STEVE VOLK tries to recreate a British author's paranormal awakening--and succeeds in failing.
In one house a family had heard strange noises in the basement and started obsessing over a videotape they'd made there. They'd taken to leaving the camcorder running when they departed the house, and they played us the result.
A series of pings and pongs sounded out, echoey and vague. I spent a couple hours in that basement and heard the same noises emanating from the ducts of their air conditioning system, which they turned off whenever they left the house.
Almost six months after we first met, Gentile accepted that I hadn't become another Will Storr. "You didn't have any dramatic experience, nothing that overcame your rational mind," he said. "If you kept coming out, you would."
There were certainly tantalizing moments along the way. In Central Pennsylvania Gentile turned on his recorder, held up two fingers and asked, "How many fingers am I holding up?"
The response sounded for all the world like "two." It didn't sound like "three," "four" or "fzzzpt." I'll give him that. But we listen for what we're supposed to hear.
So without complete, intelligible sentences, electronic voice phenomenon seems unlikely to offer proof of anything. And Lou Gentile will be dismissed by most people as a man with a broken tape recorder. But sometimes the sounds he captures are beyond dispute.
It's 3 a.m. Gentile has just finished with another group of clients. I'm ready to go home.
His own dark eyes flutter with weariness, but Gentile wants more than anything to drive to the Civil War battlefields of Gettysburg, and he still has the energy to overcome a couple of wrong turns and get us there before sunrise.
The park is closed. But Gentile never met a trespassing law worth honoring, so he leans into the turns on the narrow park roads and presses on, unyielding, toward his next spirit encounter.
When he parks, I'm tempted to stay in the car and sleep. But I follow him out of the car. And even though I'm nearly dead on my feet, producing ghostly EVP with my every utterance, I watch, transfixed, as he starts hauling his heavy body, hand over hand, up a massive rock formation known as the Devil's Den.
Here Union soldiers positioned themselves to ambush Confederate brigades.
"C'mon," says Gentile, motioning me to follow him. So I do. For a moment I linger behind him, watching him seemingly dance over the rocks above me. I already knew he was big, but from this perspective, maybe 15 feet below him, he looks like a bear. As I finally draw even with him, he wedges his body through a small opening between two stones. He barely seems to fit, and I hear him exhale with the effort as he finally crosses through to the other side.
"Come on," he says.
His body hidden from me, his voice emanates from the rocks.
I thrust myself through the opening--my hands touching stones that have grown impossibly smooth over the years, as if they've been polished clean--and find myself in an impressive hollow of rock, a den, maybe 10 feet long, narrowing to 3 feet wide.
Gentile's hair needs a vigorous combing. His sweatpants and sweatshirt have taken on the wasted, ragged look of pajamas worn by someone with a long-term illness. "Beginning of EVP No. 1," he says. "May 7, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the Devil's Den."
It's morning now. The sun is officially up. And I'm trespassing on federal property with a man who has walked up to the very edge of human experience and cast his gaze outward, hoping to get a message back, hoping to confirm the afterlife, hoping to communicate with the dead, and in so doing has united himself with the many millions of people who've made their own attempts--in church pews and on death beds, in funeral homes and on beaches, dispersing ashes and shoveling dirt--to reach into the thin air outside human experience and find something solid rise to meet their fingers.
Out of breath as he leans between two slabs of rock, his feet braced against a sharp slab of stone, Gentile asks his rounds of questions. But in response we receive nothing remotely intelligible. And all around us--the park, the world, is coming to life.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4