More regional paranormal guides from Amberley Publishing

By multiple authors: Austin, Cadey, Cameron, Butt, English, Smith

Amberley Publishing is one of the most significant producers of regional paranormal books in the country, issuing them at a prodigious rate.  I’ve rounded up a few titles, but this is just a sample, and I would recommend visiting their website to see if there is one for your area, or an area you plan to visit.  You can find reviews of some of the other titles on this website.

 

Paranormal Anglesey, by Bunty Austin, 2013, ISBN 9781848683150

Paranormal Bath, by Malcolm Cadey, 2010, ISBN 9781848681767

Paranormal Eastbourne, by Janet Cameron, 2010, ISBN 9781848689961

Paranormal Leicester, by Stephen Butt, 2011, ISBN 9781848687523

Paranormal Surrey, by Marq English, 2011, ISBN 9781848688964

Haunted Wiltshire, by Sonia Smith, 2012, ISBN 9781848684027




Reviewed for the SPR by: Tom Ruffles


Parnormal Anglesey, by Bunty Austin

I previously reviewed Bunty Austin’s More Anglesey Ghosts, and as the title suggests, even that wasn’t the first of her books about the island.  We’ve had Haunted Anglesey (2005) and Anglesey Ghosts (2009), as well as More Anglesey Ghosts (2011).  So many ghosts stories from a relatively small place, 276 square miles.  How does she do it?

Well, one way is to set the threshold for inclusion very low.  Austin can more rightly be said to be a collector than a researcher.  The results are not selected according to an evidential criterion, they are yarns she has been told, and she reports them as she heard them.  Actually, that is not quite true, because she has acknowledged that she elaborates, happy to shape a tale to make a better story.  There are great slabs of quoted dialogue with no suggestion of a tape recorder; anyway much of it occurs with Austin not present, so it has to be reconstructed.

It is impossible to check the accuracy of her accounts, rendering them unsuitable for psychical researchers whose aim, however often thwarted in practice, is to examine reliable data.  She will report quite amazing phenomena, but then move on to the next marvel, even though her descriptions, if they could be verified, would confer the status of instant classics.  That they aren’t cited in the literature, despite their dramatic quality, suggests that most readers take them with a large pinch of halen.

If I lived on Anglesey I would definitely want this book and its predecessors on my shelf because they are enjoyable local stories, well told.  But they occupy, I would suggest, the fluid space between fact and fiction, and the reader has to decide how far towards one side of that space these tales are situated.

 

Paranormal Bath, by Malcolm Cadey

You might be forgiven on purchasing this book for thinking that the title is exceedingly misleading.  Although you would expect a book called Paranormal Bath to be about paranormal Bath, in fact it is almost entirely about Bath’s Theatre Royal and a little about next door‘s Garrick‘s Head pub..  Other places in the city occupy a mere three pages, despite the back referring to a “heart-stopping ghost walk around the ancient city of Bath.”

Never mind, Richard Holland includes the Theatre Royal in his Top 50 ‘Most Haunted Places in Britain’ and calls it possibly the most haunted theatre in the country (Malcolm Cadey is sure it is the most haunted), so it is worth a book in its own right.  Cadey is the right person to write it as well, having worked front of house there for some years and having had a spooky experience of his own (his professional involvement in the theatre makes it all the more surprising that he gets the title of the well-known play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell badly wrong).  He also runs the Bath ghost tour.

Referring to the theatre as the “epicentre” of a “truly haunted city”, he says that he has made attempts to verify the stories he has heard, discarding those from single witnesses for which he could find no corroboration.  Despite this, for some he does not always indicate what form the verification takes, and they are resolutely anecdotal.

After some preliminary remarks on the nature of consciousness and ghosts that you don’t normally find in this type of book, and a brief history of the theatre, he launches into a description of its ghosts and the events that have happened to staff and visitors.  There are actually only three chapters, equating to a three-act play.  Two are on the most famous paranormal phenomena associated with the building, the butterfly legend (dating from 1948, live butterflies foretelling success, dead ones portending disaster) and one on the even more famous Grey Lady, with a more general chapter of miscellaneous happenings sandwiched between.

Like Bunty Austin, Cadey is happy to invent dialogue to round out his stories and there are no references here either, so despite his concern to present stories for which he says there is independent evidence, their value as research is compromised.  If you are a resident in or visitor to Bath, or a theatre buff, you will find these stories of interest, but they are perhaps a little specialised for the general reader who wants to sample a range of phenomena associated with a town or city.

 

Paranormal Eastbourne, by Janet Cameron

Janet Cameron is a retired creative writing lecturer, so her book is well written, but she is a true crime specialist, not an expert on the paranormal, as I noted in my review of her Paranormal Brighton and Hove.  She has again relied mainly on secondary sources, supplemented by some interviews.  As well as Eastbourne, the book covers Seaford, Pevensey (packed full of strange occurrences, it has a chapter of its own), East Dean, Alfriston, Polegate and Beachy Head (the last unsurprisingly has accumulated some ghost stories), and villages in the area.

Eastbourne has the reputation of being somewhat sedate, but on this evidence that reputation is most unwarranted.  The contents are wide ranging, taking in the pier; the sewage treatment works; ecclesiastical buildings; The Royal Hippodrome; an art gallery; the Eastbourne Redoubt, a Napoleonic-era fortress said to be haunted by a headless horse, decapitated during the Charge of the Light Brigade; the usual pubs, bars and hotels; and miscellaneous stories of ghosts, poltergeists and unexplained goings-on, including a few involving animals, plus a couple of ‘Old hag’ experiences that Cameron suggests could have been caused by something more than mere sleep paralysis.

The latter portion of the book moves away from the standard ghostly fare.  The so-called Devil’s Capri – though Capri Pants might be a more appropriate title – with the number plate ARK 666Y has a generous chapter, filled with ‘coincidences’, promotion of which is not of course in any way connected with financial considerations on the part of the car’s owner.  Naturally, because of the 666 element, Aleister Crowley is dragged in, though as far as I know he never drove a Capri (Cameron consistently misspells Crowley’s first name). Apparently Lionel Fanthorpe exorcised the car, according to his own account, which seems to be, in a sense, adding fuel to the fire.

There is a chapter on UFOs and crop circles, though confusingly it is entitled ‘“We Are Not Alone” – Orbs and Spheres’, and orbs are generally associated with camera artefacts (though there is a school of thought that considers, without any evidence, photographic orbs to be evidence of the presence of spirits).  The book concludes with some local witches and a quick overview of Sussex superstition and folklore.

The treatment feels somewhat uneven in tone, but nonetheless Janet Cameron has produced a good overview of some of the Eastbourne area’s odder aspects.  There is a bibliography of books and articles dealing with ghosts and folklore which have local relevance, allowing the reader to learn more about this lovely part of the country and its definitely mysterious side. Though why she thinks that Oxford professor “Mr.“ Richard Dawkins hails from Dallas, Texas, is possibly the biggest mystery of all.

 

Paranormal Leicester, by Stephen Butt

Leicester is a city that has been neglected by previous paranormal writers.  As Stephen Butt’s book is rather short, that may be for a reason.  It begins with a chapter on general haunting, and one on folklore and superstitions.  Then there is a chapter on the ‘Belgrave Triangle’ as it is known.  This is somewhat smaller than its Bermuda counterpart, centring on the old village of Belgave, now absorbed as the city has expanded (things are supposed to disappear in spooky triangles, not the other way round).  It is home to Belgrave Hall, probably reputed to be Leicester’s most haunted spot, the other two locations being the Talbot pub and the churchyard.

After one on ‘Black Annis’, a local witch, a long chapter recounts the life of James Robert Lees, the Leicester-born medium who has been spuriously linked to Jack the Ripper, though he actually spent very little of his life in Leicester.  A heavily padded chapter describes in detail the old BBC local radio in Apex House.  Its length may not be unconnected to the fact that the author was at one time a senior BBC broadcast journalist.  Total phenomena appear to have been temperature drops reported twenty years apart by two unnamed witnesses, a producer and journalist respectively, and unexplained noises emanating from a cupboard reported by the producer.

One nice touch, actually not particularly common in this type of book, is a ghost walk.  Unfortunately it shows up the paucity of Leicester’s paranormal heritage in that it is rather unghostly, though you do get to see some attractive buildings.  It is also now out of date as it mentions the possibility that the body of Richard III might be buried beneath a certain car park…

The book is well written, has a good selection of photographs and useful references, but while Butt has tried his best, the paranormal content is thin, bulked out with general history.  Perhaps the net could have been cast more widely across the whole county to put a bit more meat into it.  I don’t see Leicester as a prime tourist spot, which means that this one will be mainly purchased by residents, so sales are likely to be lower than for other titles in the series.

 

Paranormal Surrey, by Marq English

Surrey is a county that long struggled to maintain its identity against encroachment as London expanded.  In order to simplify matters, Marq English, a Carshalton resident, has employed the Surrey border pre-1965 to make his selection.  That was the point at which large chunks of the county became outer boroughs of the capital (and Middlesex was lost entirely).  Consequently he has been able to include a large number of stories of all types in locations ranging from rural to small town to suburban, which makes for a varied read.

English is well-connected in the world of paranormal research (Ciaran O’Keeffe contributes a foreword) and has a great deal of experience, so as you might expect, he writes as an investigator rather than a local historian looking for a new outlet.  He has his own ghost investigation group, ‘Spiral Paranormal’, which is a welcome contrast to the Most Haunted approach in that while it films investigations and put them on its website, it is not afraid to show that nothing has occurred rather than editing for dramatic effect.  They do use a medium, though, which can be controversial because of the difficulty in verifying the findings.

The layout is alphabetical so while there isn’t an index, places should be easy to find, but the ordering is a little idiosyncratic, using building names rather than locations.  If you are in Sutton you would probably check ‘Sutton’ before looking at ‘Angel pub, Sutton’, or ‘Guildford’ rather than ‘Angel Hotel, Guildford’.  You aren’t likely to check every pub you come across in the hope that it is here.   Buildings which have the place in their names are fine: Reigate Priory and Richmond Palace, for example.  Sydney Neville Levitt is found under ‘S’, between Swan Corner, Leatherhead and Thunderfield Castle, Horley, so don’t bother checking under ‘L’.  Either way, including him in a Sutton section would have been much more helpful.

The contents cover a substantial proportion of fairly recent cases instead of a heavy reliance on folklore and old newspaper archives (there is some folklore, which is fine as it is part of the paranormal context), though sources are generally lacking.  The best-known place has to be Hampton Court, and the famous 2003 incident, caught on CCTV, of a fire door opening on three consecutive days, with a figure shown in the doorway on the second, is noted in passing.  The text is a little garbled, but English seems to agree that this was a hoax.

A couple of pages on being a ghost hunter, a couple on Spiral Paranormal, a fascinating profile of the author, websites and a bibliography conclude the book.  The advice for would-be ghost hunters includes the suggestion that they could participate in an event organised by a commercial company, and the website list contains a number of paranormal event organisations. It would have been helpful to point out that they are there to make a profit, and may not be the most impartial of tutors for those beginners who wish to learn the techniques of sound investigation.  That caveat aside, this is a worthwhile paranormal tour through an interesting county, though as is often sadly the case, the keen reader wishes that more detailed information had been provided on some of the cases.

 

Haunted Wiltshire, by Sonia Smith

Sonia Smith’s book is an unusual entrant in the Amberley paranormal range.  While many volumes dedicated to an area will contain stories that feel dubious and not to be taken seriously, these actually read like fiction, with no sources, no corroboration, and nothing to tell you that they are anything other than fabrications.

It’s true that they may be based on historical events or folklore; apparently, for example Cherhill did boast naked highwaymen (who presumably rode their horses with care), and there were three graves containing plague victims at Urchfont, though the occupants were local, not Londoners, and they died in 1644, not 1665.  But in every case where one is identifiable, the historical foundation appears to have been used as the pretext for a drama that could have come from the author’s head.

Accounts this dramatic would surely be better known.  Charitably, it can be said that Smith has been extremely fortunate to have brought to light so many astonishing cases hitherto unknown to researchers.  On the other hand, dialogue is certainly invented, and unless the author can provide details of real witness statements and documentation, I would consider the default verdict to be that the rest of it is, too.  It is clearly not a coincidence that Algernon Blackwood is name-checked in the first line of the foreword, and the first story, featuring a kind of hybrid vampire/possession, draws on the Victorian horror short story tradition.

If you are wondering why the title is Haunted rather than Paranormal, the reason is because Amberley published Paranormal Wiltshire, by David Scanlan, in 2009, a text not referred to by Smith.  What she has added to the literature is not clear.  If another book on the county had been required, Paranormal Site Investigators, a highly experienced group based in Swindon, would have been more suitably qualified for the task of compiling it.

Smith’s fifteen short stories are fun to read, but the book feels awkwardly situated in Amberley’s non-fiction series.  Anyone approaching it hoping to learn something about Wiltshire’s paranormal history may come away feeling a little short-changed.