Filler content with facts – Part 1

Three reviews and the first part of a feature on non-fiction titles that originally appeared in Black Static #4:-


Mostly it’s about fiction here at Case Notes, but every so often we like to cast a critical eye over some non-fiction titles whose subject matter may be of interest to our readers.

Case in point, Servants of the Supernatural (William Heinemann hardback, 290pp, £20) by Antonio Melechi. With the subtitle ‘The Night Side of the Victorian Mind’ and a cover photograph of a table rising into the air much to the consternation of those seated around it, this book is ostensibly concerned with documenting the late Victorian obsession with the paranormal, witnessed in the popularity of mediums such as Daniel Dunglas Home and the Fox sisters, and in the rise of spiritualism. Much, if not most of the text however, concerns itself with the pseudo-science of mesmerism, which enjoyed widespread popularity in the nineteenth century and provoked fierce debate in the press of the day and among the scientific community, with arguments being put forward on both sides. Melechi is excellent at detailing this fervour and the swings and roundabouts that mesmerism enjoyed, with claims being made for its virtue as a cure all, giving us marvellous thumbnail sketches of characters on both sides of the divide and illustrating his arguments with a wealth of contemporary documents.

With yet more grandiose claims being made for somnambulists – that they had far sight, could commune with spirits etc – and the theory of mesmeric fluid linking all entities in the universe, mesmerism laid the philosophical foundations for the great age of spiritualism that was to follow. Again Melechi is impressive in delineating how this movement found its way to British shores, identifying its champions and debunkers, and sketching the main protagonists, such as Home himself, all of this segueing into a more rational and sceptical approach, with the establishment of groups like the Society for Psychical Research to investigate paranormal claims and the inclusion of stage magicians and skilled illusionists to make plain what science alone cannot disprove, a tradition that continues to the present day in the figure of James Randi.

Servants is a fascinating document, made more so by the fact that the events it describes are all a matter of history and that, while so obviously engaged with the material, writer Melechi is able to maintain his objectivity. There is, as Melechi states, a predisposition on the part of many to believe, in that if the claims being made are grounded in fact then the afterlife is proved, and so we all have a vested interest of sorts and a concomitant need to guard against that, to consider proof rather than cling to hope. And the book finds echoes in the present day, when interest in the paranormal is once again on the agenda for many, while cults and movements such as Scientology flourish by promising so much.

In many ways The Haunted (Palgrave Macmillan hardback, 288pp, £19.99) by Owen Davies makes an ideal companion to Servants, with some nice correspondences between the two books. As an example, in Haunted we learn that the writer Catherine Crowe was of the opinion that ghosts would be naked, while in Servants we hear that in 1854 she walked the streets of Edinburgh naked, having been told to do so by the spirits (a spell in an asylum followed), prompting the observation that many of today’s celebrities are perhaps more spiritually inclined than we may have previously thought. Davies has a wider scope than Melechi though, in both time and subject matter, his book embracing the same period but covering far more territory. He eschews the question of reality as regards spectral phenomena, instead presenting ‘A Social History of Ghosts’, looking at how they interact with society and what certain beliefs reveal about those who hold them, providing cultural and geographical context.

The Haunted has three sections conveniently labelled ‘Experience’, ‘Explanation’ and ‘Representation’ with an afterword in which he discusses ‘The Future of Ghosts’. In the first section Davies looks at traditional aspects of the English ghost and how they compare to ghosts in other countries, the types of places with which ghosts are associated and finally asking what kind of people seek them out. The second section addresses matters of belief and goes on to enumerate various ideas as to what may lie behind ghost stories, including influences in childhood, dreams and nightmares, hallucinations and mental illness. For the third section he gets down to brass tacks with the various methods of imitating ghosts and the motives of the people who do so, whether they be simple hoaxers or those with a more criminal intent, moving on to the role of ghosts in entertainment, courtesy of travelling fairs with their various optical illusions, stage plays and, inevitably, cinema. Yet more food for thought is provided in the afterword, with the revelation that statistics show, while it has remained fairly stable in other countries, belief in ghosts has grown in the United Kingdom.

Like Melechi, Davies packs his book with a wealth of detail and constantly refers to contemporary documents, but the wider scope makes for a more interesting read, with the reader able to follow various strands down through the years. For instance, we learn that the stereotypical white sheet ghost was derived from the practice of burying the dead in funeral shrouds rather than coffins. It provided an easy means of merriment to pranksters, though not without risk, as during times of ghost scares, such as the famous Cock Lane ghost affair of 1762, it was not a good idea for people to go out at night dressed in white as they were likely to get shot at by jittery ghost hunters (and I have no idea why shooting at a ghost should be effective). The white sheet ghost finally lost its scariness with the advent of silent films, when the likes of Laurel and Hardy turned this previously fearsome spectre into a figure of fun. Similarly if, like me, you’ve ever been amazed at the preposterous lengths some Gothic novelists go to in an attempt to give a rational explanation for the ghostly manifestations on their pages, then the various accounts of efforts undertaken to drive people from their properties or scare them to death with fake ghostly phenomena will probably come as an eye opener. Perhaps the most intriguing sections are those that deal with the ghost as entertainment, detailing how they were portrayed on stage and in early film, the roots of the spectral tourism industry, various effects used to create them for sideshows and the work of stage magicians in both exposing and exploiting such trickery.

Davies has written an eminently accessible book, the depth and breadth of which my comments have only touched on. He has assembled a miscellany of diverse and fascinating material that will be of interest to both the scholar of the supernatural, the general reader and the writer in search of a few ideas to exploit for pleasure and profit. I have only one complaint, that an index would have been very welcome, but as I received an ARC this oversight may have been rectified in the actual book.

An Illustrated History of the Haunted World (New Holland hardback, 160pp, £19.99) deals with the same sort of material as the previous two titles, but without the academic depth and rigour. It is unashamedly a coffee table book, packed with lavish illustrations, but with the text on the light side. Written by Jason Karl, a television presenter and founder of The Ghost Research Foundation, it has a journalese feel to it, with crisp, attention grabbing prose, an expectation of bullet points and buzz words, all designed to whet but not satisfy the appetite.

I found it uneven, with themed chapters that were very much hit and miss. Those that were a hit included the first one, entitled ‘A History of Hauntings’ and taking an informative look at various famous cases, such as Amityville, Borley Rectory and the Salem Witch Trials, offering nothing new to anyone with more than a passing knowledge of these matters, but certainly demonstrating the possibilities to the less well informed. Similarly excellent were the chapters on ‘Prominent Figures of the Paranormal’ and ‘The History of Spirit Photography’. I found the latter especially engaging, with some eye catching photographs and potted histories of each item, including speculation as to their authenticity. On the other hand the chapter ‘Beholding the Spirits’ did little more than list various spiritual celebrations from around the world, such as Beltane and Halloween, with pretty pictures, while the chapter on ‘The History of Spirit Communication’ was just as shallow, simply naming and describing such things as dowsing and hydromancy, with no serious attempt to explain or investigate any of them. And that, I guess, encapsulates the strengths and weaknesses of a book like this. On the one hand it does suggest many avenues of investigation, but on the other it simply doesn’t have the scope to pursue any of them to a more satisfying conclusion, can only ever be a taster.


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3 Responses to Filler content with facts – Part 1

  1. Alison Littlewood says:

    Ooh – I’ve read the Melechi book. Loved it. He really gives a sense of the time and the characters involved. Intrigued by The Haunted, will check that one out . . .

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