Books reviewed by SPR reviewers
This is not a case book, and psychic detection arrives fairly late on in Robert Cracknell’s career. We begin at the beginning, in 1935, and trace his fractured childhood, including an unhappy period as an evacuee in Nottingham. After an abortive stint in the RAF he became a tramp, living on the edges of society. He had trouble finding a niche, and drifted for many years; as Colin Wilson says in his introduction, Cracknell falls into the category of outsider. This part of the book could very easily have veered into misery memoir territory, but Cracknell’s inner strength and lack of self-pity, plus a determination to learn from every situation in which he finds himself, allow him to write dispassionately about this period. The implication is that his challenging experiences assisted the development of psychic abilities, though he is adamant that these are possessed by all, not a select few, and what he does can be done by anybody.
Cracknell’s explorations of the psychic side of his life make for interesting reading. He tells us about the profound influence Meher Baba had on him, brushes with black magic, a meeting with the witch Alex Sanders, another with a security-obsessed Uri Geller, in love with his own celebrity. A visit to the set of Coronation Street to meet William Roache may have had a calming influence on the place, but clearly not enough, as there were still phenomena there for the Most Haunted team to investigate later.
Psychic detection is less prominent than is promised by the subtitle. There are confidentiality issues, but Cracknell concedes that police forces do not admit to using psychics. Unfortunately this means that there is no independent corroboration of his statements concerning his involvement (and the cynical sceptic will also notice the repeated references to his associations with downmarket newspapers like The News of the World and most notably The Sunday People). He hints that he has been involved in far more cases than he details, but it is unclear why he presents these ones rather than others, and to what extent the ones he does mention were materially assisted by his efforts. Since the police aren’t saying, it is impossible to assess his claims. Cracknell says that some of his predictions were lodged with the SPR but if they were, the files seem to have disappeared. Going by his own accounts here, the results are decidedly patchy, even though he claims something like an 80% success rate overall.
The section on Genette Tate, who vanished in August 1978, age 13, is brief and not particularly informative. After accusing Genette’s father John of abusing Genette, Cracknell says he was “astonished” that John Tate, who “seemingly had an alibi” for the time of her disappearance, was not charged with abuse. The “seemingly” suggests that the alibi was not a strong one, but in his book Genette is Missing, John Tate states that he was in Exeter that afternoon with his wife Violet, Genette’s step-mother. That seems fairly robust. Psychics, including Gerard Croiset and Nella Jones, swarmed all over the case, to the extent that the ubiquitous Colin Wilson contributed a chapter to Tate’s book specifically on the involvement of psychic detectives. Wilson was keen for Cracknell to solve the mystery as he was trying to place Cracknell’s autobiography for him and success would have guaranteed a sale. Business is business.
Wilson devotes rather more space to Genette in The Psychic Detectives than Cracknell does in his book. According to Wilson, Cracknell predicted that Genette’s body would be found within ten days, a prediction missing from Cracknell’s book. Cracknell also omits the information, which Wilson includes, that Violet told Cracknell that her husband was having an affair. This person, it transpired, was Genette’s step-sister, aged nine. John Tate confessed to the police and the story appeared in a Sunday newspaper in May 1980. He was not prosecuted, Wilson says, because of the distress already experienced by the family. Rather different times, one feels. In any case, Wilson is completely satisfied that Tate’s alibi for Genette’s disappearance was genuine, as must have the police. He does not mention Cracknell being involved in Tate’s confession, nor is there any reference to Genette having been abused, but in Cracknell’s version, Tate went to the police as a direct result of Cracknell being hired by the News of the World to reopen the case “some years later“, and confessed to abusing both Genette and her sister.
Melvyn Harris in Sorry, You’ve Been Duped says that almost five hundred psychics supplied information on Genette‘s disappearance, and the police had to deal with some 1,200 letters. He says that one of these individuals, left unnamed, came unbidden from Cornwall to Devon, and “shook like a leaf” at the scene of the abduction. This person said that Genette would be found in two days and the murderer caught the day after that. When these predictions failed to come to pass he disappeared, though later he claimed in a newspaper to have been called in by the police. Cracknell was on holiday in Cornwall when the story broke, so one does wonder if he was the person being described by Harris. Despite all this unsavoury hoopla, Genette is still missing.
Another claim concerns the Yorkshire Ripper. Cracknell says that following an eighteen month lull in murders he was having dinner with Colin Wilson and unspecified others. He told his fellow diners that there would be a final murder, after which the killer would be arrested. The eighteen month figure is wrong: Sutcliffe murdered Barbara Leach on 2 September 1979. The next and penultimate murder victim (others survived in between) was Marguerite Walls, murdered on 20 August 1980. She was not initially considered a Ripper victim as he had changed his MO. Sutcliffe’s last murder victim was Jacqueline Hill, on 17 November 1980. The gap between the deaths of Barbara Leach and Jacqueline Hill was not eighteen months, but was a considerable period. Someone would only think though that the Ripper had not killed in the interval if they were relying on newspapers for their information and missed the death of Marguerite Walls.
At the dinner, Cracknell said that the Ripper would murder again “very soon”, which, he says, is precisely what happened. Colin Wilson’s account in The Psychic Detectives is slightly different. Cracknell is vague on details, but Wilson dates the meal to November 1980, actually with the sales director of the publisher which had accepted Cracknell’s autobiography, and in his version Cracknell specifically predicted that the next murder would be in two weeks. It was actually six days, Wilson says. Melvin Harris has a chapter fittingly entitled ‘The Yorkshire Ripper and the Psychic Circus’ describing the contributions made by psychics to solving the case. Despite Cracknell saying that he will always be associated with the Ripper investigation, Harris seems to have missed him completely.
The longest chapter devoted to a case is that of the kidnap of the eighteen-year old daughter of Oscar Maerth, Gaby. This was Oscar Kiss Maerth, author of the repulsive 1971 book The Beginning was the End, which postulated that human intelligence was caused as a by-product of apes eating the brains of their fellows to increase their sex drive. The family lived in some style on the shores of Lake Como and Cracknell was flown out to try to help find Gaby. Cracknell says that she had been kidnapped six months earlier. He did not like Maerth, whom he found self-absorbed and selfish, pleading that he was not a rich man when he seemed to have substantial wealth. Cracknell says he provided pertinent information, though Gaby’s freedom was not obtained by his efforts or those of the local police, and she was released in rather murky circumstances.
Cracknell tends to be vague about dates anyway, but here he manages to get the year completely wrong. He says the kidnap occurred in 1980, but Gaby was abducted on 7 May 1982 and was released at the beginning of October, five months later. The report in the Times (4 October) said that initially a ransom of £2.2m was demanded but was later reduced to £550,000. A police source suggested that about £70,000 was paid, though an accurate figure was not available. Gaby claimed, somewhat implausibly one feels, that she had been kept drugged in a tent the whole time by her captors. As Cracknell suggests, there is surely a lot here that was never made public, but at least he managed to obtain a nice fee from the Sunday People for his trouble.
This is an expanded version of the autobiography published in 1981, Clues to the Unknown, but some of the text has not been altered since the first edition. We learn that Sue Blackmore is about to take her PhD, and Cracknell wonders if she will follow the sorts of ideas he propounds. The intervening thirty years have shown Blackmore following a very different path to the one that might have been predicted as she put the finishing touches to her thesis on Extrasensory Perception as a Cognitive Process. Uri Geller is referred to as a “relatively” young man, which he must find ’fairly’ flattering. Cracknell is pretty contemptuous of Gordon Higginson, president of the Spiritualists’ National Union for over two decades, but there is now no reason to withhold his name as he died in 1993 (not that his identity was difficult to work out). Cracknell’s hostility to the Spiritualist movement is repeatedly expressed, and from what he says it is mutual. He is an individualist, not suited to the constraints of a movement.
He comes across as a strong personality who has weathered adverse circumstances and emerged stronger for it. Whether he deserves the (presumably self-proclaimed) accolade of being the No 1 Psychic Detective Agency is an open question, as there is not enough here to be able to make an adequate judgment, and no opportunity to evaluate claims from competing psychic detectives who covet the top spot. Given the woeful track records of many psychics in crime detection, particularly considering the high stakes, it is wise to be cautious. But leaving aside uncertainty over Cracknell’s hit rate, this is a very readable account of one person’s spiritual journey.
As I was writing this review, news arrived of the death of Osama Bin Laden, hiding not in a mountain cave but in a suburban compound not too far from Islamabad. This is definitely one situation where accurate information would have been useful, but as far as I am aware, not one psychic detective – including Cracknell – made a firm, unambiguous and verifiable prediction about what was an unlikely location. In Renée Scheltema’s film Something Unknown is Doing We Don't Know What, Nancy Myer was asked where he was and responded that she would not answer on camera as it would get her killed, presumably by vengeful Al-Qaeda operatives, and Stephan Schwartz was surprisingly uninterested in such a project. Hard information derived psychically that made sense beforehand, and not retrospectively, would have been invaluable. An opportunity to demonstrate the existence of the blue sense lost.
Amberley Publishing continues its series documenting the country’s paranormal heritage. Ross Andrews contributes guides to Oxford and the Forest of Dean to add to his one on Cheltenham (reviewed for the SPR website by C J Romer). Andrews has a great deal of experience as a ghost hunter, including involvement with the Gloucestershire group PARASOC, and his enthusiasm is palpable. The emphasis in both these books is on presenting locations that can be visited, rather than accounts from anonymous premises, and they are organised into geographical sections making them ideal for the visitor with limited time.
The Oxford volume begins with a stroll round some of the city centre’s most haunted spots, including the site of the execution of the Protestant martyrs Latimer and Ridley, whose screams echo down history, the Sheldonian Theatre and Bodleian Library, and the Bridge of Sighs. The second chapter moves inside, taking in the theatres, a pub and an hotel. The third chapter is devoted to haunted colleges, and Oxford Castle has its own. A pair of chapters deals with miscellaneous Oxford ghosts and some further afield in the county.
Andrews notes that a lot of Oxford ghost stories hinge on town vs. gown, religion or the Civil War, so reading up on its ghosts is an opportunity to learn about the history of this beautiful city and the surrounding countryside. One gets the impression though that he has not personally carried out investigations here as the volume is free of case reports, with the stories being collected second-hand rather than resulting from local group activities.
The Forest of Dean volume is different in that respect. It covers mostly that part known as The Royal Forest Route, and unlike the Oxford book Andrews has first-hand experience of investigations in the area. Two chapters describe a variety of haunted locations in the forest, then one focuses on Littledean. Goodrich and Raglan Castles and Tintern Abbey have a chapter to themselves.
The meatiest section, almost half the book, is devoted to St Briavel’s Castle, which Andrews has examined extensively as a member of Phamtomfest, a non-profit group set up specifically to organise investigation there. He goes into considerable detail, outlining a wide range of phenomena. This is fascinating stuff, though it renders the book less useful for someone who wants a general guide to forest locations but does not have a particular interest in St Briavel’s Castle (and as he concedes, the level of detail provided may contaminate future reports). Both books conclude with brief sections of advice for the ghost hunter.
As with other Amberley guides the physical quality of the books is good, but the copy editing on these ones could have been tighter. Andrews writes clearly but the facetious tone does grate after a while. Both are well illustrated, mostly with the author‘s own photographs. If you want to have a handy and relaxed guide to the spookier elements of these places, Ross Andrews’ books are useful companions.
Authors of regional paranormal books generally fall into one of two categories: those who carry out (what in some cases can only be loosely described as) psychical research; and local historians who are strong on library resources but don’t have much if any primary material to share. Frank Meeres (author of Norwich Through Time and Thetford and Breckland Through Time, both from Amberley, as well as a number of books about other aspects of East Anglian history) falls into the latter category, and he has relied heavily on papers in the Norfolk Record Office, where he is a Senior Archivist, for his rather random look at strange Norfolk, a big county with a lot of strangeness in it.
The book kicks off with John Polidori, Lord Byron’s doctor and author of The Vampyre, who happens to have lived in Norwich for a while. Meeres wonders if elements of his novel could have been inspired by his time in the city, a plausible assumption. More substantial is the chapter on Black Shuck, though it adds nothing new to the subject, and does not mention Simon Sherwood, who has been collecting accounts for some years, and who gave a talk on ‘Apparitions of Black Dogs’ to the 2010 SPR conference. A chapter on witches gathers together a few stories from the area.
Ghosts are divided by location: essentially rural, urban, clerical and modern. This is a useful compilation for the casual reader, with many old standards, such as - to take a few at random - the Drummer Boy of Hickling Broad, Blickling Hall, the haunted bridge at Potter Heigham, the ghostly monk seen hanging at St Benet‘s Abbey (though Meeres does not include the information that it is supposed to be a cyclical ghost which appears on 25 May each year; I have been and found the place heaving, but Edric failed to materialise), and more. Raynham Hall is another old standard, but it is disappointing to see the Brown Lady photograph discussed without reference to the recent research which has shown that there is far more to the story than is contained in general ghost books, and with suggestions how it was probably faked. Accounts gathered by local historian W H Cooke are given their own chapter. There is no index, which makes locating a particular story can be awkward as it can be in one of a number of places.
Long chapters are devoted to the Snettisham and Syderstone ghosts. The former relies heavily on Rev. Rowland Maitland’s authoritative booklet, which is credited, and adds further information, but the latter, mostly comprising long screeds of correspondence, could have acknowledged its obvious debt to Eliot O’Donnell‘s Ghostly Phenomena and Haunted Places in England. By the way, if anyone wonders why there appears to be little reference to the Snettisham Ghost in the SPR’s publications (despite Alan Gauld calling it "famous" in an article on Andrew Lang, who covered it in his The Book of Dreams and Ghosts, as did Andrew MacKenzie in Hauntings and Apparitions), that is because (as Maitland notes, but Meeres does not), it was not called Snettisham, Norfolk when details were first published, but instead Meresby, Suffolk. It is Case P. 220 in Frederic Myers’s ‘The Subliminal Self’ in Volume 11 of Proceedings.
Meeres’ primary interest appears to be true crime, and there is a lot of it in the book. On occasion it can obscure any paranormal element - for example, we get quite a long narrative about William Suffolk murdering his mistress when she dumped him in 1797, and his subsequent confession is printed verbatim, but the payoff is merely three lines recounting an anecdote that some unspecified children in the 1980s, playing at the spot where the gibbet which held his body was supposed to have stood, saw a skeleton lying on the grass, but it had disappeared when they returned with their parents. Other stories similarly have a thin paranormal component, though they still make good yarns - an entire chapter on the non-paranormal babes in the wood ends with the information that one may still hear them wailing on dark stormy nights (nothing to do with the wind in the trees of course).
Frank Meeres has produced a nicely illustrated and enjoyable book, on its own terms, one which will be of interest to those seeking an overview of the supernatural in Norfolk, as found in its central archives. It will hopefully encourage readers to find out more about this beautiful part of the country, and perhaps to delve further into its rich paranormal heritage.
Amberley publish a large number of regional guides to the paranormal. Their website is at: http://www.amberleybooks.com.
Veteran ghost hunter Peter Underwood dips into his files and pulls together a collection of haunted gardens. Or rather, with the odd exception, a collection of rather nice buildings which have allegedly haunted gardens attached to them, the accounts tending to focus on the insides as much as the outsides. Underwood is skilful at interweaving ghost stories, indoors or al fresco, with local history, and the book will be useful to those with a general interest in the places, many of which are open to the public, as to those wishing to know about the ghost sightings said to have occurred in them.
Gardens often have an uncanny quality so it does not seem surprising that they should be associated with ghosts. Thirty-seven are included here, the majority in England, but several in the other home countries, a few on the Continent, three in the USA and singletons in Jamaica and Singapore. In general there are no huge surprises. Some are better known than others, some very well indeed, and none more so than Borley Rectory, which is included even though there is nothing new added to the story and nothing left for the pilgrim to see. Entries are in alphabetical order irrespective of country, rather than grouped geographically. The book is well illustrated, mostly from the author’s own collection.
There is a distinct sense of recycling material from previous books, but Underwood always writes well and seems to have known a lot of interesting people, often of an elevated social class, with a huge fund of anecdotes between them. The text is more detailed than is sometimes the case in books of this type, and the whole is attractively packaged by Amberley, making Hunted Gardens a pleasure to read. It is well worth having to hand if you intend to visit, as Underwood is knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and his book will inform you about a place as much as about the ghosts that walk there.
Anyone expecting to read an account of precisely what led Peter Underwood to resign his life presidency of the Ghost Club, or to enjoy watching him settle old scores (if any exist), will be disappointed. This brief account of the Ghost Club – or Clubs, as it has gone through a number of separate manifestations during its existence, each one generally having a tenuous connection to its predecessor – has little to say about the split that led to the formation of the Ghost Club Society, but rather concentrates on Underwood’s presidency of the Ghost Club, a reign which lasted over thirty years.
The history begins with the obscure origins of the Ghost Society (or Cambridge Ghost Club) in 1851, and the formation of the Ghost Club in 1862. It is unlikely that Edmund Gurney (b 1847) or Arthur Balfour (b 1848) were members of the original 1851 society, as Underwood claims. That the 1862 version attracted attention is indicated, as Underwood notes, by George Cruikshank’s dedication to the Ghost Club of his book A Discovery Concerning Ghosts, published the following year, though Underwood doesn’t add that Cruikshank was probably being sarcastic. More space is devoted to the 1882-1936 incarnation as the records have survived, but perhaps the section on its members and activities could have been expanded further.
More too could surely have been said about the Harry Price years (1938-47). One gets the feeling that Underwood’s interest in the earlier days is slight compared to when the Club was under his own guidance. His main focus is what he terms the “third revival“, the period from 1954-93. Underwood became president in 1960, and ran the organisation with huge energy, attracting a large number of celebrity supporters, the sort of thing the SPR was good at in its early days. I have to declare an interest here as I applied to join the invitation-only organisation (as it was before the organisation relaxed its rules following Underwood’s departure), and was rejected. I can see I missed some tremendous meetings addressed by a who’s who of the paranormal world.
This is actually a revised, expanded and much more professionally produced version of a booklet Underwood produced in 2000, under the slightly different title “The Ghost Club Society – A History” (White House Publications; the cover carries the title “A Short History of the Ghost Club Society”). The change of title is significant because Peter Underwood resigned the life presidency of the Ghost Club in 1993 and became life president of the new Ghost Club Society, which he formed the same year. The original title was misleading as the booklet was about the history of the Ghost Club up to 1993, not the new Ghost Club Society. For this version the word ‘Society’ has been omitted from the title, which makes it more accurate, as it is still a history of the Ghost Club ending in 1993. The new title allows Underwood to avoid the anomalous situation of describing individuals as members of the Ghost Club Society before it was actually formed, which he had in the first edition. Unfortunately Underwood’s website still proclaims (or at least does at the time of writing) that he is “Life President, Ghost Club Society (founded 1851)”, which of course it wasn‘t.
The ending of the new booklet is substantially different to that in the old one. In the original edition, Underwood merely says that “1993 saw the emergence of the present ‘GHOST CLUB SOCIETY’ with myself as Life President,” with no indication why the Society was formed and implying a straightforward transition from one organisation to another. The new edition does now acknowledge that the Ghost Club continued in parallel, and Underwood says that he resigned as its president after receiving negative comments, though he did not leave the Club itself. The Ghost Club Society was obviously formed in competition, but Underwood gives a misleading impression when he says that “For a while both clubs staggered along”, which suggests that neither now exists.
The Ghost Club Society does appear to be defunct (as long ago as 2005, according to Rosemary Ellen Guiley’s The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits, third edition, 2007; she also gives more of the background to the efforts to revive the Club after Harry Price’s death, which Underwood leaves out). The Ghost Club on the other hand continues to thrive, with a full programme of activities. It is also surely incorrect to refer to the “third revival” as occurring between 1954 and 1993”, as if the Ghost Club changed character at that point. The Club retained its character after Underwood left, and is still the same organisation that was reconstituted in 1954, apart from being easier to join these days. The entry for the Ghost Club should read “1954 to date”.
Throughout their respective histories there has been an overlap in the membership of the Ghost Club and the Society for Psychical Research. The SPR is featured a number of times, but whereas many potted histories focus on the Cambridge connection and omit the role played by William Barrett and Edmund Dawson Rogers in its formation, Underwood goes the other way and excludes Sidgwick, Myers and Gurney from its foundation altogether, implying that the SPR began solely as a Spiritualist organisation.
The booklet is only 43 pages, which seems rather perfunctory for a history stretching back nearly 160 years, even if information about the early period is in short supply. The poor-quality illustrations of the first edition have been replaced with much better quality ones mostly taken from the author’s collection, and there is an excellent index. This brief survey will be of use to anyone interested in the history of the several associations that have been called “The Ghost Club”, but the definitive account, including the Club’s evolution since 1993, when Underwood left in a huff, remains to be written.
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.