7 Books About Characters With Psychic Abilities


The process of writing, when it’s going well, feels like psychic channeling. You start typing and who knows what’s going to pour out or where it’s coming from? I’ve always felt a little psychic, a little witch— writing things that end up coming true, sensing the truth of a situation before I consciously understand it. I remember talking to a friend who also considered herself psychic and also came from an immigrant family with a lot of trauma and she was telling me how she thought being psychic was a survival strategy —you learned to be hyper-attuned to the shifts in the people around you and predict the future, usually so you could get out of its way. 

In my new novel, Mother Doll, a medium channels the ghost of a Russian revolutionary to her great-granddaughter. As research, I took psychic meditation and mediumship classes. I was in Boston at the time, helping take care of my grandfather, visiting him in the hospital and bringing my tape recorder, because he wanted to dictate his memoirs to me from his death bed. I’d sit there for hours while he talked and his eyes flitted around the room, seeing things already that I couldn’t see. I’d come home and take the class as an escape. The teacher billowed around on screen, playing the harmonium, guiding the group in breathing and meditation exercises where I’d wander around in the shapeless spaces of my mind.

But then, after my grandfather died, this abstract desire to connect to the other side became too concrete. The evening after he died, I sat in my grandfather’s office and zoomed into the class, and when the teacher said she’d made contact with an older man who was saying “something about his socks,” I felt desperate to believe that this message was meant for me. I had just fixed his hospital socks! And, simultaneously, I did not think it was him at all. Everyone in the zoom room was raising their hand, sure the message was from their own sock wearing grandpa and I felt disgusted with my own desire and gullibility. Maybe because my feelings around psychics and connecting with “the other side” are so ambivalent, that’s why I love reading books about it, and here are eight great ones.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Larissa Volokhonsky

This book is in my canon, the reason I became a writer. It wasn’t published until after Bulgakov’s death, because its biting social satire couldn’t get past the Soviet censors. The writer in the book is channeling the story of Pontius Pilate, which is confirmed by Satan and his entourage when they descend on Moscow and wreak havoc, trolling the literary elite. Satan, In the opening scene, psychically predicts the death of the man in charge of Massolit, saying mysteriously that “Annushka has already spilled the sunflower oil.”

All-Night Pharmacy by Ruth Madievsky

The narrator in this novel is… figuring it out. She’d spent her whole life as her sister’s other half, being dragged along on wild, drug-fueled nights, some of which turned scary. After her sister disappears, she tries to get her life together and gets a job working as a secretary at an ER. One day she’s visited by Sasha, a Jewish psychic from Moldova, and a whole world opens up to her. For Sasha, becoming a psychic was a form of resilience and “an extension of her queerness,” and she uses her psychic abilities to help the narrator connect with her inherited trauma—“My suffering was historic… my sister’s disappearance was the latest iteration of a trauma imprinted in my bones… when we gave parts of ourselves to men who saw us as disposable, when we stuck things in our noses and throats and beneath our tongues, it was because, in 1950s Leningrad, our great-grandfather was shot in the street.” And then they have hot sex in a bathtub in an empty Moldovan apartment.

Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt

An orphan named Ruth is raised in a group home with Nat by a religious fanatic wannabe cult leader. The two orphans are inseparable and join up with a grifter when he sees their act channeling the dead to get out of their group home. It seems ambiguous, at first this speaking to the dead—is it real or is it just a show, giving desperate people what they want to hear. No spoilers, but the way this book connects motherhood with channeling the dead is brilliant.

Exhibit by R. O. Kwon

Two women meet at a party and connect intensely, talking into the night. Jin Han, a photographer in a stalled-out marriage, tells Lidija Jung, an injured ballerina, a secret she hasn’t shared with anyone else: a family curse, like ancestral trauma, has been passed down to her. The book is narrated in chapters that alternate from the point of view of a generations-old kisaeng (a Korean courtesan) channeled from the other side through a shaman. 

The Man Who Could Move Clouds by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

In this beautiful memoir, Contreras writes about her family’s psychic gift. Her grandfather was a healer with an ability to talk with the dead, and so was her mother. After Contreras suffers a head injury and then amnesia, and this triggers her access to “the secrets” as well. These abilities are considered by some in the family a gift, by others a curse. Contreras connects her family story to the larger historical forces of violence and colonialism.

Lost in Summerland by Barrett Swanson

In the title essay from this collection, Swanson writes about going to Lily Dale, New York, a town of spiritualists, with his brother who developed a psychic ability following a traumatic head injury. Their skeptical Midwestern family began to see the strange phenomenon that at first they worried were a sign of psychosis from his brother’s brain bleed, but which could not be explained away — flickering lights, green orbs of light. His brother had a gift connecting him to the dead which was in equal parts terrifying and healing.

The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits

At an elite school for psychics, a student and her teacher begin a psychic battle. This novel focuses on toxic friendships, psychic attacks, the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters and the ambiguous spaces in between sanity and delusion. 

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

Alison, a psychic, and Colette, her personal assistant, travel around the suburbs of London doing readings and channeling the dead. When they settle down in the suburbs, things gets dark. Alison’s contact with the dead has been scarier than she has let on.

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