If there is one constant in Roger Clarke’s informative A Natural History of Ghosts (it might be better called a social history), it is the ghosts themselves. While the living interpretation of what a ghost is or should be is forever changing, the ghost at the centre of it all remains the same. It seems that the apparitions of antiquity were cut from the very same cloth (or winding sheet) as more recent spooks. The ancient Greeks, it seems, where the first to introduce the idea of a ghost as a shrouded apparition mournfully rattling its chains, a couple of millennia before similar spectres could be found wandering through the works of Dickens and Wilde.
But Clarke’s book isn’t really about the ghosts themselves: it’s about the people who sought to understand them (The Men Who Stare at Ghosts, anyone?). From Pliny’s account of Athenodorus the philosopher to the hysterical shenanigans that define television’s Most Haunted, by way of Harry Price at Borley Rectory and Houdini sticking it to the Spiritualists, Clarke takes the reader through some of the more significant investigations into paranormal activity.
For someone who professes a lifelong wish to see a ghost, Clarke toes an admirably sceptical line throughout and, by the end of the book, it’s the larger than life characters of the hunters and the haunted that leave a lasting impression long after the spectres have faded away.
Unsurprisingly, there is a bias towards Western Europe and America from The Reformation to the present day. As well as a focus on the religious aspects of a belief in ghosts as the spirits of the dead, Catholics believe while Protestants generally don’t. Of course, hauntings continued regardless of the prevailing mind-set of the day.
After an engaging introduction of Clarke’s own experiences with the supernatural (which seems to involve visiting all manner of supposedly haunted places and seeing not very much) the book becomes a rather stolid history of the business of ghost hunting. It’s here that the book’s problems start to creep in.
It’s far from being a disappointment as Clarke does a splendid job of putting the subject in not only a historical context, but a social (and therefore religious) context too; it seems that the world of ghost and hunter alike are riven with snobbery and class. But the book soon looses that spark of enthusiasm so clearly present in the opening chapter. Where Clarke stumbles is in the abundance of notes referenced liberally throughout its three-hundred-odd pages. It’s fair to expect any work such as this to rely on notes to shore up facts contained in the main text with references and such like. But these notes continually interrupt the flow of the prose with the reader having to flick constantly to the back of the book to read the notes (there are, in some cases, two or three in a single sentence). Some of the notes are completely redundant as the author frequently includes this additional information in a later paragraph anyway. The chapter on Hinton Ampner suffers most here, with Clarke appearing to have way too much information and not knowing what to leave out. In the same chapter the notes become mixed up, with numbers in the text not matching those in the appendix.
And if the notes were an annoyance then the mistakes in the text could prove more damaging still. The author places Dickens at a public hanging five years before he was born. On one page we’re told that Harry Price died in 1947, a few pages further on it is 1948. Edgar Allan Poe is spelt incorrectly throughout. It may be minor stuff but if these details are wrong, how many other mistakes might have slipped by unnoticed? Such doubts can’t help but undermine the veracity of the work in general.
Despite all this, it remains a worthwhile read for anyone wishing to gain some insight – a behind the scenes peek, if you like – into the things that go bump in the night.
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