Books reviewed by SPR reviewers
Electricity of the Mind: The Anomalist no 14, edited by Ian Simmons. Anomalist Books, 2010.
Editor Ian Simmons has chosen a wide range of articles (appropriately fourteen in number) for Issue 14 of the Anomalist, and it will surely provoke the same kind of pleasurable expectation that is aroused on opening a new issue of Fortean Times (FT). It has to be said that Simmons has put together a mixed bag, but the success rate is high, and even those readers whose primary interest is psychical research will find enough to keep them interested, and may find their horizons expanded.
There are two stand-out papers here, one by Theo Paijmans, the other by Mike Jay. Paijmans writes excellent articles for FT, mining the recently available wealth of old newspapers made available through the wonders of digitisation. Here he gives us more of the same, with some fine examples of how searching newspaper runs digitally can assist in uncovering stories. A major benefit of this is the ability to check huge quantities of text quickly, throwing up variants of the same story in different publications. Where authors, including Charles Fort, have relied on perhaps a single source for a story, there might be many versions, and Paijmans gives a number of examples. By examining newspapers from different areas he can show how stories were disseminated across a wide geographical range sometimes over a long period of time.
Paijmans notes that not all newspapers have been digitised, so it may still be necessary to consult the paper record (or increasingly these days a microfilm reader). But while using keywords to interrogate a database is much faster and brings a wide range of related stories from different newspapers within reach, there are a couple of issues that Paijmans does not acknowledge. The first is that particular keywords may miss a story if it was phrased in a different way. If journalists cribbed from each other, they were likely to use similar words, but that was not necessarily the case.
On a related point, researchers today might miss interesting stories because they themselves use different categories, and hence do not use the appropriate keywords. The search is only as good as the keywords used, and things could be missed that a diligent search of the hard copy would throw up; there is still a place for serendipity in this technological age. Paijmans acknowledges the problem when he wonders how the modern researcher would have started had Fort not blazed a trail and done so much categorisation. But that throws up the issue of what might have been missed. Anomalies not yet categorised might still be there, not noticed by the search engine as it chugs through the 1s and 0s.
More significantly perhaps, as digital access becomes the norm, is the separation of reader from the physical text that came off the press. There is a pleasure in handling old newsprint, a connection it gives to the first readers, which a computer cannot replicate. But more important is the danger that stories will be ripped from their original setting, becoming an abstraction for the researcher that the original audiences would not recognise as they skipped from story to story. Researchers may be able to find significant stories faster than someone leafing through endless volumes in an archive, but they lose something too. One is not a replacement for the other, they are complementary activities.
The always reliable Mike Jay looks at Coleridge, though the subtitle is a little optimistic; “The psychic investigations of Samuel Taylor Coleridge”, as he was mostly investigating himself, in true Romantic fashion. The epigram which opens the essay really sums this approach up. A lady asks Coleridge if he believes in ghosts, to which he replies, “No, madam! I have seen far too many myself.” Jay unpicks this sub-Oscar Wilde paradox and highlights how Coleridge’s introspection led him to a psychology of ghosts which has lessons for paranormal investigators today. He had had a singular experience at Valetta in which, coming to from a doze, he saw a man who had left the room some time before, sitting across the table from him. He realised eventually that his imagination, (aided by a heady combination of drugs and alcohol, Jay surmises) had interacted with elements of the environment, such as a flask of port and the chair opposite, to produce the illusion. What he ‘saw’ was a synthesis of external and internal factors.
Rejecting the term ‘supernatural’, Coleridge instead coined ‘supersensual’ to describe, without arriving at a final verdict on them, experiences which contravened our laws of perception, rather than the contravention of the laws of nature indicated by the use of ‘supernatural’. Coleridge pursued his speculations in an essay on Martin Luther, in which he identifies the origin of Luther’s vision of the Devil in his radical change of diet while in prison. Rather like Scrooge’s verdict on his own spectral encounter, there was rather more of gravy than of grave about it.
Jay concludes that Coleridge, being poised to elaborate a new psychology, then drew back, perhaps because he found it beyond his capabilities, though he incorporated these insights into his wider literary theories. The main point was that imagination was not mechanical but was fluid, capable of synthesis and recombination. The issue that this raises, and which Jay does not address, is how far this reach of the imagination affects eyewitness testimony in psychical research, and the extent that a field investigator (or desk researcher like Paijmans) can take someone’s word for it that they experienced something in the way stated. As Coleridge indicated, experiences are a complex admixture of reality and imagination, so is it ever possible to reach beyond the witness’s subjective experience with any certainty?
Technology might help to answer that question, and Bryan Williams, Annalisa Ventola and Mike Wilson provide two linked articles collectively entitled ‘A Primer for Paranormal Enthusiasts’. The first deals with magnetic fields and the second with temperature, and together they outline the strengths and weaknesses of instrumentation in measuring the environment where a haunting is supposed to have occurred, how such measurements might relate to hauntings, and give tips on how to interpret findings. The tips are particularly useful and should help investigators who take such readings to ensure that they are doing so in the most efficient manner. There is an excellent bibliography.
Dwight Whalen recounts the sort of event that should become more familiar as newspapers are digitised and scoured, a strange image seen in the sky at a place called Hetlerville, in Pennsylvania, USA (a place I’m surprised the residents didn’t rename in 1941, just in case outsiders misheard) which occurred in the summer of 1914. As Paijmans found with the accounts he examined, the story had spread, in this case to the Niagara Falls Journal, where Whalen found it by chance. Hetlerville locals saw strange scenes in the sky; Harry Hudleston saw an amazing sight – “an immense house filled with children dressed in white with a black band on the arm of each... the children came out of the house in columns of two, dividing at the door...” Coleridge would have been impressed. A neighbour also saw something, “like a picture thrown on the screen”.
These visions appeared in other places nearby as well, but the curious thing is that when Whalen recently asked someone who had grown up in Hetlerville if the story is recalled there today, she said she had never heard about it before. This makes it most unlike the story with which is shares some similarities: The Angel of Mons. At the time, the Hetlerville visions were put down to a searchlight belonging to a carnival, or the misinterpretation of a star, but the article considers other possibilities such as temperature inversion, or anxiety at the prospect of the Great War. Whalen attempts a symbolic interpretation of the images described which may or may not have some validity, but as he concludes, what happened in that small area of Pennsylvania almost a hundred years ago is now beyond reach of conclusive explanation.
Ulrich Magin explores the little-known (to say the least) Earth Mysteries topic of ‘out-of-place volcanoes’. While only three European countries – Iceland, Greece and Italy – boast volcanoes, there are stories of volcanoes from many more regions where there is just no evidence that such activity ever took place. Magin has collected a number of these, from places where you might think there have been volcanoes in the recent past, such as Norway and Switzerland, because of their mountains, or Russia, because it is so big, to others where the proposition seems ridiculous, not least all the British countries.
Some of the examples seem borderline. Looking at England, there is an account of an earthquake in the twelfth century during which “huge fires burst out of rifts in the earth”, and one in the eighteenth in which cliffs in Dorset began to smoke and then burn at intervals for several months. It’s hardly Mount Etna. On the other hand, a couple of eruptions which allegedly occurred in Ireland, one in Sligo and one in Antrim, were supposed to have killed large numbers of people and animals, and the latter was claimed to have destroyed an entire village.
Magin unsurprisingly concludes that the term out-of-place volcano covers a range of phenomena. These range from misinterpretation of natural phenomena, providing useful case studies in the limits of eyewitness testimony, to hoaxes, or the transposition of real volcanoes onto more familiar locations by hack journalists. The last of these links nicely with Paijmans’s article, and is a common problem with older sources, distinguishing the sincere from the fanciful. Unfortunately the term volcano conjures up a specific image, so perhaps further work is needed to categorise the examples presented by Magin, and others which are surely buried in the literature, in finer detail.
Cameron Matthew Blount considers two cultures in Peru, the Moché and the Nazca and amazingly gets through an entire article concerning the latter without mentioning Erich von Däniken. His warning that it is unwise to interpret any artwork that does not appear to fit with what is already known as ‘mythological’ as the default is well taken, as he gives examples of images which appeared to be non-realistic but which later turned out to be representational. Unfortunately though, by referring to the “Nazca Astronaut”, the implication is that this figure may well represent a figure which really dressed like that.
He does not actually say “alien visitors”, but it seems difficult to see what else he might have in mind. Rather like von Däniken he downplays the creativity of these early peoples; Blount thinks it likely that they did not have the time or resources to create “complex and abstract mythology”, and nothing to gain by doing so, a dubious assertion, but one that leaves open the possibility that as the “Astronaut”, an astonishingly loaded term to use in this context, if not mythological, must be something else. One wonders why his title mentions the Moché but not the Nazca.
Other articles range just as widely as these. Patrick J Gyger studies witch trials in Fribourg, Switzerland, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, using a collection of cases entitled Livres noirs. Aeolus Kephas compares Carlos Castaneda and Whitley Strieber, the link (apart from the accusations of hoaxing) being their acting as a conduit between mysterious entities with esoteric knowledge and the mundane world, that and continuing to write after they have passed their sell-by dates. The major difference seems to be that Castaneda possessed a sense of humour which Strieber lacks, and which Kephas rightly links to a sense of self-importance. Their tragedy, he concludes, may have been that because they wrote so much, they were not themselves able to assimilate the lessons they conveyed to others. And they could not find acceptance in either camp.
That John F Caddy presents a strange thesis is intimated by his title – ‘An Exercise in Transdimensional Zoology: Speculating on the Origin of the Chakras’, which includes his thoughts on the ability to time travel and move between dimensions. You see a lot of this sort of thing on the internet. One question I would like to ask Mr Caddy (apart from exactly what variety of scientist he is, which he does not specify) is why, if our ancestors’ attainment of an upright posture is related to the crown chakra being closer to the sky, and thus more specialised for “ethereal communications”, did they bother to come down from the trees, which are closer still?
Chris Payne presents complicated mathematics to try to determine whether, if thylacines have survived in small numbers, when their population might have become large enough for us to rediscover them, or conversely when it might be safe to assume that the species is extinct. Apparently, if one hasn’t turned up by the mid-2030s, we can be pretty sure it never will. Gary Lachman, also a name well known to readers of FT, contributes a frankly bizarre piece which consists of the footnotes from a book which were excised at the insistence of the publisher. Waste not want not, he has gathered them up and published them as a standalone article. They read like ... well, like a bunch of footnotes, or ideas for articles, undercooked nuggets. I’m sure that Lachman will make something interesting of them in due course, but the reader of an article expects some structure to it. The effect reminded me of Schopenhauer’s Essays and Aphorisms, and that is not necessarily a compliment.
Mark Pilkington, yet another FT regular, contributes an article on crop circles which continues his attempts to place the phenomenon within its cultural context. Pilkington presents a possible scenario: genuine anomalies inspire artists (ie Doug Bower and Dave Chorley) to create their own interpretations, which then grow into the phenomenon we know today (ie ostension in action), before showing how the situation is not that straightforward. His example is a shape first illustrated in Robert Plot’s 1686 The Natural History of Staffordshire (FT264, July 2010, contains an article by Paijmans on precursors of the modern phenomenon, again showing the value of online sources, which also refers to Plot.) Plot included a shape, a circle with a square inside it, which then turned up in the science fiction film Phase IV in 1973, predating Doug and Dave’s initial interest in circles by several years. While Pilkington concedes that it is unlikely they were aware of Plot’s book, he wonders if they (or their successors) may have seen the film, which then fed into their work, though as he points out, it begs the question why Doug and Dave did not borrow more from the film. I have to say that the square-in-a-circle reminds me of the end of a radiator key, which while unknown to Professor Plot, would presumably have been familiar to at least some of the makers of Phase IV, so perhaps the shape was borrowed, consciously or not, by a member of the production team fretting about whether his or her system needed bleeding.
Richard Wiseman provides a rather touching account of a magic trick he was shown by his grandfather at the age of 8, which sparked his interest in the subject, and the psychology of deception more widely. He describes an experiment in which he and his associates mounted a Victorian-style séance to investigate possible methods used by fraudulent mediums. By controlling the phenomena, in total darkness, they could compare what participants thought had happened to what really happened. I participated in one of these at a Fortean UnConvention, and it was remarkable how many people were fooled. At one point a stooge kept shouting that the table (marked by luminous dots) was rising, and while I could tell it wasn’t, knowing how it all worked, many of those present really thought it was levitating. Not only do many participants at these events misperceive what has happened, largely based on prior attitudes to the paranormal, but some also report other “spooky effects” such as a mysterious presence, shivers, or sense of energy flowing through them. Coleridge would be nodding his head sagely.
Following a page on psychologist Joseph Jastrow, who surely deserves far more space, Wiseman concludes by recounting his search for a film that was described in an article by Alfred Binet in 1894. He had collaborated with Georges Demenÿ (not Demeny, as Wiseman has it) in producing a rapid succession of photographs (chronophotographs) of magician Raynaly doing a very brief card trick. Three brief sequences were located in Paris, and by making digital copies, Wiseman was able to recreate one of these performances, just a few seconds long. The cover blurb says that Wiseman “recounts his discovery” which oversells it because it suggests the films were lost until Wiseman’s sleuthing unearthed them, but archivist Laurent Mannoni for one knew where they were.
The final article by Tim Cridland (also known as Zamora the Torture King) purports to show us the “real” James Randi, a much more complex man than his strident criticisms of the paranormal might suggest. In press before Randi’s announcement that he is gay, nevertheless Cridland’s article does a good job in excavating Randall Zwinge’s various activities, and shows how his accounts of them have varied over the years as he reinvents his persona and rewrites his history and motivations, showing him to be a master of spin in the process.
Cridland’s account of Randi’s early life is particularly valuable in peering behind the image, highlighting how he was able to tour in a psychic act, or write an astrology column, yet later, rather than be embarrassed when charged with hypocrisy, recast such jobs as a kind of social experiment. Randi’s relationship with Geller is covered, though there is no mention of cereal boxes, nor Randi’s departure from CSICOP. Cridland feels that examining Randi’s career is reasonable, given the way that Randi has himself subjected others to similar scrutiny. But more, it is reasonable because, Cridland argues, Randi promotes a “socio/spiritual viewpoint” and is willing to distort the truth for “the cause”, a cause that puts personal gain above the truth. As far as I am aware, Randi’s response is still awaited.
While Electricity of the Mind is generally entertaining, one minor criticism is the reprinting of articles which have already appeared in other places. Chris Payne’s article was first published in Mathematics Today (where it surely belongs, at least in this form; it should have been rewritten for a more general audience before Simmons accepted it). Mike Jay’s article, with the footnotes that are omitted here, is not only included on his website, but previously appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in 2006, though this outing does not mention either earlier incarnation. Aeolus Kephas’s piece is freely available on his website, dated 2008. While it is good that such generally high-quality material reaches a wider readership than might otherwise see it, one wonders if there is a scarcity of good original articles to fill the pages of The Anomalist. It would surprise me if there were.
This compendium of haunted locations in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire was originally written in 1978, but only published in an updated form in 2010 after Paul Adams believed that it should be made available to the general public. It is clearly presented with an excellent index, a ‘phenomena’ index and brief bibliography. The illustrations consist of photographs of some of the locations. As both a member of the Ghost Club and the Society for Psychical Research Tony has had a long history of investigating haunted sites and especially in the two counties researched here and one other location (Edlesborough) just over the border in Buckinghamshire.
There are far too many places to mention all of them by name, but some are treated to quite detailed investigations and notably Chicksands Priory, The Fox & Duck, Therfield and several locations in Luton, the author’s home town. Having lived in Luton a few years ago I was particularly interested in the latter and learned of a number of sites that I could have visited if I had known about them at the time. The Hertfordshire section was of even more interest to me as a Herts. born and bred resident (St Albans) who has conducted a number of investigations there myself. St Albans is particularly well served with a special description of the allegedly haunted Salisbury Hall.
Tony’s style of writing is both informative and clear. He provides plenty of evidence and quotes eye-witness accounts when possible. As to conclusions he wisely often leaves them to the reader and certainly does not try to dictate what we should believe from the facts presented.
I thoroughly recommend this book and would especially advise readers who live in or near Hertfordshire or Bedfordshire to purchase a very reasonably priced guide.
After writing about paranormal Newcastle and the North-East, Darren W Ritson throws his net wider still to encompass the entire North of England. This is a substantial book, though the author acknowledges he can only skim the surface, and he writes about his passion with an engaging style.
The book is clearly laid out, with separate chapters on different locations, some based on secondary sources, others containing cases which Ritson has investigated personally. The format is a travel guide, working from the east (Newcastle upon Tyne) to the west (Chester) with a miscellaneous chapter rounding up various properties, and another on screaming skulls. He is a native of Newcastle, and his enthusiasm for the area is infectious. After Newcastle he considers North Tyneside, where he now lives, and includes extracts from the SPR’s Journal from December 1892 on ‘The Haunted House at Willington’.
He devotes a chapter to the South Shields Poltergeist, beginning with an emotional outpouring which indicates just how hurtful he has found the personal attacks on his and co-author Mike Hallowell’s probity. This sense of anger continues in the chapter on Preston Hall Museum, Stockton on Tees, where he and Hallowell gave a talk on the case. The brief overview is a useful taster for their book The South Shields Poltergeist: One Family’s Fight Against an Invisible Intruder, subject of a review by Alan Murdie in the April 2010 issue of the SPR’s Journal.
Other places visited include sites in County Durham, Berwick upon Tweed, Yorkshire and Lancashire. The choice is selective, and as is the case with this type of volume, many of the stories he recounts are not subjected to close scrutiny. There is too some repetition from his earlier books which is surprising given the number of properties he might have included. But Ritson is a genial companion as he travels about the region. Peppered among the ghost stories are autobiographical snippets, including the startling information that in his younger days he was a dancer on a television show.
These Amberley books are all of a uniform, and reasonable, price. Ritson’s is very good value at 202 pages, but it is apparent that one way of holding down the costs, apart from failing to provide an index in any of these books, is by skimping on copy editing. A quick read-through of the manuscript would have ironed out the grammatical errors. But it’s a rattling read, with plenty of name checks for the SPR.
Mark Rosney, Rob Bethell and Jebby Robinson are collectively Para-Projects, a group active in the North-West of England. They have put together an informative and entertaining book aimed at those who have little or no experience of investigating spontaneous cases.
Renée Scheltema, an experienced Cape Town-based filmmaker, was stimulated to begin a personal quest by three separate events occurring in quick succession. Her daughter experienced a dream which appeared to be precognitive; she felt compelled to phone her father, and discovered that he had had a serious accident; and she witnessed a demonstration of spoon bending which intrigued her, even though she concluded that it probably involved sleight of hand. She thought about these incidents, trying to make sense of them, and wondered how she might distinguish between tricks and truth, what is psychic and what is fraudulent, and how strong the evidence for paranormal claims might be. Those musings resulted in this film, nine years in the making and edited from over 100 hours of footage.
Information about the film is available on its website, www.somethingunknown.com
There is more than one way to conduct a paranormal investigation and, while it will not necessarily be to the taste of those who take enough surveillance gear on vigils to equip MI5, there is much of interest in Michelle Belanger’s book. In particular, it will be of use to those who feel that they are experiencing entities in their homes, and do not know where to turn for advice.
There is much talk of ‘energy’, but Belanger is careful to note that she is using the term as an approximation for what, as she sees it, provides the common ground for both us and ghosts; she refers to energy “as a kind of linguistic placeholder.” This is not a type of energy amenable to instrumentation, relying rather for detection on human psychic abilities, which she insists we all have to a greater or lesser degree (and which can be developed). She admits that it will be dismissed as imaginary by many if an alleged spirit does not deflect the needle on a whatsitometer, but argues that the human being is more sensitive – and much less understood – than our technology, capable of detecting phenomena to a greater degree than an electronic device.
The heart of the book is a series of techniques focusing on developing the ability to interact with this energy in order to deal with spirits, and Belanger provides a step by step guide, in clear language, to the basic principles. Chapters deal with establishing personal boundaries, cleansing a house, understanding the motivations, or lack of them, of spirits, and evicting those that are definitely a nuisance. She also discusses the use of symbols, which she considers useful tools, but contends that what they are is less important than their underlying meanings and the intent with which they are used.
As a device upon which to hang her explanations, Belanger uses a case study format. This shows how an ordinary chap, ‘Irving’, pestered by an infestation of spirits in his house, is transformed with help from Belanger and a colleague from a victim scared of his own shadow, not to mention those in the wardrobe, into someone with the self-assurance to take charge of his situation. The core of the book is about psychic self-defence, a determination not to be intimidated by things that go bump in the night, but rather to understand them, accommodate them where possible, and deal with them firmly when necessary. The stress is on empowerment rather than helplessness.
Ghost hunting groups have proliferated hugely in recent years, often on a commercial basis, but there is no reliable method of assessing their effectiveness. It takes a great deal of faith to trust yourself to strangers solely on their word, particularly when you are in a stressful situation, and although Belanger has designed this book primarily for group use, it will also be of value to individuals with little prior knowledge of the subject who believe that they are experiencing a paranormal situation. Whatever one thinks of the theoretical basis of her approach, Belanger has supplied tools that will give them the confidence to tackle it themselves, and confidence is largely what it is all about.
Where Belanger scores over many of the more nuts and bolts guidebooks is that she takes what is effectively a client-centred approach – and in a sense that includes the ghosts. For her, the person faced with the situation is more than simply part of the investigation, as is so often the case with groups, who can be insensitive to the needs of those that they are ostensibly trying to help. This puts control back into the hands of the victim, and the techniques can be used by those who have varying religious beliefs and who prefer to trust a ‘higher power’, or who have none at all.
The book is free from dogma, and Belanger stresses that there are many variations on the principles she describes. The important thing, as she says, is that whatever is happening stops, and how it happens is of secondary importance. She has wise words for paranormal groups who may seek to impose a particular interpretation on a situation. Given how little we still know about the subject, it is arrogant to assume that a particular view is the only one, and she urges ghost hunters to resist portraying themselves as bearers of THE truth, and to acknowledge that any explanation that they may offer has limitations.
Those spontaneous case researchers who prefer to stick with their instrumentation might still profit from a consideration of the techniques discussed, even if they only consider them to be psychological props. Groups often use mediums whose role is as much social worker as conveyor of information; they provide a narrative that the householders can accept, the unknown becomes known (at least to the clients’ satisfaction), and tension is removed from the situation. Belanger does not talk about the use of mediums because she feels that we all have that ability within ourselves (and she certainly does not agree with the concept of moving spirits ‘into the light’, considering it presumptuous to assume we are the best judges of the spirits’ needs) but the techniques she describes fulfil much the same role of taking the heat out of the situation and giving back a sense of control. And if the researcher gains information in the process, everyone wins.