Thursday, December 11, 2014

Book Review: Ghosts: A Natural History: 500 Years Of Searching For Proof

Ghosts : A Natural History: 500 Years Of Searching For Proof
Roger Clarke

So: a history of ghost-hunting and ghost-investigation? I couldn’t wait. It had never been done before. Roger Clarke saw a hole. There were “lots of books about people seeing ghosts, but almost nothing about what ghosts might be.” Strangely, he states a few pages later that Ghosts isn’t “a book about whether ghosts exist or not.” Which the subtitle would seem to promise. But a few chapters on I didn’t mind so very much because Clarke had uncovered such an abundance of strange and absorbing information, was telling the history well and still managed to give me the creeps, not an easy balancing act, to say the very least.

How to convey an idea of such an embarrassment of riches? It’s an iceberg—let me give you an idea of the tip. Topics include the following. Why ghosts faded into the background in England (this book is mostly about England) when Catholicism was banned by King Henry. (By the way, ghosts are good at fading into the background.) How, in history, your religion, social status, education, and the century you were born in affected your take on ghosts. The surprising story of early Methodists and ghost-belief. Joseph Glanville, England’s Ghost Hunter General. Is it or is it not logical that ghosts have clothes? The long and impressive list of scientists who researched ghosts-William James, Alfred Russell Wallace, Edison, many more. The EEG machine and how it started off as a device to detect telepathy.

On odd occasions, Clarke gets so swept up he blunders, as when he states that the gothic novel was first developed “by gay men and asthmatic women” without offering any specifics, or stating that Emmanuel Swedenborg essentially “remained a Bible-reading Calvinist.” Bible-reading, certainly. Calvinist, ridiculous. Another flaw: this book is part of a new cost-cutting trend of printing photos directly onto rough instead of higher-quality paper, which results in poor resolution. This is a problem inasmuch as Clarke often refers to details in the pictures which sometimes don’t show up (or show up well) after transfer.

But there’s so much to praise here that I feel churlish saying such things. Where else am I going to learn that spiritualism and early socialism were closely connected? But it’s the chapter on Victorian seances and sex that is alone almost worth the price of admission. Clarke tells the story with admirable restraint, a restraint which only highlights the drama and humor of the proceedings. (Not only is the subject matter English, the style is, too.) For Clarke, the seances were all about sex, yet another way in which history’s most famous repressed society shoved down eros only to have it pop up in an unexpected place.  Clarke titles one of his chapters “On The Vulgarity Of Ghosts.” He’s clearly not kidding. The interesting thing is that the Victorians did not frame all this as sex, but as scientific exploration or metaphysical or religious seeking. I think some of them, at least were consciously excited by the shenanigans, but, mostly, there was a disconnect here, and a big one. Victorians had a lot of disconnects. That’s why they’re so fascinating. Clarke’s set pieces in this chapter are involving and often side-splitting. The things the mediums got up to before the skeptics debunked them were brilliant stage magic under another name. The most ingenious of them survived all skeptics, which convinced many that they had real supernatural powers. I’d like to know what they did; the tricks (and I think they were tricks) would turn out to be some of the most brilliant sleight-of-hand in history.

Religion, sex, vulgarity, shivers, hypocrisy, pratfalls, phonies unmasked—who could ask for anything more? Actually, you get quite a bit more in Ghosts. All this, and the afterlife too. Or something that passes for it.

Richard Grooms
Fiction Department
Central Library

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