For Charlottesville-based author Stefan Bechtel, mystery is the essence of life.
“I grew up in Chicago, in the white-bread suburbs where every lawn was perfect. But way out on the edge of town there was a swamp. Lincoln Swamp,” Bechtel says. “We would ride our bikes all the way out to Lincoln Swamp, and we basically raised ourselves there. It was mysterious and alive, the strange and incredible all wrapped in one. It was kind of our religion.”
Now, with a dozen books and countless articles under his belt, the writer explains that the truism “write what you know” doesn’t really suit him. He quotes David McCullough when he says, “‘I want to write about what I don’t know.’”
The thrill of exploration—and sharing his discoveries—is the fuel that powers Bechtel’s work, which has appeared in 10 languages and publications such as Esquire and the Washington Post.
After graduating from the University of Miami with a degree in journalism, he worked at newspapers and magazines. While working for Rodale Press as a senior editor for Prevention magazine, Bechtel and his boss, Mark Bricklin, struck gold by creating a monthly newsletter called Men’s Health. That newsletter went on to become the largest men’s magazine brand in the world.
But it wasn’t until Bechtel got his first book contract with HarperCollins, while taking a leave of absence from Rodale, that he discovered his true calling.
“I remember, when I finished that first book, walking around the block probably 50 times,” he says. “I was just so high, so excited that I had done something I knew was good, and that I was going to be able to share this terrific story with people.”
That story began many years earlier, when Bechtel worked at a small city magazine in Greensboro, North Carolina. Out of the blue, he got a call from a woman who described unusual phenomena in her home, “like, she’d walk into a room and the fire would be going in the fireplace, but she had no memory of putting the fire there.”
His curiosity piqued, Bechtel joined the woman as she worked with Duke University researchers to investigate a potential haunting in her home. The results of that research were inconclusive—and so was Bechtel’s article.
But several years later, he received another call. This time, the woman, Kit Castle, had a definitive answer to the mystery.
“She said, ‘I been working with a psychiatrist, and it turns out I’m a multiple personality,’” says Bechtel. “‘And my spirit guide, Michael, asked me if you’d be going to write a book about me and what’s going on.’”
After checking with Castle’s doctor, psychiatrist and ex-husband, Bechtel dove back into the story, fell in love with the process, and Katherine, It’s Time: The Incredible Journey into the World of a Multiple Personality was published in 1989.
“It’s beyond exciting,” says Bechtel. “To be taken out of my life completely and confronted with something that’s utterly confounding and thrilling, because you can’t understand it. That’s writerly bliss.”
Since then, Bechtel has authored or co-authored 12 books, which have collectively sold more than 2 million copies. But writing books for a living hasn’t been the easiest path. His latest novel, Through a Glass, Darkly, spent five years gestating as a 13,000-word book proposal before St. Martin’s Press picked it up.
His latest project gave him a chance to re-engage with “the mysterious, the inexplicable. Not sci-fi or horror, but the uneasiness of something that doesn’t really make sense to the rational mind.”
This time, Bechtel’s search focused on the transformation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a shift he offhandedly calls the “Conan Doyle conundrum.”
After becoming famous as the creator of hyper-rational sleuth Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle transformed into a (widely ridiculed) champion of spiritualism, a kind of do-it-yourself religion wherein the living communicate with the dead.
“[It was] this crazy mania that swept across the United States and Europe,” Bechtel says. “In the 1920s, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were actually competing to develop a machine called the ghost machine, which would discover the precise electrical frequency that would allow people to communicate directly with the spirit world. That’s how big it was.”
Bechtel and his co-author, Laurence Roy Stains, spent months researching historical records of trance mediums and séances, following Conan Doyle’s trail. “He read very widely and had come to his beliefs pretty cautiously,” Bechtel says. “He had hope that spiritualism would become the world’s first scientific religion, based on demonstrable facts and not on faith.”
Because in those days, Bechtel says, the theological war was a fight between the materialists and the spiritualists, the materialists being “the super scientific people who had reduced human life to four bags of water and a sack of salt.” And Conan Doyle “wanted to believe in magic. He wanted the world to be filled with mystery. And he felt like the materialists were completely ignoring or blocking that out.”
In this way, Bechtel echoes his subject from Through a Glass, Darkly.
“I love things that confound the rational mind. I love the creepy series of coincidences,” he says. “Our world is mysterious and wonderful. And if you lose sight of that, I think you might as well be dead.”