Daniel Dunglas Home was "the most interesting person who ever lived", writes Peter Lamont of his subject. "He is more interesting than Jesus, Caesar or Napoleon, who immediately spring to mind as interesting dead people." Indeed they do, and we all have our foibles in this line: my own fantasy dinner-party list includes Robespierre and Thomas Cromwell. Still, wonderful as their works were, neither of them could "elongate his body at will", handle red-hot coals, move the furniture without touching it, or hover in the air and pass in and out of open windows. After just a little acquaintance with Lamont's chosen wonder-boy, you begin to see what he means.
In the presence of spookies, language quickly turns archaic and bizarre. Thus the book's cover copy describes Dunglas Home as a "low-born" Scot. Lamont fills in the details. His mother was a Highland seer, his father possibly a bastard of the 10th Earl of Home. Born near Edinburgh in 1833, the infant Daniel seemed unlikely to thrive, and so was passed on to a childless aunt, who presumably was inured to disappointment. The aunt took him to Connecticut in search of a better life. He was, said one neighbour who cherished memories of him, "a disagreeable nasty boy". With a morbid little friend of his, he made a pact that whoever died first should come back and appear to the other. Home and his aunt then moved some 300 miles away. Shortly thereafter, Home's companion died of dysentery, and duly appeared at his bedside, wearing ringlets and "a smile of ineffable sweetness".
Some time later, a spate of rapping and banging plagued the household, and tables began to dance. The local Presbyterians thought that Home was Satan's pawn, and the Wesleyans were no kinder. Home, now about 18, began to interrogate the rappings, and received a message from his dead mother. She told him he had a mission: he was to "convince the infidel, cure the sick and console the weeping". At about the same time, in New York, the young Fox sisters were giving public demonstrations of their own rappings and bangings. Three doctors were convinced that the Fox sisters were hearing nothing more meaningful than the cracking of their own knee joints, but the genie was out and couldn't be put back into the bottle. The cult of modern spiritualism had begun. It was a cult that would cross national barriers, social classes and sectarian divides. The cliches of the seance were born, and with them a self-satisfied and often vicious debunking industry.
Victorian mediums, unlike the less ambitious ones of our own day, went in for "physical mediumship": the movement of heavy objects and the materialisation of spirit hands, or sometimes whole bodies. Some moved tables and chairs, but Home moved sofas and pianos. He put a dead baby back on its mother's knee. Performing before Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie, he caused an accordion to play by itself. Levitation became routine. Not all of his feats were paranormal, but they were well beyond most people. He became an international celebrity, twice marrying into the Russian aristocracy, the first time with Alexandre Dumas as his best man. As war correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, he witnessed the siege of Paris. He translated Mark Twain into Russian, and made eminent Victorian scientists quarrel violently. Finally, he wrote a book exposing "Punch and Judy mediums". Throughout his career, he was violently abused by people who did not know him and had never seen his demonstrations - notably by Robert Browning, who seemed to believe Home was a homosexual, wrote a poem against him, and once offered to kick him downstairs. Yet if Home was a cheat, no one in his lifetime was able to prove it.
Peter Lamont is a research fellow at the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh. He is also a magician. His shrewd and often very funny book distils the perplexities of an age. Faced by Home's feats, did the Victorians distrust their powers of observation, or their construction of reality? The eminent scientist William Crookes tested Home and coined the word "psychic" to describe his powers. Crookes was convinced that Home possessed an unknown, but not supernatural, ability. The "laws of nature" would have to stretch to accommodate him. The spiritualists were not pleased, and others jeered at Crookes and said that he had been hypnotised by Home. So did they think, Crookes asked reasonably, that laboratory measurements were regularly hallucinated? If we cannot trust the evidence of our senses, how can we begin to describe natural laws?
Home's sworn enemies were almost as interesting as he was. One of them, "the Great Wizard of the North", was the first man to pull a rabbit out of a hat. He accidentally burned down the Royal Opera House and, in the age of Darwin, paraded as a freak act two microcephalic children whom he described as "Aztec Lilliputians". It is all stranger than fiction - stranger even, let's say, than South American fiction. And you won't check my sources, will you? asks Lamont teasingly: no, you'll believe it all, because you would like to. His previous book was called The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick, described by one critic as "a riveting yarn". For all its levity - and laughter arises like - oh, like a piano - this is a serious and thought-provoking book about how we witness and interpret the world. My own uncanny powers forecast a feast called Christmas, not far distant, when The First Psychic should, if there is any justice, mysteriously levitate from bookshop shelves and appear in intelligent people's stockings.
Hilary Mantel's most recent novel, Beyond Black, is published by Fourth Estate