A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof Kindle Edition
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Before investigating what ghosts do, it might be best to consider the big question: Do ghosts exist? You won’t get an answer here because Clarke is dismissive of the question, one that he says belongs in a London of the nineteenth century. “In a basic sense,” he writes, “ghosts exist because people constantly report that they see them. This is not a book about whether ghosts exist or not. This is a book about what we see when we see a ghost, and the stories that we tell each other about them.” The most famous of the ghost stories told here is that of the Cock Lane Ghost, referenced plenty of times by Dickens and even by Melville in _Moby Dick_; Hogarth included a reference in his picture “Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism: a Medley.” Part of the reason for its fame is that Samuel Johnson himself was on a committee to investigate the ghost, and his committee spotted a hoax, but not before what Clarke says was the first ever media circus. The other famous haunting covered here is more recent, one that continued into the twentieth century: Borley Rectory, often called “the most haunted house in England.” One of the reasons it was called that is that Harry Price, an investigator within Clarke’s Society for Psychical Research, made it so. Price was sometimes a diligent and serious investigator, and sometimes a promoter of belief in the supernatural beyond what the evidence showed. One of the ways people used to celebrate ghosts was by what we would call now “flash mobs.” In 1868, for instance, a body was fished out of the Thames, and before an inquest could be held, rumors spread that the body was walking all around the churchyard at night. “In consequence, an estimated two thousand people congregated nightly outside. Efforts by the vicar and parish officials to disperse the crowd were entirely in vain; as the police arrived, one James Jones, aged nineteen, climbed up onto the railings and shouted at the murmuring, agitated crowd, ‘Don’t go - there it is again - there’s the ghost!’ He was promptly arrested.”
Clarke examines the haunting of Hinton Ampner, which may have inspired Henry James’s story _The Turn of the Screw_, the Victorian craze for seances, the Angel of Mons that was (never) seen by soldiers in World War I, and the class-consciousness of ghosts (with headless Anne Boleyn haunting stately homes and highwayman Dick Turpin sticking to pubs). He has comments on the gadgetry now trained on catching ghosts, and on the television shows that promote such technology. Suffice it to say that the new ways of hunting for ghosts have failed to clear up conclusively even their existence. They have infested us living people for millennia, and my guess is that we have cleared up their mysteries just as much as we ever have or ever will.
A riveting account - fine bedside reading!
Well, what indeed? We have to get to the very last chapter before we find any real attempt at generalisation, and the generalisation concerns the kinds of people who have purportedly experienced `supernatural' events. We end the book without any proper summing-up or categorisation of the events themselves, as distinct from the sources of reports. In the second chapter Clarke offers what I hoped might form the basis for such a summary with eight `varieties', derived from one Peter Underwood. These are Elementals, Poltergeists, Traditional or Historical Ghosts, Mental Imprint Manifestations, Crisis or Death-survival Apparitions, Time Slips, Ghosts of the Living, Haunted Inanimate Objects. I am not going to quibble with that, but after clinging to these categories like Hope clinging to her anchor all the way through the following 16 chapters I was left with whatever I myself had managed to put together from passing observations of the author's.
The truth seems to me to be that Roger Clarke enjoys recounting ghost stories. I like to hear ghost stories, so at that level I found the book very enjoyable. He always tells them well up to a point, but the more space he has for his narrative the better the narrative works. There is a dedicated chapter on the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, to take an example, and it is an admirable and level-headed account of the phenomena and the way they were reported, followed by a more general excursus on the matter of ghost photography. Admirable also is the discussion of the haunted U-boat U65, but the House that was Haunted to Death, Hinton Ampner the locus of many spooky events over years, comes off less well. Clarke has too much material to digest here, and the alleged events are told without clear or systematic attribution to their sources, almost as if the author is recording simple fact.
Simple fact, of course, is just what supernatural occurrences are not. To say the least, they lose nothing in the telling, and neither the original storytellers nor any subsequent debunkers (even when they are the same people) can be taken on faith. I welcome the emphasis that Clarke places on the sociological categories of people who have experiences of these kinds, because it is highly illuminating. I suppose it's fair to say that ghosts, like miracles, are mainly experienced by people who believe in them in the first place, but such people are not an unvarying constant down the years but are changeable along with the times in which the events are set. However I remain slightly unsatisfied regarding the topic I most wanted Clarke to discuss, namely what `reality' - `objective' reality if you will, any of our ghosts and such like may possess.
It's not all about ghosts, as a glance at the contents-page will tell you. The Angel of Mons is here for one thing, and some of the more famous ghostbusters get a certain amount of very interesting coverage, notably the unpleasing but still interesting Harry Price. I would certainly have liked more on the subject of diabolical possession, and the treatment of exorcism is a bit non-committal (not that I was looking for ex cathedra pronouncements on this topic or indeed on `reality' issues generally). Another angle on the matter that I missed in the book was the possibility that some unexplained phenomena may be perfectly natural, just unexplained so far. I certainly suspect that what we usually think of as poltergeists may come within this bracket - natural, unlike the genuine ghosts if there are genuine ghosts.
All in all the book is one I can recommend, and although it is seriously lacking in method it has real class. Intellectually this is a superior effort to many, it rewarded my curiosity and I hope and expect that it will reawaken general interest in what is a thoroughly fascinating topic or set of topics. You might be interested, as I was, in the brief reference to the great M R James. Roger Clarke gives his James-award to Whistle and I'll Come to you. A fine story indeed - aren't they all? - but if he wants to bid this I'll raise him Count Magnus.