03/09/1998 at 01:00 AM EST
STANDING BEFORE SOME 200 FANS AT WEST HOLLYWOOD'S incense-perfumed Bodhi Tree bookstore, James Van Praagh claims to see a much larger audience—spirits no less real than the living people in front of him. "Did someone here lose someone named Frances?" he asks. A dark-haired woman jumps out of her chair. "My aunt!" she gasps.
Stepping closer to the woman, actress Ava Fabian, 35, Van Praagh rattles off a series of accurate facts about her late Aunt Fran: her bout with cancer, the trouble she had walking during her final days, and the closet Fabian has just cleaned. "I'm always reorganizing that closet!" the actress sighs. "This lady," Van Praagh says, nodding toward her aunt's invisible spirit, "helps you out a great deal." The audience applauds, and Fabian's eyes tear up. "I was moved, absolutely," she says later.
Wherever Van Praagh, 39, appears, hundreds of the bereaved gather hoping to hear messages from loved ones on the other side, particularly those who died too suddenly to say goodbye. And while skeptics doubt Van Praagh can actually talk to the dead, it takes no special power to see that his visions speak to the spiritual yearnings of a lot of Americans. His first book, Talking to Heaven: A Medium's Message of Life After Death, has climbed to the top of The New York Times bestseller list. And Van Praagh made such a splash during a December appearance on CNN's Larry King Live that he was booked for a repeat appearance just three weeks later. "He's helped so many people," says actress Cindy Williams, one of many Hollywood celebrities who have sought Van Praagh's guidance. "I admire the pure intent of his work."
Van Praagh (rhymes with frog) asserts in the book that he has the ability to tune into what he calls the higher, faster-vibrating frequency of the spirit world. Anyone can learn to do it, he adds, but given his heightened sensitivity, Van Praagh can both chat with the spirits visiting our mortal realm and see the heavenly world they inhabit. "There are forests and flowers," he says. "It's a very real, solid world, with beautiful houses and mansions." Which is just what the seekers who buy Van Praagh's book, attend his lectures or paid $250 (he recently suspended his private practice) for a 90-minute session like to hear. "People want to feel their loved one is okay, feeling fine," he says.
Raised in the distinctly earthly precincts of Queens, N.Y., Van Praagh was the youngest of four children born to Allan, a retired Broadway stagehand, and Regina, a homemaker who died in 1988. As a boy he rarely spent time with his father, and his mother was an alcoholic, Van Praagh says, so he took comfort in the spiritual visions he first saw from his bed when he was 8. "The hand glowed with pulsing white light," he writes. "I knew this vision was God."
Only in 1992, after Van Praagh had graduated from San Francisco State University and spent 10 years as an aspiring screenwriter doing clerical work for the William Morris Agency and Paramount Studios in Hollywood, did he find his true calling. When a colleague brought him to his first encounter with a medium, Van Praagh recalls, "The spirits said, 'We'll take care of you if you'll do our work.' " He quit his job, became a full-time medium himself and soon attracted a clientele that included Hollywood luminaries—including the late Audrey Meadows, who believed she had conversed with her dead TV husband, Jackie Gleason. Van Praagh, whose own brief marriage ended with divorce in 1996, soon got a booking on NBC's The Other Side and a book contract. "I never had to advertise," he says. "It's all word of mouth."
Of course, Van Praagh's mission inspires as much doubt as hope. Scoffs magician Penn Jillette, a board member of the paranormal-debunking Skeptics Society: "People are waiting to hear what they want to hear." But that doesn't disturb such believers as Ava Fabian, who heard enough at the Bodhi Tree lecture to feel she had communicated with her beloved Aunt Frances. "That was my aunt," she says. "I'm sure."
So, it seems, is Van Praagh. And though his book tour has kept him too busy to unpack the cartons in the L.A. apartment he moved into three months ago, Van Praagh says he's more focused on spirits than on bestseller lists. "The New York Times is a bit of a disappointment," he says, "when you talk to heaven every day."
JOHN HANNAH in Los Angeles