Books reviewed by SPR reviewers
Patricia Pearson, like many people, became interested in the possibility of an afterlife, and what it might be like, as a result of bereavement. In her case it was the deaths of her father and sister in a short space of time which prompted her interest, but more importantly her sister Katharine’s feeling, while suffering from aggressive breast cancer, of a presence the night their father died but before she learned of it. It suggested to Katharine the possibility that he had visited her to say farewell, giving her much comfort. Intrigued by this event, Patricia decided to look into the subject to see if it could have a meaning that pointed to something more than coincidence.
Opening Heaven’s Door is the result. In it Pearson surveys phenomena which suggest the continuation of some kind of consciousness, interweaving her research and interviews with her own anecdotes, giving her journey a personal aspect lacking in technical academic texts. Her approach makes discussion of the issues more digestible for the interested person who does not want to wrestle with the specialised literature. She covers a range of issues relevant to the consideration of the survival of bodily death, such as deathbed visions, or ‘Nearing Death Awareness’, including terminal lucidity, shared (between living and dying) death visions and the highly significant ‘Peak in Darien’ cases in which a dying person recounts seeing someone who has died but of whose parting they were unaware; apparitions; dreams and visions of the living that coincide with someone’s death; the sense those in extreme peril often have of a guiding force coming from outside themselves; and of course Near-Death Experiences, the topic with the highest profile in the field today.
In the process she shows how common these various phenomena are, but not much talked about by either those who have them or those who witness others having them, because people do not want to be tagged as hysterical, delusional, or weak-minded. In a society where ‘letting go’ is prized for mental health, talking about connections with the afterlife comes to seem pathological. She recounts a conversation at a party in which she discussed her sister’s experience the night their father died, and was shocked at how easily it was attributed to imagination, with no attempt to consider whether there was some factor that could not be reduced to a chance correlation. By contrast she finds the sorts of theories couched in terms of hallucinations, wishful thinking, anoxia and other by-products generated by a dying brain to ease the transition to extinction to be inadequate as explanations. End-of-life experiences and those reported by people who have undergone an NDE possess a coherence and vividness not exhibited by the fragmentary imagery caused by lack of oxygen or administration of drugs.
However, the secrecy that has surrounded these experiences in the past is giving way as those who have undergone them are becoming more willing to speak out than they used to be and more research is published, attaining a higher profile in the media. The result is an ever-expanding database, and complex theoretical debates, that have generated a rich body of data that can be daunting to the newcomer. That it can still be difficult to speak out is indicated by Pearson herself, when she recounts how she saw a platform medium who gave a series of messages highly relevant to her that seemed to come from her late sister, but which she found she could not acknowledge in public.
The book is very readable, though Pearson perhaps foregrounds the personal angle more than is necessary. What is lacking in her journalistic approach is the depth that comes from a thorough familiarity with the literature beyond that which meets hr immediate needs in writing the book. For example she refers to Sir William Barrett simply as a physicist in Dublin, and suggests that he wrote his classic 1926 book Death-Bed Visions because of a case that his wife had drawn to his attention in 1924 (it appears in the December 1924 issue of the SPR’s Journal, ‘A Remarkable Case of Vision of the Dying’). She does not indicate what a significant figure he had been more generally as a psychical researcher during the preceding half century. The SPR itself barely rates a mention.
There is no new research here, but it is a useful survey that makes an accessible introduction and anyone interested enough to read this will have a good foundation to go into the topics Pearson covers in more detail. It is possible that much of the evidence she presents can be explained in terms of normal, if unusual, processes, but to reflexively dismiss such experiences as ‘woo’, as so often happens, is inimical to healthy debate. Many possess a dimension that on the face of it seems to indicate something extraordinary is occurring. It is the type of experience that suggests some psi element at work which particularly deserves close scrutiny to see if we can determine what is going on. Pearson finished her investigation a different person to the one who started it, and her journey of discovery deserves to be taken seriously, whatever conclusions we wish to draw from it.
A separate review, by Robert McLuhan, appeared in the October 2014 issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
A review by Michael Potts appeared in the January 2015 issue of The Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
A review by Steve Hume appeared in the January 2015 issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
A review of Wolf Messing: The True Story of Russia’s Greatest Psychic, by Tom Ruffles and Alexandra Nagel, appeared in the January 2015 issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
Miles Edward Allen is the author of a number of books, the Survival Files: The Most Convincing Evidence Yet Compiled for the Survival of Your Soul; The Afterlife Confirmed: Even More Convincing Evidence from the Survival Files; and Defending Bridey’s Honor (that is Bridey Murphy, concerning reincarnation), among others. More people will probably know his work, if not his name, as president of The Association for Evaluation and Communication of Evidence for Survival and his The Survival Top 40. The last of these is an attempt to ascertain the strongest survival cases by using a scoring system based on objective criteria. Critics may argue that we never know enough about the detail of cases to say with certainty that scores can be assigned with confidence, but it is an interesting project which has helped to raise the profile of the best-attested cases from among the mass of weaker evidence.
Now Allen has produced Astral Intimacy: Fifty Spirits Speak About Life, Love, and Sex After Death. He has chosen a provocatively eye-catching but misleading title, because the book covers much more than that. It is a compilation of quotations arranged thematically, taken from books published between 1852 and 2001 in which spirits have allegedly communicated to the living the details of their environment as they understand them.
Reading through the fifty sources, totalling fifty-eight books, from which the communications are drawn, Allen has scored them to assess their perceived value as sources. He has then extracted representative quotations which describe conditions in the afterlife and the relationship of its inhabitants to those still alive, interspersed with his comments. As might be expected from his back-catalogue, Allen starts from the position that survival is a fact, and that mediumistic communications, used with care, are valuable sources that allow insights into that other life.
Before getting into the quotes, Allen takes a detour into Biblical exegesis, tackling the generally negative view which that volume has concerning spirit communication, possibly to reassure those who feel that their faith prohibits taking an interest in such matters that they need not fear that they are going counter to their beliefs. Those in that category who read on may occasionally find it an uncomfortable experience because organised religion takes something of a beating, as Allen’s view of it is that it is a means for the exercise of power.
Beginning with what is said about the process of transition at the end of this life, the quotations deal with the reactions of those who have just passed over, then the various stages through which souls pass: the lowest astral plane, the Shadow Lands, Summerland, how reincarnation works, and on to the higher realms, which spirits themselves cannot adequately describe nor the living adequately comprehend.
Most space is given over to Summerland, its society, the development of children, the status of animals, how travel is accomplished, the work its inhabitants do, leisure activities (television isn’t mentioned, which will be a relief to some, but there are books aplenty) and learning, the fruits of which are often transmitted to scientists on earth. Initially conditions are similar to those on earth, but diverge as spirits progress and leave self-imposed constraints behind. In all this God is real, but is considered a remote beneficent presence accessible only to those who have progressed the most.
The final chapters sum up the main points uniting the quotations, showing that from the first, by Adin Ballou in 1852, there has been a remarkable amount of consistency in the communications, which Allen sees as strong evidence that they contain a large degree of truth. Towards the end he comes back to examine some of the plot holes in the Book of Genesis, and the way that issues of sexual shame can be used for social control, that feel more like an anti-established religion hobbyhorse than an integral part of the book.
It’s a quick read which extracts the essence from what can be ponderous and windy musings by those who have departed this life and are sending back reports. Communicators range from well-known Spiritualist classics to the obscure. Cumulatively they form a reasonably coherent image of the afterlife, and Allen summarises them into a number of points which draw out the major conclusions. Before reaching the quotations a number of representative cases are presented to show that, if accurately reported, there is good evidence for the survival of bodily death.
Overall this is a heartening vision, one in which we continue to learn and evolve, and be together with loved ones, where earthly religious piety counts for less than one’s moral outlook (so even atheists who have led an ethical life should not be disadvantaged, unlike those who commit atrocities in the name of their faith). It is a humane vision, not a sterile one of gathering to praise a supreme being, but one in which the spirit works towards self-actualisation. The lowest levels may be pretty grim, but if they are it’s because it is a grimness of its inhabitants’ own making, and one from which they can progress eventually, once they have achieved the necessary self-awareness, while those who are more ‘advanced’ skip them altogether.
And what about sex? It definitely happens, at least initially, before the emphasis shifts to more ethereal planes. It is sex without guilt and with no risk of unwanted pregnancy or disease, conducted as part of a loving relationship. It reflects the earthly realm not as a separate sphere, but as a continuation of what comes afterwards. as suggested by the epilogue taken from G. Vale Owen, which talks about the importance of living in such a way that once the transition is made, progress can be smooth and uninterrupted. Allen has used the idea of ‘sex after death’ as a hook for the curious reader, but it is an important point which the literature stresses, that there are continuities between this existence and the next, that life after death is not so very different to life before it; except that in a strange way, to be ‘dead’ is to be more alive than the still-living.
Throughout, Allen’s tone is respectful but light, indicating where there are contradictions or claims that seem puzzling. These can always be overcome by arguing that spirits do not become omniscient suddenly simply because they are dead, and those at differing levels have views that appear contradictory but may reflect their limited perspectives. There is also the issue of communication difficulties and the problem of casting experiences that are beyond human understanding into terms that can be understood. Alternatively it may all be wishful thinking, but even if it is, there are worse things to believe. The book will make a good introduction for anybody interested in learning something about survival before tackling longer, more demanding texts.
This title was reviewed by Walter Meyer zu Erpen in the Society's Journal, July 2014.
Physical Séance Room Recollections, a pair of CDs containing first-hand accounts of physical mediumship, is produced by Stewart Alexander, a well-known medium himself and author of An Extraordinary Journey: The Memoirs of a Physical Medium. He was also President and Archives Officer of the now-defunct Noah’s Ark Society for Physical Mediumship in the early 1990s, and had realised in talking to older Spiritualists that over time their vivid memories of the mediums of the past, and the physical manifestations they had witnessed, would be lost. He decided he ought to try to preserve these memories for future generations, to which end he put out an appeal for audio recordings to be sent to him. A cassette assembling several submissions (‘The Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism – Archives Compilation Tape 1’) was made available to members of the Noah’s Ark Society in 1995.
As the tape was restricted to members of the Society, it had a fairly small distribution, and the demise of the organisation precluded any further releases. Alexander has now taken the original cassette and added further recordings to make up a two-CD set. The recordings have been digitised, cleaned and processed by Lew Sutton, but the quality is variable, unsurprising considering many were made at home on amateur equipment, probably small analogue recorders with built-in microphones. In addition to the speakers themselves, Alexander introduces them with biographical details to give some context. These are not interviews so are not structured, but that allows for a degree of spontaneity which might be lost in a formal conversation.
The first disc (77 minutes) begins with a new introduction by Alexander, plus the original 1995 introduction. Tracks 2-4 are a 20 minute extract from a very entertaining lecture on physical mediumship given in 1976 at a Reading Spiritualist church by Douglas Lawrence. He describes witnessing ectoplasm, looking like a large white shimmering silk sheet (but wasn’t), ‘translucent, glistening and beautiful’. Because it is a public event he is reticent about mentioning names of mediums, but it gets the collection off to a good start. Track 5 is provided courtesy of the SPR and is different in being a séance room recording of Mrs Gladys Osborne Leonard, sitting with the Rev. Charles Drayton Thomas. (Alexander dates this to 1951, but it closely resembles the two Mrs Leonard tracks included on the 2007 triple CD Okkulte Stimmen Mediale Musik: Recording of Unseen Intelligences 1905-2007, one with W. S. Irving and Theodore Besterman, dated 17 November 1932, the other with Drayton Thomas, dated 6 January 1933.) Other tracks on the first CD feature Eugene Woods from Ohio, USA, Kathleen Allen, and Joan Honor, all Noah’s Ark-era contributions.
The second disc (76 minutes) has the final reminiscence from the original cassette, Elsie Richards on medium Frank Havard, followed by the 1995 summary plus a new addendum containing a fresh appeal for additions to Stewart’s collection. Subsequent tracks were not on the original cassette. William Cookson and the Rev. Merrill recount their memories, followed by another non-Noah’s Ark recording, extracts from a lecture given to the College of Psychic Studies by Ivy Northage in 1990. In it she displays great talent as a raconteur. The longest in the set, it occupies 38 minutes over four tracks. The final track is the daughter of Mrs L. T. Gordon, reading her mother’s written account of her experiences.
Cumulatively the CDs paint a vivid picture of a Spiritualist culture which has always been controversial, but whatever the listener’s opinion, these accounts are told with absolute sincerity, compassion and often humour. The notion of a ‘Christmas Tree party’, in which spirit children choose gifts and take the etheric component with them, leaving the earthly form behind, will not convince the sceptical, but these witnesses do not come across as gullible fools, even when talking about the most remarkable phenomena, including materialisations and ectoplasm. While there are no guarantees that what the witnesses say happened really did happen, they have left a valuable record. The listener will have to decide how credible they are, but whatever position one takes on the reality of what is said to have occurred, this is a window into the past that comes alive in a way that it wouldn’t if transcribed onto the page.
There is a great interest in non-elite oral history these days, but in 1995 there was less awareness of its value. The project shows us that it is easy to be blasé about earlier times, and then find it is too late to do anything about it as witnesses die. This is the kind of initiative which should be carried on in a rolling programme so that today’s witnesses are able to give permanent expression of their memories for tomorrow. In parapsychology, Rosemarie Pilkington has issued two volumes of Men and Women of Parapsychology:, Personal Reflections, and more recently Carlos Alvarado has produced his online ‘People in Parapsychology’ series, but these can only touch a fraction of the workers in that field. Spiritualism is even less well served. In seeking to preserve these memories, Stewart Alexander has done a huge service to future historians of the subject, and anyone else with an interest in physical mediumship, in making these recordings available. As the title suggests, Alexander has more in his collection so this project will continue. It is also to be hoped that in due course the full archive is deposited in a suitable home, and made available to researchers in its entirety. In the meantime, it is to be hoped that anyone with stories of physical mediumship will get in touch
Details of how to obtain the album can be obtained from Stewart Alexander – stewart.alexander [at] finka.karoo.co.uk. The cost is £12.50 plus p&p.
That’s a strong claim by Alex Tsakiris; ‘almost’ doesn’t leave very much that science appears to be doing right. Even those who feel that science’s boundaries have been drawn too tightly, and orthodoxy imposes a too-rigid limit on what should be considered acceptable subject-matter, may take issue, finding science pretty useful for everyday life. In fact Rupert Sheldrake, who wrote the foreword, felt uncomfortable with the title. While characterising Tsakiris as a ‘fearless investigator’ he considered it went ‘too far’, as science was right about ‘a great many things.’ Sheldrake thought that the title should have restricted itself to science’s failings in investigating consciousness.
Even the endorsement by Dean Radin, who would agree with much of what Tsakiris says and who is treated positively in the book, begins: ‘There’s nothing wrong with science itself.’ The problem, as Radin continues, is with scientists who misrepresent the evidence. Tsakiris, presumably for marketing purposes, preferred his original title, but his provocative strategy may backfire. While he will get a number to pick up the book because they are intrigued by its title, he is as likely to deter others who might agree with some of his sentiments but who feel that such a title is merely a stick that opponents can use to beat them with as scientific illiterates, or that someone who takes such an extreme stance is going to be an unreliable commentator.
Tsakiris is of course no stranger to controversy. His Skeptiko podcast has carried interviews with researchers and thinkers of diverse persuasions. He began in 2007 and at the time of writing this his show has clocked up over 260 interviews. Why Science is Wrong contains extracts from a selection of these, a tiny fraction of the total, grouped thematically, and they demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of his agenda.
Science, according to the chapter titles, is wrong about all sorts of things. It is wrong about … consciousness, quantum physics (five pages that barely touch on the topic), near-death experiences, psychics and mediums, telepathy (including the canine variety), psychic detectives, healing and medicine, atheism, Darwin and evolution, even science itself. Tsakiris admits he is not a scientist and his persona is that of a keenly interested fast-learning autodidact able to talk with ease on the same level as experts who may have spent decades studying a subject (though he has an MBA, so he is no slouch intellectually).
He has a robust – putting it mildly – interviewing style. At his best, with a subject he knows a lot about (notably NDEs) and with a sympathetic interviewee, his conversations can be illuminating. Conversely he can pick out the weaknesses of his interviewees’ arguments in a way that is merciless. He is adept at showing how little sceptics (or rather pseudo-sceptics) have often thought about the ramifications of the subject they are on to talk about. In that sense Tsakiris provides a useful service in showing that simply because someone expresses a view strongly, it does not necessarily mean it is based on deep research. On the other hand he has a tendency to take an inability to provide a counter-argument as evidence for his own position, and he is not even-handed when debating those whose ideas he finds uncongenial.
The book is billed as ‘A rollcking assault on science’s inability to answer life’s most important questions’. I’m not sure it counts as rollicking, but an assault it certainly is. The section on consciousness attacks the premise that consciousness is solely a product of the brain. It seems that the reason why Tsakiris chose his title, and spends so much time discussing consciousness, is because he views it as the key area where science has failed, and catastrophically so: ‘If my consciousness is something – anything – other than a product of my brain’ (and he is convinced it isn’t a product of his brain) ‘then science is out of business until it figure out exactly how my consciousness interacts with this world.’ Without an understanding of how consciousness fits into the picture, he argues, science can never give a complete picture of any subject to which it is applied.
Instead, to cover up its deficiencies, we get what he calls the ‘Dopey Science Creed’ characterising mainstream science which makes bold claims that there is no purpose to anything, free will is an illusion, we are nothing more than our physical brains and the death of the brain means the death of the person, the paranormal is bunk, and so on. By contrast, Tsakiris has concluded from his interviews that the evidence strongly supports the contention that consciousness is not constrained by the brain, we survive death, and our existence has meaning.
In fleshing out this thesis the book’s first half is by far the strongest, but it feels weaker as it proceeds. The chapters on consciousness, NDEs, mediumship, telepathy and healing go into as much detail as space will allow, and while the reader may not shift from a sceptical position as a result, the interviews are stimulating and challenging. That on psychic detection descends into a ‘he said she said’ which shows the lengths critics will go to in splitting hairs to try to prove a point, but doesn’t go beyond hearsay in discussing the reality of psychic detection.
The chapter on atheism is confusing and unconvincing as Tsakiris has an image of atheists that they uniformly believe life to be ‘a meaningless illusion created by biologic (sic) robots.’ While there may be those who think it, though I’ve not met one, or at least one willing to admit to such a bizarre belief, it is a crude generalisation to lump all atheists in that category. Such a broad claim should be backed by evidence, but there is none here.
The interviews on evolution and Charles Darwin are mostly about charges that Darwin plagiarised Alfred Russel Wallace, the true ‘discover’ of evolution, with no dissenting opinions. Tsakiris considers evolution a ‘reasonable approximation of how living organisms change’, but seems to feel that the problem with Darwinism is that it promotes a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality inimical to broader spiritual values. This may be deemed a curious attitude from someone who has an MBA and describes himself as ‘a successful entrepreneur’, but one can see why he might be unhappy with a lack of meaning within Darwinian evolution. Although Tsakiris does not mention Russell’s interest in Spiritualism, he considers Russell’s brand of evolutionary theory to be superior because it ‘isn’t about survival of the individual, but survival of the group.’ Presumably that involves the notion of existence containing meaning so lamentably absent in Darwinism; it’s really hard to tell.
Tsakiris’s introduction is, as is his website, subtitled ‘Science at the tipping point’, the tipping point being science’s move away from crass materialism to give the role of consciousness its due. He comes back to this issue towards the end when he characterises science as it is currently conceptualised as the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ and argues that we need to move beyond the restrictive approach which says, in his words, that ‘we’re just an illusion created by this meaningless electrochemical reaction going on inside our brain.’
On the contrary, Tsakiris vehemently protests that we are not ‘meaningless’, while acknowledging that he does not know what that meaning is. But it’s really not clear to me on what basis he concludes that there is meaning to existence, other than wishful thinking. As a consequence it’s an interesting yet ultimately unsatisfying book, too short and bitty to do justice to the richness of the Skeptiko archive, too often concerned with point-scoring, and not pulling the interview extracts into a coherent narrative. Instead he jumps around, with a tendency to stray from the subject of a particular chapter.
Even so, the book should provide a service in directing readers to his website so that they can listen to the podcast interviews themselves. Used with care they are a valuable resource, with some fine researchers given space to expound, but the listener needs to be aware that Tsakiris has an agenda, and make allowances accordingly.
Now that he has a higher profile, it is possible that people not in tune with his views will be increasingly reluctant to appear on his show, so the range of interviewees may decrease in future. Those who are invited on and are fooled by the ‘Skeptiko’ tag into thinking that they are dealing with a host who is in sympathy with the aims of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and who fail to do due diligence on what they could be getting themselves into, will only have themselves to blame for a bruising encounter.
Is the term ‘Skeptiko’ misleading? Yes, in a way, but only because ‘scepticism’ has been co-opted by an approach that Tsakiris would claim isn’t sceptical at all, because it represents a narrow materialist status quo. He sees himself as truly an iconoclastic sceptic because he takes on those vested interests, but he has a problem distinguishing the baby from its bathwater.
NB Alex Tsakiris has posted a response on the Skeptiko website:
Karen Harrison has compiled a readable guide to developing and using a range of psychic abilities, complete with exercises that will benefit both novices and by those with more experience. She covers theory and first steps before going on to a variety of techniques. Subsequent chapters examine clairvoyance, various types of spirit guides, dreaming, past lives, automatic writing, psychometry, communicating with animals, and conclude with guidance on good practices to ensure that these abilities are utilised in a safe and productive manner.
The key message is admirably simple: being psychic is about listening to and trusting your inner voice in order to evaluate information received without the use of the recognised senses. The book presents variations on this theme, showing the variety of techniques available to assist in that reception. Harrison has a lively informal style, and anyone wishing to try these activities will find the book packed with good advice, not least that we have responsibility for ourselves and our actions, and decisions about one’s life cannot be delegated to someone else.
In theory the target audience is everybody because we are told that these abilities are in all of us, even if dormant (or suppressed) in most. In practice the book is not going to be to everyone’s taste because some of it will pass an individual’s boggle threshold: contacting ascended masters and descriptions of various species of angels for example, interpreting the colours of clairvoyance, or communicating with dead pets. That’s fine because those not in tune with particular aspects, and who still feel that they would like to cultivate other areas of possible psychic functioning, can cherry-pick those parts of the book that are in tune with their views and which they feel comfortable attempting, while ignoring the rest.
It’s easy to be dismissive of books like this. You will not find double-blind experiments that rule out alternative explanations for the psychic’s information, and you can’t be sure that your recently-deceased cat has been reincarnated in a kitten (something Harrison believes happened to her pet), or that you really are communicating with the spirit world through your dreams, and not essentially engaging in wishful thinking or simply talking to yourself.
But at worst these exercises encourage sensitivity to the world around us, and empathy with others, even if we do not in fact have spirit guides, we do not communicate telepathically, and objects do not carry energy from their history that can be read. At best, who knows, there may be something in it all, and expending effort on psychic development may result in an enhanced awareness of a greater reality, and our part in it. Charging others for such services, however, is another matter entirely.
Greg Taylor is owner of The Daily Grail website and editor of the Darklore anthologies. In Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife he draws together evidence which suggests that the mind is not simply a by-product of the brain and may exist independently of it, even after the brain itself dies. Strands include near-death experiences, particularly those that provide accurate information which could not have been obtained through normal sensory routes; mediumship, particularly mental mediumship and the cross-correspondences (the latter involving several mediums receiving communications of a complex character that only make sense when the information is consolidated); ‘Peak in Darien’ experiences, where someone who is dying has a vision of someone thought to be alive but who is later found to have died before the vision occurred; strange death bed phenomena, such as unexplained lights or music, experienced by relatives and carers around the dying person’s bed (hard to explain in terms of biological processes); terminal lucidity in a dying patient; then there is a chapter on quantum theories of consciousness, necessarily simplified but suggestive of possible explanations for the relationship of mind to brain and for the survival of personality.
Taylor covers a great deal of ground, which means that he cannot go into any one topic in depth, but there is enough to open up avenues for the interested reader to explore further. Chapters range from the early days of psychical research, with the pioneering work of the SPR, and come so far up to date that Sam Parnia’s AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation) study is included, even though at the time of writing only preliminary results were available. There are snippets of interviews with academic researchers, and it is interesting to hear them talk informally about their work, outside the confines of books and journal articles. The presentation is well balanced, mixing case studies with theory and indicating the strengths and weaknesses of the various approaches. Taylor has found a good representative number of examples which show that there are commonalities across time and cultures, together forming a case for survival that requires more from sceptics than a reflexive dismissal of the evidence and the bald unsupported assertion that death equals extinction.
Well, that’s the idea. In practice, as Taylor is aware, critics tend not to shift their prior opinions very easily, even when it appears that experiments have been conducted under rigorously controlled conditions. There are numerous instances of sceptical arguments that are superficial and distort the evidence in order to dismiss it (as a case in point, Taylor has analysed in depth Martin Gardner’s hatchet job on Leonora Piper in his Darklore article ‘How Martin Gardner Bamboozled the Skeptics: A Lesson in Trusting a Magician’). But as the probably in Stop Worrying!’s title indicates, Taylor himself is not dogmatic, and presents those who are dubious about the likelihood of our survival of bodily death with an array of phenomena deserving of consideration, even if ultimately there are no definitive answers.
Together these findings suggest the possibility that consciousness – in some form or other – survives the death of the body. That this is an area which needs much more investigation than it has received hitherto is indicated by the underreporting of NDE experiences, making them seem rarer than they are; experients are often frightened of ridicule, or being labelled disturbed, and keep what happened to themselves. Even without these additional data, the book’s conclusion is that while the research described may not be able to prove the continuation of consciousness, the various types of evidence examined hint that our comprehension of reality is limited at present, so we should keep our minds open. Those who believe that they have returned from the edge of the afterlife often feel that they have been transformed by the journey, and that they may have had a tiny glimpse into a future life that awaits everyone.
In sum, the title and cover may give the impression that this is not going to be a serious book, but actually it is a thoughtful, and extremely accessible, overview of past and current survival research. Those who are new to the subject, who have perhaps been prompted by the death of a loved one to wonder if they will meet on the other side, and are not satisfied with either reductionist materialist theories that see the cessation of brain function as the end point of our existence, nor religious doctrines that require belief in the existence of the afterlife as simply a matter of faith, will find it an excellent introduction. The references are thorough, but I wish Taylor had added an index. And if he decides to bring out a new edition, he might consider issuing it with a more sober cover.
A longer review, by Robert A. Charman, appears in the October 2014 issue of the SPR’s Journal.
Haunted Farnham, by Peter Underwood
After producing well over fifty titles it's odd to think that the late Peter Underwood’s writing days are over. Haunted Farnham, one of his last, draws on research conducted over several decades, despite which it has a cursory feel, clocking in at fewer than 90 pages. Its strength is that Underwood was a local resident for many years and has a clear love for Farnham and its surroundings, with good reason as it is a lovely part of the world.
He begins his tour at Farnham Castle before moving on to Castle Street and Castle Hill, including the old Castle Theatre. Then he ranges more generally over ghosts associated with Farnham’s pubs, hotels and other buildings (often left unspecified to preserve the occupants’ privacy). After that he looks at places in the vicinity of the town, including the house he once lived in – The White House at Bentley – just outside Farnham. Throughout he is erudite on matters historical, even when the actual ghost stories feel flimsy. Some of the accounts are based on personal interviews, but unfortunately he is cavalier about saying when the interviews took place, and the lack of a date reduces their value as a historical record. Hopefully Underwood’s papers will be donated to a suitable repository, and the primary records with fuller information will be available to researchers.
Like all of the History Press volumes Haunted Farnham is well illustrated with black and white photographs, many of which include Underwood himself more than modesty should allow. Quite a few feel unnecessary and are there to pad out the book’s length. The reader may be puzzled by snaps of a group described as belonging to ‘The original Ghost Club’, as the reason it has been labelled original is not explained – the Ghost Club has gone through a number of manifestations, but the ‘original’ Club was formed in the 1860s, so it is a confusing description. You would need to know about Underwood’s acrimonious break with the Club in 1993 after 30-odd years as its President, and his formation of the Ghost Club Society, for his idiosyncratic use of the term original to make sense: in his mind the Ghost Club Society was merely the new Ghost Club, as opposed to the ‘original’ one of which he had been President for so long.
Underwood’s books are always readable, and his clubbable persona was ideally suited to gain his interviewees’ confidence. It is a surprise on to learn that Farnham has been claimed (who by Underwood does not say) as Britain’s most haunted town, to which he would add that Bentley is possibly the most haunted village. This kind of ranking is always open to dispute, but on the evidence here Farnham seems no more haunted than many an English market town is alleged to be. Tributes following Underwood’s death noted how influential his books have been in introducing people to the subject, and while it is wonderful that Underwood was still writing at his great age, Haunted Farnham is not among his finest work.
The Little Book of Ghosts, by Paul Adams
Paul Adams is well known for his books on ghosts, some in collaboration with Peter Underwood, such as The Borley Rectory Companion and Shadows in the Nave. His latest is a compilation of ‘true’ ghosts stories (with a few that he concedes are not, but are entertaining anyway) aimed at the Christmas stocking market, and many of the anecdotes in it are of the type that often crop up in the sorts of regional ghost guides that publishers like The History Press produce.
Despite the ‘little’ in its title, the book covers a lot of ground geographically, overseas as well as in Britain. We meet different types of ghosts and some iconic hauntings, albeit briefly; little time is spent on any one account but that allows space for a large number, showing how flexible, and context-determined, the ghost is. There are ghostly animals and haunted objects as well as ghostly figures, and Adams includes poltergeists as a species of ‘violent ghost’. The stories are drawn from a variety of sources, historical, folklore, and recent ‘it happened to me’ narratives. Some of the most notable ghost researchers make an appearance: Harry Price of course, but other significant figures in the field too, and coming more up to date some who have appeared on shows like Most Haunted and TAPS, though they may find their fame to be more ephemeral than that of the greats of the past.
The blurb tries hard to sell the collection as ‘spine-chilling’, but truth is that it is most unlikely that anyone will experience any kind of frisson from these tales, in the way they might from a carefully crafted horror story, if only because there is no opportunity to build up tension. However, the book may encourage the reader who picks it up because of a vague interest to delve further in the subject. To assist any such aim, Adams has included a lengthy bibliography and a chapter on the major organisations involved with the subject, including the SPR. From such small beginnings great interest, and the potential to contribute to the subject, may develop.
Anyway, it turns out that ghosts might not always attract researchers because of a desire to address serious issues surrounding life after death. Adams notes that ‘Sightings of a blonde female figure wearing a white dress that vanishes in mysterious circumstances have been reported with some regularity.’ Well, a ghost whose dress vanishes in any circumstances would be a definite draw for a certain kind of ‘ghost hunter’.
White Crow Books have reissued Brian Inglis’s Natural and Supernatural, which was first published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1977. It was the first part of what was envisaged as an ambitious trilogy encompassing the entire history of the paranormal. The second volume, Science and Parascience appeared in 1984, and covered the years 1914 to 1939 (it too has been reissued by White Crow Books, but only in ebook format). Sadly Inglis’s death in 1993 prevented the completion of the project.
Inglis was a prolific author on the paranormal, and as a professional journalist as well as a historian his books are always readable and informative. Natural and Supernatural brought together a wealth of material that had previously been scattered in specialist publications and made it available to a wide audience. It runs chronologically through the following periods, from which it can be seen that a huge amount of compression has gone on to fit the subject into 500 pages: ‘Tribal communities’; ‘Early civilisations’; ‘Christianity’; ‘From the Renaissance to the Age of Reason’; ‘Mesmerism’; ‘Spiritualism’; ‘Psychical research’; ‘The Society for Psychical Research’; ‘Psychical research in decline’; and ‘The unknown guest’ (i.e. concluding remarks).
As the chapter headings indicate, the book has a broad historical sweep, and it tracks the ways that claims of ‘paranormal’ phenomena have been interpreted within diverse belief systems. Inglis also examines differences among psychical researchers in deciding between explanations involving spirit communication, and psi processes emanating from the living. The Society for Psychical Research plays a major role in the later chapters but Inglis is not always kind to it, seeing some of its members – notably Richard Hodgson and Frank Podmore – as having fostered a critical climate inimical to the fair discussion of psychic claims, and having not only failed as an organisation to counter its subject matter’s opponents, but actually often being in sympathy with them.
The key question is whether Natural and Supernatural holds up nearly forty years after its first appearance. The answer is yes, it does, though it needs to be treated cautiously. Inglis has his biases, which he is not shy about displaying, and while for example he concedes that mediumship has had some fraudulent activity, he is firmly convinced that by and large its physical phenomena were genuine and we can generally rely on the contemporary accounts of them. His standard approach is to confront the reader with the sheer volume of cases, and suggest that the evidence is sound because of its consistency and cumulative effect. The critic will naturally retort that an accumulation of nonsense is still nonsense, or more charitably that much that is not accounted for by fraud can be attributed to the psychological processes that have been gathered in recent years under the umbrella of Anomalous Psychology.
The readership may therefore divide into three sections: those who agree with Inglis that an explanation which posits widespread fraud and misperception is even more unlikely than the paranormality of the phenomena that are described; those who marvel that so much deception and self-deception can be taken this seriously, believe that Inglis lets some dubious practitioners off the hook rather easily, and conclude that he is too ready to accept historical records when we cannot vouch for their accuracy at this distance; and those holding a middle position who feel that there may be something in some of it, but that Inglis frequently overstates his case. While the reader may not necessarily be in sympathy with Inglis’s views, that does not detract from the usefulness of his historical synthesis. Much scholarship has been focused on these matters since the late 1970s, but Natural and Supernatural’s wide range and accessibility means that it is still of value as a starting point for further exploration.
A note on editions: the White Crow Books reissue has a new introduction by Inglis’s son Neil L. Inglis which gives an affectionate overview of his father’s career and the development of his interest in the paranormal. Neil is candid about bias in Natural and Supernatural (or ‘a clear authorial point of view’ as he delicately puts it). However, Brian’s text has not been thoroughly edited to correct errors. More of an issue is the fact that it is based on the 1977 Hodder and Stoughton edition, and not the one that was published by Prism in 1992. For some reason the first edition omitted the references, and these were reinstated in the Prism reissue, amounting to an extra 19 pages. As White Crow have used the original edition as the basis for theirs, the references have disappeared again. While this is fine for the general reader, those who wish to follow up the sources in more detail may prefer to find a second-hand Prism copy. Even with this caveat, it’s good to see it back in print.
A review of the 1977 edition, by Anita Gregory, appeared in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 49, no. 776, June 1978, pp.826-28.
There was a time when regional ghost guides flew thick and fast from publishers’ offices, mainly Amberley and The History Press. They seem to be less frequent these days, presumably because the country is approaching saturation point. However we aren’t quite there yet, as this 2013 selection from Amberley demonstrates.
Ghosts of Edinburgh, by Rob Kirkup
Rob Kirkup and his three team members, after descending on York’s ghost scene for an earlier book turn their attention to Edinburgh and conduct first-hand investigations over the course of a year. Edinburgh has a well-honed ghost industry, so do the lads add anything new?
The book covers eight venues: Edinburgh Dungeon; the Covenanters’ Prison and Greyfriars Kirkyard; Mary King’s Close (twice); Dalhousie Castle Hotel and Spa; the South Bridge Vaults; Bedlam Theatre; and the Cammo Estate. If you’ve read the York book you will know what to expect with this one as the recipe is much the same: pursue an enjoyable hobby with some mates that may turn up something significant for our view of life after death, and which offers ample opportunity to employ gadgets on investigations. On occasion they hook up with commercial tours, but prefer to have a location to themselves in order to retain the fullest control possible.
The result is a record of their activities with the same level of often unnecessary detail as in the earlier one (Kirkup can spend a page picking the guys up before they even begin the trip to Edinburgh). Then when they arrive there is a lot of ‘we were startled to hear/see something, but it turned out to be [something mundane]’. There are some unusual occurrences, notably a sweary session with a ‘Frank’s Box’ (that’s the Frank’s Box swearing, not the team), but it’s difficult to know what significance to attach to these incidents.
On the other hand we get plenty of information about where they eat, drink and sleep, and the focus is on what they do and how they respond to their environment, with the sort of historical context for the venues that can be gleaned from an internet search. A bibliography isn’t required because they don’t pay much attention to what other people have written (Jan-Andrew Henderson’s The Ghost that Haunted Itself: The Story of the Mackenzie Poltergeist is an exception, but then Henderson contributed a foreword to Kirkup’s book).
There is a revealing moment when Kirkup concedes that his fellow investigators might not know about the Covenanters’ Prison’s ‘notoriety’, which suggests a lack of preparation on their part, and indeed he gives them a mini-lecture on its history and the Mackenzie Poltergeist. The description of their amusing visit to Mary King’s Close as part of a public tour makes no reference to Richard Wiseman’s 2005 investigation which examined non-paranormal explanations for people’s experiences there, nor does the chapter on their second visit, when they secured the place for a private investigation.
There are two main aspects to the book. The first relates to its title, ostensibly a general study of Edinburgh’s ghosts, and the unsuspecting may expect it to be a wide-ranging survey. Unfortunately the reader will not come away with a comprehensive knowledge of its ghosts, so anyone wanting a tourist-style guide to the city’s paranormal heritage should look elsewhere. The second aspect is the description of how the group conducts investigations which has wider applicability, though not everybody will want to emulate the style of this particular group. There are useful accounts of how the commercial ghost tours they go on operate, which may turn out to be the most valuable aspect of the book historically.
It is nice to see a small independent group going out and doing investigations, but the places they go to are well-worn for the most part. I notice that the running header is ‘Paranormal Edinburgh’. That may have been the intended title, changed because it had already been taken by Gordon Rutter’s offering on the city, published by the History Press. History Press also publish Alan Murdie’s Haunted Edinburgh, so there are readily-available alternatives for those who want less on the eating habits of ‘Team Kirkup’ and more on Edinburgh’s ghost stories.
Paranormal Merseyside, by S. D. Tucker
The Merseyside area has a rich and proud history, and S. D. Tucker has given it the consideration it deserves. It’s a substantial book, over 250 pages, much chunkier than many paranormal guides. As a consequence it covers a lot of ground, geographically and in subject matter, and still has the space to examine topics in depth. It contains the familiar mix of paranormal, folkloric, fortean and generally weird that one expects from a book with such a broad title, and it is well researched, with an insider’s perspective. Tucker approaches the subject with humour, but also respect. As a bonus he’s a dab hand with a pencil, and the book is illustrated with his own light-hearted sketches in addition to the usual photographs.
As well as the usual ghost sightings and poltergeists, there are UFOs and encounters with aliens. There are extraordinary, allegedly, human powers, and such bizarreness as appearances by Spring-heeled Jack and the kindred but somewhat more obscure Ghastly Galosher Man, favouring galoshes rather than spring-loaded shoes (as far as I’m aware galoshes are not school pumps, or plimsolls/gym shoes as Tucker suggests, but are rubber overboots that probably wouldn’t have much spring in them to facilitate a quick getaway). There are social panics and rumours, the best being the 1964 leprechaun ‘invasion’ that had children running around in search of ‘little green men with white hats’ and generally having a great time doing so.
There is clearly an Irish connection with the leprechauns, but Tucker thinks that the link is overstated. He points out that the height of immigration from Ireland was in the mid-nineteenth century, and argues that children in 1960s Liverpool with Irish heritage would be a long way from their Celtic roots and stories of little people. Yet in the 1950s and 60s, with the UK booming economically and becoming increasingly socially relaxed, and Ireland doing not so much of either, over three-quarters of a million Irish citizens arrived in Britain seeking a better life. The youngsters using the notion of the leprechaun as a peg for their antics might have been closer to the traditional folklore – or traditional leg-pulling – of the Emerald Isle than Tucker suggests.
Underneath the sometimes less than credible tales he recounts, Tucker also uncovers a kind of magic in the mundane. The book is topped and tailed by an account of a 1927 dream that Carl Jung had in which he found himself in Liverpool and from which he concluded that symbolically Liverpool was ‘the pool of life’, an event commemorated by a bust of the thinker that stands in the city centre. Jung saw beneath the surface of our everyday reality to a more profound level, and similarly Tucker sees in these stories something deeper; they are narratives that possess a transformative power which can enrich our lives.
I have an attachment to the area as my father was born in the West Derby district of Liverpool, so I read the book with particular interest. Steven Tucker has made a good job of uncovering the mysterious side of a part of the country that does not always get a good press, but which as this book demonstrates has a colourful and fascinating history behind it, and a more complex one than might be deduced from ignorantly dismissive stereotypes.
Supernatural Wales, by Alvin Nicholas
Supernatural Wales comes with a foreword by Lionel Fanthorpe, so expectations by the reader are naturally high. The result though is a mixed bag. It is organised as an A-Z, and unusually it has an index of places to aid the traveller, something that is too often missing in books organised thematically. Rather than black and white illustrations dropped in throughout the text, there is a separate section of colour images of sites photographed by the author. Caerphilly resident Alvin Nicholas is not a paranormal investigator but has a love of the Welsh countryside, working in heritage and nature conservation. He has mostly trawled secondary sources and includes ghosts, folklore, earth mysteries, accounts of little people, monsters, black dogs, big cats, dragons of course, UFOs and general forteana.
The book is quite short, but even so a lot of the space is taken up with cross-references telling the reader to look somewhere else in the volume. Most of the entries are fairly brief, and are not always relevant to the book’s title. For example, there is a section on alien big cats, which is useful, but a page on what to do if one happens to meet one, and how to collect evidence, seems out of place, as does a list of prehistoric periods from the Paleolithic onwards. Nor does a reference to An American Werewolf in London, merely because scenes were filmed in the Brecon Beacons, seem particularly relevant, nor is a page on types of UFO. These all feel like filler in a book that could do with a more substantial filling. On the other hand the Cardiff poltergeist case investigated by the SPR’s David Fontana is noted very briefly in passing, in the section on ghosts (poltergeists don’t merit one), but few details are given, and no references.
The blurb claims that this is ‘the definitive guide to Welsh ghosts, hauntings, monsters and mysteries’, but it is far from being that. Wales is not short on books about its paranormal aspects, so a new volume has to justify its existence. If I had to choose the best of the bunch, I’m afraid it definitely wouldn’t be this one. It’s not enough to live in, or have an interest in, a place to put together a book on ‘supernatural Wales’, or supernatural anywhere else.
Paranormal Devon, by Daniel Codd
Daniel Codd is an experienced compiler of local paranormal guides, and though not a resident of Devon his extensive research has resulted in a fascinating tour of this beautiful but often wild county, full as it is of mystery and historical interest. It has its share of bleak places, notably treacherous moorland, yet by contrast it has bustling urban areas. It is a place of great variety, and that is reflected in Codd’s book. He has a rich heritage to draw on, and he presents a wide range of ghost stories and fortean topics from earliest to recent times.
Some inclusions are predictable – there is the usual crop of pubs, but including one run by owners who are non-believers in the paranormal and do not welcome ghost-hunting groups, which must be a first. The longest section is on ghosts, but Devon has a lot more to offer; as Codd picturesquely puts it, ‘In some ways, stories of long-ago Devon can almost depict the county as a kind of Tolkien-esque land of fairytale sprites, ghouls, demons and mythical creatures’, and that’s before you get to the giants. What a great place for a holiday. Throw in the UFO sightings and a bit of sun and this is a paranormalist’s dream.
If you want creepiness on your visit you need look no further than the bleak moorlands. Conan Doyle didn’t when writing The Hound of the Baskervilles, and those canny marketeers talk of Dartmoor as ‘Baskerville country’, to cash in. That ‘gigantic hound’ is not alone and Devon has its fair share of black dogs, but they are far from being the only members of a peculiar menagerie: mystery animals abound, both supernatural and out-of-place (including alien big cats, most famously the Beast of Exmoor), so it is appropriate that the Centre for Fortean Zoology is based at Bideford.
Rather worryingly, the Devil seems to spend a lot of time in Devon, with or without whisht hounds when on Dartmoor. There are also a lot of wicked witches, and, not necessarily any more benign, there are pixies on Exmoor. Vampires and werewolves have found Devon a congenial place to settle, alongside its extensive population of pensioners. Even Spring-heeled Jack gets a mention, taking a break from the north-west. Naturally Devon has a strong maritime tradition, a pursuit that tends to breed its fair share of superstitions. Sea-related ghosts are covered and Codd notes that there are linkages between ghost stories and criminal activities, with fake ghosts used as a Scooby-Dooish cover for smuggling. There are legends connected to Sir Francis Drake, plus accounts of mermaids and sea monsters off the coast.
The book’s thematic structure makes it awkward to use as a guidebook for the visitor, but there are sections devoted to specific places. Berry Pomeroy has one, as does Exeter, but most references are scattered throughout the text, so the lack of an index is a drawback. Plympton is mentioned, but not its most famous son – Cyril Hoskin, better known as T. Lobsang Rampa. (I once made a pilgrimage to Plympton in homage to Rampa. There was nothing to show that the great lama had ever been there, in fact there was nothing much at all.) But Plympton is not Devon, and on the whole it is a great place to visit. While Codd concedes that the county contains even more strangeness than he had space to include, having his book in hand will add an extra dimension, whether one is there physically, walking its streets, lanes and moors, or sitting at home in an armchair dreaming of Glorious Devon.
As his subtitle indicates, Oliver Tearle looks at the ways in which fiction writers at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries utilised hallucinations in their work; more precisely he looks at how the phenomenon lent itself to those authors who were exploring uncanny themes. In this the Society for Psychical Research’s data collection and analyses are shown to have been particularly influential, even if authors often ignored its dry theoretical leanings to increase the dramatic effect of their stories. Ghostly fiction had been growing in popularity during the Victorian period, but the ghosts generally had lives, as it were, of their own. The ghost was being reconceptualised by the SPR, and if no consensus had been reached on its status, it had moved a long way from clanking chains to something more subtle, summed up in the title of Frank Podmore’s 1909 book (not used by Tearle), Telepathic Hallucinations: The New View of Ghosts.
Once these debates within the SPR began to percolate through the wider culture (something else Tearle does not mention is that versions of many of the articles which appeared in the SPR’s Proceedings were first published in the periodical press, thereby reaching a wide audience), there was a similar process of the ghostly shifting from something perceived as external to the viewer to it as an internal process. The resulting fictions, either based on or reacting to the SPR’s case studies and theoretical debates, played on the ambiguities of perception and the difficulties in discriminating between what is ‘in here’ and what is ‘out there’, capitalising on the tension between them to construct suspenseful narratives. There was still the possibility of an external cause, often leading the reader to hesitate between explanations, a hesitation that was not always resolvable one way or the other.
Tearle begins with an overview of how the ghost story relates to the fantastic, problems of interpretation, and the ways in which the notion of hallucination developed within literature during the nineteenth century, with examples of authors who utilised its dramatic potential. The heart of the book is a detailed discussion of five stories, relating each, where relevant, to other works by their authors. The stories are ‘Markheim’ (1885), by Robert Louis Stevenson; ‘A Wicked Voice’ (1887), by Vernon Lee; ‘The Friends of the Friends’ (1896), by Henry James (not the obvious choice); The Hill of Dreams (1907), by Arthur Machen; and ‘The Beckoning Fair One’ (1911), by Oliver Onions. In a coda, Tearle suggests that the indeterminacy in these stories helped to lay the foundations for literary modernism’s emphasis on subjectivity after the First World War, while hallucination’s connection to the ghost story loosened as literary hallucination came to signify a pathological state, but one not necessarily with paranormal overtones.
The importance of the SPR’s work for the writers under consideration makes it all the more disappointing that Tearle tends to rely on secondary sources rather than going directly to the pages of the Society’s Journal and Proceedings. His background is in literature, so that is perhaps understandable, but it does feel that his scrupulously close readings of the novels are not matched by an engagement with the psychical research literature. For example, there are only two references to the SPR’s 1894 ‘Report on the Census of Hallucinations’, which one might consider a key text, and both are referenced by secondary sources: Roger Luckhurst’s The Invention of Telepathy (2002) for one, and an essay in Ivor Grattan-Guinness’s edited collection published to celebrate the SPR’s centenary in 1982 for the other. The Report does not appear in the bibliography. There is a similar paucity of material put out by the SPR’s early researchers – no papers by Myers or Gurney, for example, though Phantasms of the Living is present. Moving outside the SPR, one would have thought that the 1894 book by a critic of the Census, Edmund Parish – Ueber die Trugwahrnehmung, translated and expanded as Hallucinations and Illusions: A Study of the Fallacies of Perception (1897), would have been worth at least a mention.
There is some sniffiness about psychical research present, often the case with scholars who use it as their subject matter but who want to demonstrate that they do not have sympathy with its methods and that they harbour no trace of gullibility. So we get Phantasms of the Living’s ‘quasi-scientific approach’ and several references to the ‘pseudoscience’ of psychical research in general and the SPR in particular. Most strikingly, we get Arthur Machen ‘looking forward to a more sophisticated understanding of the human mind than the Society [for Psychical Research] could offer.’ Yet a sustained reading of the papers of Edmund Gurney and Frederic Myers indicates that, whatever one might think about their validity, they were certainly sophisticated, as attested by the resurgence of attention that Myers in particular has received in recent years.
Bewilderments of Vision is adapted from a PhD thesis, and its origin shows in the denseness of the prose, but reading it is worth the effort for the way it illuminates the relationship between the pioneers of psychical research as they grappled with issues of veridicality and hallucination in attempting to tease out the complexities of our understanding of life after death, and the writers who drew on the SPR’s publications as a resource. It will be of value both to those primarily interested in the literature of the period who want to deepen their knowledge of its intellectual context, and to those tracing the ways in which seemingly narrow and rarefied psychical research preoccupations had a broader effect on the culture. The latter group may chafe at the limited number of psychical research sources utilised, but Tearle achieves his aim of examining the role of hallucination in a number of texts, thereby enriching our understanding of them.
Much has been said about the First World War in this the centenary year of its start, but little, at least yet, about the role of Spiritualism in the conflict. Michael Tymn has an established reputation in examining aspects of survival of bodily death and his latest book anthologises five volumes (plus two sequels) which claim to consist of communications from those who passed over in the service of their country during the Great War. To the extracts he has contributed an introduction in which he outlines the nature of mediumship, difficulties posed by transmissions between planes, and the possible role of the medium’s subconscious in colouring the style of what they transmitted. There is commentary on each selection in which he describes the circumstances of the book’s production, and he draws out commonalities between the spirit messages. Gladys Osborne Leonard, one of the most successful mediums of the period, played a role in three of the books under consideration and Tymn discusses her mediumship, and her control ‘Feda’.
The chosen texts which have been excerpted are: Raymond or Life and Death and Raymond Revised (1916), by Sir Oliver Lodge; Thy Son Liveth: Messages from a Soldier to his Mother (1918), by Grace Duffie Boylan; Claude’s Book I (1918) and Claude’s Book II (1920), by L. Kelway-Bamber; Private Dowding (1917), by Wellesley Tudor Pole; and Rolf ’s Life in the Spirit World (c.1920), by ‘His Mother’. The five communicating spirits were, respectively, ‘Raymond’, ‘Bob’, ‘Claude’, ‘Thomas’, and ‘Rolf’. The first four had been killed during battle, while Rolf had died of pneumonia in a training camp. Method of communication was either trance mediumship or automatic writing.
The best known of these titles is Lodge’s Raymond, which was enormously popular both on first publication and in later years. Lodge was a President of the SPR, prominent in psychical research, and author of a number of books on the subject. The fame of this particular book has overshadowed others of a similar nature which appeared during and after the war. The crucial element of each is the survival of the personality after death. Fundamental to these accounts is the consolation provided to bereaved relatives that their loved ones did not face extinction upon death; in fact there is no death, merely a transition, and those left behind need not grieve because in due course all will be reunited.
In general, the deceased makes a seamless transition, feeling so little discomfort on passing that he cannot at first believe that he is dead. There follows a process in which the strangeness wears off as the individual adjusts to the new situation, which is nothing like the stereotypical images of heaven and hell. It is rather for most a kind of idealised facsimile of earth, Summerland, in which they can be active in pursuit of their interests, in particular helping those who have come over after them. They can also sometimes help those on earth, though in a selective way – ‘Bob’ says that he ‘nudged’ a soldier to keep him from harm, and when he asked why, he was told that the man he had helped was an inventor whose work would be of importance – which makes one wonder what criteria were used for such assistance when so much talent was wasted in the grinder of war. Even those whose unsatisfactory lives have consigned them to a lower plane have the wherewithal to leave it as they grow in spiritual understanding. The Afterlife is couched in Christian terms, and all have the expectation of progressing, as a result of spiritual growth, to higher planes of existence, difficult to describe in terms understandable to those left behind, as they move ever-closer to God.
If one takes these books at face value they appear to support the contention that the five individuals made the transition to the Afterlife with their personalities intact, and were reporting, under difficult circumstances, what their present situation was like. However, it cannot be assumed that, because the accounts supplied by the discarnate communicators have elements that cohere, this is cumulative evidence their personalities have survived and their descriptions are veridical. Spiritualists and mediums talked and wrote to each other, read the same literature. As a consequence they could develop a common conception of what life after death might be like which they then used as the framework for their own mediumistic productions. A common theme is the difficulty in conveying accurate, specific information (and the difficulties mean that it is futile to attempt a point-by-point comparison to try to show that the messages cannot be genuine, because there is no pretence that they are accurate in every detail). When attempting to interpret what they were producing, which might have been couched in symbolic terms, it is plausible that the mediums would have utilised a repertoire of existing knowledge, rather than say something contradicting the image of the Afterlife which already existed. Similarly, part of the assessment is the plausibility of the complex descriptions of the Afterlife that suggest a degree of familiarity unlikely from newcomers to that sphere, and the possibility exists that the medium is drawing on an existing set of assumptions that have been built up over the years, while Tymn considers the possibility that the ostensible communicator was sometimes a conduit for ‘higher’ spirits acting in harmony.
For the general reader this is a useful compilation, showing how such texts were popular at a difficult time when so many young men had been lost, their futures snatched away from them. Tymn is convinced of the reality of these messages and by inference that of the life beyond which they describe: ‘unless one simply does not want to believe in a spirit world, it is difficult to accept Raymond, Bob, Claude, Thomas, and Rolf, the chief communicators in this anthology, as anything other than spirits’ (p.xxx). Critics, on the contrary, may consider what they have to say as banal, stereotyped and more likely to originate in a collective exercise of wishful thinking by medium and sitters than from a discarnate entity.
It could be argued that if these accounts were genuine, there would be more interaction with enemy combatants, all superficial differences such as nationalism having been rendered irrelevant. Stories of fraternisation with Germans, Austro-Hungarians or Turks are notable by their absence; Claude is unusual in reporting a meeting between English and German soldiers who had killed each other: ‘The Englishman held out his hand. His erstwhile enemy, taking it, said, “What d— fools we have been!”’ On the other hand, the conflict was so raw that perhaps it would be too much to expect foes to embrace each other completely so soon afterwards, that was work for higher planes. Who can say?
As these differing interpretations suggest, it is unlikely that anybody will alter their views on the basis of the evidence presented here. What is important though is the lesson that how we progress in the Afterlife is determined partly by how we behaved in life. Our beliefs are less important than our actions, and while we are never damned, we will make slower progress if while alive we act in a way that does not abide by clear ethical values and respect for others. If we have led good lives, our spiritual evolution will be the more rapid. It is an assumption that can do no harm, whether or not the five sets of communications gathered here are veridical, and it is a welcome alternative to belief systems, built on ideological subservience, that at their extremes are permeated with violence. Raymond, Bob, Claude, Thomas and Rolf all show us violence’s ultimate pointlessness.