call themselves The Arcanum. And with the image of an angel feather under glass in their Hall of Relics to guide me, I knew I had the components for something special.

Two years later I was still wrestling to get it right. Something wasn’t working. Establishing tone was difficult. Finding the voices was challenging. The supernatural elements were overwhelming everything else. The whole thing was feeling, frankly, a little campy and silly, and I was ready to abandon it altogether. Luckily, I unloaded my woes on my wife and brother, whose minds I rely on often to untangle myself from these kinds of messes. The advice that followed and my own ruminations after taking some time off led me to the most fulfilling writing experience of my life.

One of the first problems I identified was my protagonist. I had chosen to tell the story through the eyes of a young reporter stumbling onto the existence of The Arcanum. This character seems to have been a reflection of my own apprehension as a writer, because it kept me at a distance from the people I wanted to talk about—The Arcanum themselves. My approach had turned them into superheroes. They weren’t real. They showed up in puffs of smoke. Eliminating the reporter thrust me right up against The Arcanum: Houdini, Conan Doyle, Lovecraft, and Laveau. And suddenly, I was intimidated. To find their voices I dove back into their biographies with renewed intensity. It took a while, but gradually I began to know these icons as people. I also discovered that, for me, their lives became most interesting as their fame ebbed, as their losses mounted, as society turned on them. In other words, I wasn’t as interested in them in their prime. It must be because our flaws and our setbacks test us, define us, and reveal us, and it certainly did that for me. This dovetailed quite elegantly with a suggestion my brother made during one of our marathon discussions about the story and my struggles with it. I remember quite clearly when and where the conversation took place because of its impact. He simply asked: “Why can’t it be their last adventure?”

There it was. The Arcanum would be a memory. Our heroes would be scattered to the four winds. Their history would be ugly, fraught with betrayals and scars. Furthermore, they would each be struggling with their own real histories. Conan Doyle would be weathering a public crucifixion over his championing of Spiritualism as a religion. Only those of us privy to the secret of The Arcanum would understand why. Houdini would be pouring boatloads of his own fortune into the burgeoning film industry with mixed results, to say the least. His ego would be a huge obstacle to Conan Doyle’s efforts to reunite The Arcanum. Lovecraft, The Arcanum’s youngest, would have been abandoned by the others and left to his nightmares, losing the war to keep his sanity. And Laveau would be lured back by the mystery of Duvall’s—her former lover—death. Without Duvall’s leadership, The Arcanum would be rudderless, having to find their way in the occult world all over again.

The rest, as they say…

There would be other leaps forward, many stumbles back, but nothing that quite shaped the story like these early decisions. Aleister Crowley was a revolving-door character, as vexing to me as he was to the world that judged him. I knew I wanted to use him but couldn’t figure out how. He wouldn’t work as a member of The Arcanum. Yet, casting him as the villain felt wrong, too. So, I played to the enigma. He finally nestled quite comfortably as the twisted mentor to Lovecraft and as Duvall’s life—long adversary, someone caught up in the same events but whose actual role would remain a mystery.

This “last” adventure of The Arcanum was only their first to be told. There are countless shadows yet to explore in this old house, adventures dating back centuries and generations of membership left to reveal.

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