Filler content with ‘real’ ghosts

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #35:-

GHOSTS: THE NON-FICTION

With the subtitle ‘500 Years of Hunting for Proof’, Roger Clarke’s A NATURAL HISTORY OF GHOSTS (Particular Books hb, 361pp, £20) covers roughly similar ground to The Haunted by Owen Davies, which I reviewed in Black Static a few years back, and in the acknowledgements section of this volume the author references that work, calling Davies ‘the sans pareil expert on this subject’. Like Davies, and regardless of that subtitle, Clarke is not so much concerned with proving the existence of spirits, as cataloguing their role in human affairs, or rather how our belief in them or not influences our behaviour, how we have regarded them and what our attitudes to the paranormal demonstrate about us.

Each chapter is based round a particular event, place or phenomenon, and Clarke uses this as a launching pad, finding themes and developing them over the course of the book, the story ranging far and wide across the spectral landscape of Great Britain, from the seventeenth century to the present day, a whistle stop tour that takes in such obvious destinations as Borley Rectory and Cock Lane, along with other places that are less well known to the general reader, dealing with people like paranormal investigator Harry Price, spirit medium Daniel Dunglas Home, and yes, there’s even a reference in passing to Derek Acorah. A writer of fiction himself, one area where Clarke puts clear water between himself and Davies is in the linking of real life events with ghost fiction, showing how one could have inspired the other, with the work of writers such as M. R. James and Henry James discussed in a way that most genre readers will find useful and illuminating, reminding us that fiction is seldom if ever woven entirely from new cloth, but a product of its time. Clarke’s prose style is eminently accessible, and his natural humour shines through the text; he gently mocks some of those he writes about, but is never cruel and always demonstrates an appropriate degree of seriousness for his subject matter. Perhaps more than anything else, what you come away with after reading A Natural History of Ghosts is Clarke’s enthusiasm and almost fan boy exuberance, qualities that can’t help but endear the author to the reader.

Meticulously researched and elegantly expressed, this is a book that will fit well on the shelf of any horror aficionado, not because of any hard and fast conclusions it may reach on the subject under discussion, but for the wide range of examples, the cameos of the people involved in ghost hunting, the delineation of how attitudes towards the paranormal change over time. More pertinently perhaps, if you’re a writer and constantly mining for new ideas, then step right this way mesdames et messieurs, because Roger Clarke has uncovered a veritable mother lode for you to tap into.

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