16 August 2019

A LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS

Charles F. Gritzner. North Carolina Ghost Lights and Legends. Blair, NC. 2019.

Have you ever stood on a dark, windy hilltop in the middle of the night, shivering in the cold, trying to keep warm with a Thermos flask of coffee, watching for lights in the ink-black sky; wondering whether those lights were from distant cars, aircraft, meteors, satellites, swamp-gas, extraterrestrial spacecraft, or pranksters with a flashing light rigged up on the roof of a parked car?

Well if you were in Warminster in the nineteen-sixties and 'seventies (or even the 2000's in some cases) then you probably have. Charles Gritzner is someone who has shared that experience with you, although his lights are thousands of miles away in North Carolina.

The 'ghost light' phenomenon may not be as widespread on this side of the Atlantic as it is in the USA, and in the USA it seems nowhere is it more widespread than in North Carolina. I think most people familiar with Fortean phenomena will at least have heard of the 'Brown Mountain Lights', and they are in this book, although the author saves them pretty much to the last.

But there are many other intriguing luminous phenomena scattered plentifully about the state, and Charles Gritzner has made it his target to witness them all. Or at least visit their locations as some seem to have retired from active service. Gritzner is a geographer, and has lectured on 'geomythology' and the 'geography of the paranormal', which he describes as being “on the margins of traditional geographical enquiry.” Maybe, but I'd still like to have been at one of his lectures!

He takes a traditional geographical approach to his topic, closely examining the locations of the phenomena, studying the immediate environment, and looking, wherever possible, for an explanation in conventional scientific terms. However, he also takes a sociological approach to the subject, and attempts to put the lights into historical context, as well as surveying folklore and local legend and rumour.

North Carolina appears to be the epicentre of ghost-light phenomena in the US, and he puts this down to a number of factors. It is a state which has an unusually high rural population, scattered in small settlements, so the phenomena is not obliterated by the lights of big cities. It is also a region which was settled very early by colonists from the British Isles who brought much of their native folklore with them – a folklore which included will-o-the-wisps, corpse-lights, boggarts and fairies.

This was overlaid by a later folklore, as the settled communities began to interact with their new environment and the new people they came into contact with. Much of the folklore surrounding the North Carolina lights involved railways, and in the gazetteer of lights which comprises most of this book a great proportion are situated on or adjacent to railway lines, and specifically bridges.




There is a consistent story which occurs over and over again at different locations, that lights along the lines are the result of a tragic accident. Usually this involves a railway worker, driver, fireman or unfortunate passenger who was decapitated in a crash or explosion. The light represents the lantern his spectre is carrying as he, or in one or two cases she, searches for the missing head. Although, as the author points out, it is difficult to understand how the headless revenant would be able to find their head without the use of their eyes!

Gritzner meticulously researches the alleged history of these stories, and in some cases does find an historical incident which may have been the origin of the legend, but more often than not it seems that this is a sort of standard explanation that has been attached to widely separated light phenomena. If fact some 'lights' although reported in one or other source, were completely unknown to local residents, libraries and historical societies, and appear to have been made up out of whole cloth. Lights which were visible at one time have faded from view, often when the railroad tracks they hovered over were lifted in the 1970s, but others stayed on despite the removal of the iron way.

The author speculates on the role that the tracks may have played in creating the phenomenon, either by some trick of reflection, or the metal itself attracting an electrical phenomenon, but he does not pretend that any one explanation can account for all the lights. This is a book as much about stories, legend and rumour as it is about physical phenomenon.

Gritzner has visited all the locations he writes about, and in quite a few cases has witnessed the lights himself. Sometimes he has been able to deduce an explanation, but mostly finds there to be no really convincing explanation. In some cases he has been able to determine that the reported phenomenon was clearly a joke or a hoax, and in other instances the reports were so vague that it is likely nothing was ever seen at at the alleged site. When reading about the individual cases it would be useful for the reader to be able to access Google Earth, as locations are given very precisely and it is possible to imagine yourself at the spot as the author describes the phenomenon.

Towards the end of the book Gritzner tells us about his visit to Brown Mountain, and reports a spectacular array of lights across a wide area. These seem to be a true anomaly, with many thousands of witnesses over decades. They seem to have a great deal of documented history behind them as well as a tradition of folktales. I have no idea what might be going on there, and neither does the author, but of all the lights – and stories of lights – that he encountered in his extensive journeying, this is the display that impressed him most.

This is an interesting and enjoyable account of a search that did not end in any simple explanation for the phenomena, but reveals the complexity involved in studying any Fortean phenomenon 'in the wild'. I'll never visit North Carolina, but I found myself drawn into its mysteries through the accounts in this book. – John Rimmer.

14 August 2019

KEEPING IN SHAPE

John B. Kachuba Shapeshifters - A History. Reaktion Books. 2019

All of us are shapeshifters whether we realise it or not. Simply to grow is to change shape, and it is all too human to find that, for whatever reasons, we have grown rather too much for our liking. So it is a common experience to want to change the shape and appearance of our human body for the better, and this is naturally within our power to achieve with sustained effort of will and action over time. 

But there is another kind of shapeshifting altogether that can only be called supernatural by virtue of the purported ability to change shape totally and instantaneously, from human to animal or any other form. Just a brief consideration of the subject reveals many possibilities and aspects, some to do with human psychology and others in the advanced realms of quantum physics and esoteric knowledge.

As this new publication reveals in its title, Shapeshifters - A History, the whole phenomenon can be viewed from a historical perspective. This means taking a wide-ranging survey of ancient mythology, folklore, literature, films, social trends and cases from many different countries and cultures to analyse what is really going on. John B. Kachuba is a seasoned writer and researcher on ghosts and other occult matters, both in fiction and non-fiction. This book is concise yet remarkably comprehensive, covering everything from werewolves and vampires to costume play and masquerades. It is also well-written, equally as entertaining as it is informative for any reader.

I gathered somewhere online that Kachuba teaches Creative Writing at Ohio University. He demonstrates his own creative writing skills in the opening words of the Introduction, where he describes the archetypal transformation of a man into a werewolf: "As night falls, a desperate figure cowers in the forest, terrified and yet excited as he ponders what is about to unfold. The Moon rises full and round over the forest, and he is caught in its ghostly luminescence." The description of a painful transformation, with bones stretching, clothes shredding, nails lengthening into razor-sharp claws and fur sprouting all over the body conveys an impression of what human-to-animal shapeshifting might actually feel like. It would certainly be better to find a forest and not do this at home. Your resultant howls might disturb the neighbours.

Werewolves and vampires often appear as shapeshifters in popular culture, the latter not being so obvious until you remember that they often transform into a bat to journey from the grave to the object of their compulsion. Kachuba reminds us that until the Middle Ages it was not thought to be within the power of mortal men to transform from human to animal and back again. This was reserved for the shaman and his hunting magic. Indigenous cultures, such as those in North America and Siberia, often dressed themselves in the skins of the animals they were hunting, and might use hallucinogenic herbs and magical techniques to enter into the mindset and behaviour of their prey.




Ancient cultures, such as that of Egypt, feature several gods with animal heads and human bodies. They believed that the spirit or energy of the gods could inhabit a statue as well as an animal or a human. Also, "Greek and Roman mythology is rife with stories of fantastical shapeshifting, but, here too, it is the gods who are the perpetrators of such transformations, working them upon the human race." The chief of the Greek gods, Zeus, transformed into all manner of forms to have his wicked way with attractive humans of both genders. His abundant progeny gave rise to his popular moniker 'the father of the gods'.

Ovid's famous poetic work Metamorphoses is quoted for what may be the first known reference to a human becoming a werewolf. The story is drawn from Greek mythology, in which Lycaon, cruel king of Arcadia, serves human flesh to Zeus in order to test him. Jove (the Roman name for Zeus) punishes Lycaon by turning him into a wolf: "...his arms were legs and his robes were shaggy hair. Yet, still he is Lycaon, the same grayness, the same fierce face, the same red eyes, a picture of bestial savagery." Lycanthropy, the clinical condition of being a werewolf, usually of course a psychiatric delusion, is named after him.

It is not only Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures who had shapeshifting gods. The supreme god of the Norse Pantheon, Odin, whose name lives on in English as the day of the week Wednesday, is an eternal shapeshifter. He is said to roam the world in his guise as the Wanderer, a tall one-eyed elderly gentleman wearing a broad hat, "bringing wisdom and knowledge to heroes". There are rumours that he attends Magonia meetings in the guise of chairman, but these cannot be substantiated.

According to Hindu tradition, the god Vishnu incarnates on Earth from time to time in various forms to restore the cosmic order. The last two we know of were Krishna, who appeared as a pleasant young man with a blue complexion, and Gautama Siddhartha, the one known as 'the Buddha'. We are now awaiting his arrival as "Kalki, the 'Destroyer of Filth', who will usher in the end times, arriving on a white horse and bearing a blazing sword". This corresponds with the Book of Revelation vision of Christ returning to Earth to bring peace and justice, not the 'meek and mild Jesus' who turned the other cheek.

Interestingly, the author refers to an ancient Coptic text, nearly 1,300 years old and now held at the Morgan Library in New York, which implies that Jesus was a shapeshifter. Part of the text reads: "Then the Jews said to Judas: How shall we arrest him, for he does not have a single shape but his appearance changes. Sometimes he is ruddy, sometimes he is white, sometimes he is red, sometimes he is wheat coloured, sometimes he is pallid like ascetics, sometimes he is a youth, sometimes he is an old man." The Jews coming to arrest Jesus needed a way to identify him because of his ability to change appearance. This understanding of Judas' kiss is also found in Origen, the second-century theologian.

The question obviously arises at some point: Is shapeshifting an actual transformation or an effect of perception, either mistaken or manipulated in some way? After considering several different cases, Kachuba says: "An internal shapeshifter believes he has fully taken on the consciousness and behaviour of some animal, even though he retains his human form." He then proposes that, by being convinced through the effects of suggestion and ritual, observers may experience a kind of hysteria. After all, it would be difficult in any particular case to prove that a full physical transformation had occurred, as all is dependent on perception. Those of us who have been amazed to see a good stage conjurer apparently transform one thing into another are all the more delighted when we could detect no sign whatever of sleight of hand. This is the effect of real magic and shows the power of the mind, including our own.

'The Power of Transformation' is the chapter where Kachuba really grapples with the deep philosophical and occult questions around shapeshifting. He starts with the gospel account of the Transfiguration, accepted by many Christians as a miracle to show Jesus' divine nature. Three of his closest disciples reported what they witnessed on the mountain top as a transformation from human form to a radiant being of light. They were forbidden to speak of the experience until after his death. What to make of this? If it really was a genuine shapeshifting then it would indicate that he had acquired, or had access to, higher powers. Such demonstrations can serve to strengthen the faith of disciples and catapult them in turn to breakthroughs of physical limitations.

However, such phenomena have been reported from Swamis in India, and other holy men. The one known as Buddha was reported to have transfigured twice, at the time of his enlightenment and at the moment of his death. Anyone with spiritual knowledge knows that humans have other, more subtle bodies beyond the physical, but being able to demonstrate a glorified appearance would not in itself be useful or helpful except in very particular circumstances according to wisdom. Or it might occur spontaneously as a by-product of ecstasy, a word which literally means to stand beside oneself.




This may explain why we don't see much shapeshifting in public. It could be very inconvenient as well as causing a panic in the general population. Kachuba does not shy away from the theory associated with David Icke that some members of royalty and the ruling elite are 'shapeshifting reptiles' who originally came from the star system Alpha Draconis. To his credit, Kachuba does not simply mock Icke or his work but rather asks why an estimated twelve million people believe such a theory. "Perhaps it might be that many people are at a loss to explain the chaos and misrule so evident in the world, and have an easier time believing alien reptilian shapeshifters are behind it all. . ."

Encounters with aliens or UFOs are fraught with such questions as how 'real' they are. A writer by the name of M.J.Banias is cited for his 'Co-Creation Hypothesis', explaining that a contact event with an 'NHI' (non-human intelligence) "is so totally alien that the human brain cannot comprehend the event in an objective way. What occurs instead is a sort of experiential analogue, the human brain generates a working, albeit false, reality to understand the NHI encounter event." We have to get used to the idea that NHIs exist, possibly without any discernible body, before we can have any meaningful communication with them.

In the same chapter is an excellent overview of the findings of Carl Gustav Jung. It is useful to have a list of primary archetypes: the Persona, the Shadow, the Wise Elder, the Divine Child, the Trickster, the Great Mother, and the animus/anima, also called the Shapeshifter. Every human contains both masculine and feminine elements, "but not necessarily always in balance. It is the imbalance of the natures that is representative of shapeshifting." Furthermore, it is not only having options of forms, which can be changed, but also formlessness itself. We are paradoxical in nature, having present form while still existing as a formless spirit.

A good example from modern culture of the power of transformation is the Incredible Hulk, the superhuman green monster that mild-mannered Bruce Banner becomes when he flies into an uncontrollable rage. It is a common feature of superheroes that they gain their awesome powers while in the altered state. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is an example given of the corruption that can happen if one over-indulges the wild side. Nice Dr Jekyll finds himself being overtaken by his psychopathic alter-ego Mr Hyde and it ultimately destroys him.

Naturally for this theme, Kachuba devotes a whole chapter to folklore and fairy tales from around the world', some of which will be familiar. Tales such as 'Beauty and the Beast' or the Brothers Grimm's tale of 'the Frog Prince' are directly about shapeshifting magic and the wisdom to see beyond appearances. The lesson is often that pure love and a good heart can overcome powerful evil. Other chapters look at shapeshifting in modern culture, such as Dr Who on BBC, not only changing form as a man but in the latest version presenting as a woman. Gender-bending is clearly a feature of the current zeitgeist.

Shapeshifting in literature and film is surprisingly prevalent. Bram Stoker's Dracula and Franz Kafka's horror novel Metamorphosis are prime examples among hundreds. J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series of novels is another. The classic vampire film Nosferatu opened the floodgates to a great wave of shapeshifting films on the dark side. My favourite sentence in Kachuba's enjoyable book is his description of the famous series of British horror films that we are so familiar with: "Hammer films were instantly recognizable by their bevy of busty beauties and bountiful buckets of blood". That's the way to do it! Shapeshifting may be over the top sometimes, but on the other hand it can be a lot of fun for those that know how to play. – Kevin Murphy



9 August 2019

TARGET EARTH

Andrew May. Cosmic Impact: Understanding the Threat to Earth from Asteroids and Comets. Icon Books, 2019.

Twenty one years ago actress Tea Leoni stood on the east coast of the USA watching as a tsunami raced towards her across the ocean. She knew there was no escape from imminent death. Happily this was just a fictional climax to the Hollywood movie, Deep Impact, where human civilisation was about to be obliterated by a comet on collision course with Earth.

But that fiction was very much reality 66 million years earlier when almost all dinosaur species and many other forms of life perished following a similar impact in the Gulf of Mexico. Humans only became the dominant species today after that stellar object smashed into our planet and tiny mammalian ancestors living underground evaded the wipe out.

The difference between fiction and terrifying reality is the subject of this thought-provoking primer by an astrophysicist. Only in the last 100 years or so have we become aware of the inevitability that this will happen again. Perhaps a million years from now. Or next week. For the first time in the 4.5 billion years history of Earth a species living here has the intelligence and technology to try to do something about events that occur regularly across the universe.

The object that did for the dinosaurs was only 10 km wide – a pebble on the scale of space. Until the last century we had no idea it existed. All the species on Earth faced explosions in the sky as their universe disintegrated. Death came both swiftly from the firestorm circling the globe and slowly via the long nuclear winter as the debris blotted out sunlight.

Today our growing knowledge of astronomy and geology has found overwhelming evidence in the rocks of this explosion five billion times more powerful than the bomb over Hiroshima. Satellites in orbit can even show the impact crater under the ocean much like those on the Moon – with the one on Earth 200 km wide. Study of rock strata show these impacts may be instant death for those nearby but equally costly thousands of miles away. They are apocalyptic.

Worryingly, objects bigger than the dinosaur killer are out there and countless others just as deadly theoretically could cross paths with ours. They and our world move in a never ending cosmic ballet where orbits weave intricate courses that avoid being in the same spot at the same moment 99.999% of the time. But it is never 100% - making collisions with our planet a matter of when, not if. The Earth is hit many times each day by tiny ones that burn up in our thick atmosphere. They are not the problem. The rare big ones are.




May is an engaging conveyor of the facts in this easy to read investigation of the search for solutions. He reveals a race against time to find something we do not have – a reliable Earth defence system. So - if we see one coming - we can prevent humans from going vanishing in a blink.

The book takes us through the different problems posed by comets and asteroids – both potential killers but not defeatable in the same way. Hollywood often makes it seem easy – brave astronauts plant a bomb and blow up the rock. Unfortunately real life is never quite as simple.

May tells how our advancing knowledge and space programme put a telescope in Earth orbit so we could predict a year ahead such an event was due. Thankfully comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 was going to impact onto the surface of Jupiter in July 1994. Not us.

We could watch from safe distance as it did so, having been broken up by Jupiter's immense gravity into nine separate objects around a km wide. One after the other they struck the thick atmosphere of the gas giant exactly as predicted – Jupiter's vast size and attractive pull making it the target struck by killer impacts on the most regular basis. But this was the first time in human history that we could watch in awe and see the aftermath – multiple huge explosive blotches the size of Earth that scarred the upper atmosphere of Jupiter for weeks.

Something similar will happen again or Earth may be next and we must hope we have enough time to put in place one of the theoretical methods to try to break apart, slow down, or nudge off course any behemoth heading our way. Right now all we can do is find and chart the big ones and calculate risk of future collision.

 To our shock one of these – now named Apophis – has already been discovered heading our way to very nearly hit us in 2029. At a third of a km it is a killer. Apophis is bigger than one that exploded over Siberia in 1908 flattening a vast area. It would have taken out a city if times were slightly different. Apophis is an even greater threat to millions. Thankfully, in 2029 it will pass inside Earth orbiting satellites and in cosmic terms be the narrowest of squeaks. We are safe. This time.

However, there are others out there not yet found. One of them very likely has our number on it – be that number reading ten years or ten thousand. The race is on to be ready to both see it coming and have enough warning to then act.

Of course, by the time it gets here we must perfect a way to make sure it does not fulfil its date with destiny. The political will needs to be there to find the necessary money. but after reading May's book you will urge world leaders that it must be. -- Jenny Randles.



6 August 2019

MORE AT 'MORE MAGONIA'

I have added a new article to the More Magonia website, which contains the 'long read' reviews and articles. David Sivier came across a semi-classic old volume, Richard Mooney's 1974 Granada paperback, Colony Earth. It caused him to reconsider some of the thinking behind the 'ancient astronaut' ideas, many of which are still circulating. He finds it all rather disturbing:
This is another book, which I picked up recently in a secondhand bookshop in Cheltenham. It's very much a product of time, the early '70s, when there was a spate of books following von Daniken's blockbuster Chariots of the Gods, as well as the growth of the New Age and Fortean counterculture. Mooney follows von Daniken in claiming that the deities of the world's religions were extraterrestrial space travellers and that their scriptures, myths and legends preserve memories of genuine, global ancient catastrophes. The blurb on the back cover gives a warning of some of the book's claims in the following questions: 
"What was the great catastrophe that the Bible calls the 'Flood'?Are the Egyptian pyramids giant air-raid shelters?Were the bearded 'White Gods' of the Incas survivors from a catastrophe across the Atlantic?Were the giant stone monuments of antiquity built with the aid of high explosives?"
To which the answer is obviously 'No'."

31 July 2019

FULL STEAM SIDEWAYS!

Simon Webb. The Real World of Victorian Steampunk. Pen and Sword Books, 2019.

When I first opened this book and read the list of illustrations I was fascinated by the titles, including an 1829 drawing of a proposed Vacuum Powered transport system between Britain and India! I was hooked. Steampunk is a genre of science fiction that has a historical setting and typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology.

In the introduction Simon Webb relates that in 2018, “Sir Richard Branson proposed building passenger-carrying tubes to link London’s three airports and announced it would take three minutes to get from Heathrow to Gatwick” by this means travelling at a speed of 670mph. This was a scaled-down version of Elon Musk's scheme which proposed to build a tunnel stretching 200 miles from New York to Washington DC. This "Hyperloop" consisted of a vacuum tunnel assuring there was no air pressure to slow down the train. The press release described this scheme as being a futuristic and space-age innovation in travel for the twenty-first century.

Webb feels "there was something curiously familiar about these supposedly new ideas for high-speed travel". The illustration I mentioned before shows a satirical drawing of a "Hyperloop" labelled "Grand Vacuum Tube Company Direct to Bengal" that would carry passengers from Britain to present-day Bangladesh, a distance of 5,000 miles. This was in 1895.

But the vacuum tube system was not Victorian science fiction, as another illustration in this fascinating book shows a vacuum railway tube that actually operated in London’s Crystal Palace Park in 1867. It ran for 600 yards and the price for the journey was 6d (2½p in decimal currency).




The ‘pneumatic’ trains did not run through vacuum-tight tubes, but in the open air like normal railway trains, but with a cast-iron pipe between the rails. A piston in this pipe was attached to the front carriage of the train, a vacuum was created in the tube, sealed by a leather flap which ran the length of the line, and atmospheric pressure propelled the piston and train forward.

This method worked because it had steam engines placed at intervals along the track that produced and maintained the vacuum so there was no noise or smoke. The trains moved silently and incredibly fast. Isambard Kingsdom Brunel himself was impressed by the system, but the steam engines were inefficient over long distances, making the venture too costly; although Webb relates "that as early as 1847 trains, working on this principle, were running between the English towns of Exeter and Newton Abbot" taking 20 minutes to cover this distance and were faster than electric trains running on this route today.

One version of Steampunk literature creates alternative universes. Images from what may be called classic steampunk set in the nineteenth century are reminiscent of H. G. Wells or Jules Verne. They are indistinguishable at times from those which actually date from that period. The author relates "the closer that a work resembles the world of Verne or Wells, the better and more authentic it is likely to be."

The term 'science fiction' itself dates only from the twentieth century, but the concept is much older than that. In 1666 Margaret Cavendish wrote The Blazing World, which has been described by some as the first science fiction story. Writers of steampunk today look back to the Victorian era and refashion it with anachronistic technology and styles of the time. Some nineteenth-century authors looked forward to a future filled with wonders which were not yet known. Both types of fiction are based on little known incidents and inventions of the real world.

In order to give the illusion that their fictitious novels were actual fact, authors created websites with doctored photos and false dates, but referencing real people, giving credibility to these fake stories. Webb states that "so far we see modern authors of steampunk cannibalising Victorian fiction to enhance their own fictitious work".

Essential to the Steampunk genre is the idea of steam-powered vehicles. The first regular passenger rail service by steam hauled trains using a cable system began running in 1830 between Canterbury and Whitstable. But the first steam engines to carry passengers in Britain were not on railways but along ordinary roads and the first horseless carriage was a steam-powered tractor for hauling artillery around battlefields invented by Frenchman Nicolas Joseph Cugnot in 1770. Another method of propulsion was the use of 'Pocock's Kites', and in 1826 a patent was granted for the “Charvolant” that used wind power to move these horseless vehicles at an average speed of 20mph.

Even the Internet was foreseen by the Victorians. The notion of sending complex information hundreds of miles by semaphore or an arrangement of shutters opening and closing accoutring to a carefully constructed code does not sound like a practical proposition, but 200 years ago a chain of semaphore tower did indeed straddle the continent of Europe. It was possible in the early nineteenth century to send a message swiftly from one end of Europe to the other by this means and a system ran from Amsterdam in the north to Venice in the south.

The first telegraph system was between Belleville Saint-Martin-du-Tertre on the outskirts of Paris in July 1793. A message was sent 20 miles away in only 10 minutes and was seen as a triumph for the French people. A British version was built by a clergyman for the British admiralty in 1795.
Did the Victorians have steam-powered aircraft, or is the appearance of heavier than air flight in the steampunk narratives set in the nineteenth century simply a pleasing anachronism? Webb concludes “We know at once that we are firmly and definitely in the realm of fantasy”, so all that can be said about this notion will be of a fictitious nature.

Webb cleverly by-passes this dilemma by discussing the merits of coal-fired aeroplanes, the association being that coal furnaces produced the steam needed to power the machines of the nineteenth century. In actual fact it was coal dust that was used as an energy source, and there is no proof, only rumours, that this energy source was utilised in the real world!

Webb mentions Clément Ader who built a steam-powered, bat-winged monoplane, named the Eole. Ader flew it on October 9, 1890, over a distance of 50 metres (160 ft). The engine was inadequate for sustained, controlled flight, but it did prove that powered heavier-than-air flight was possible. Ader made at least three further attempts for the French Ministry of War. There is controversy about whether or not he attained controlled flight, but he did not obtain funding for his project, and that points to its probable failure. So real Steampunk planes could fly in a straight line but were really with a tiny steam engine, and can only fly with the help of favourable strong winds.




THE MEMORIAL TO JOHN STRINGFELLOW IN CHARD, SOMERSET, SHOWING A REPRESENTATION OF HIS STEAM-POWERED FLYING MACHINE


The people of Chard in Somerset might contest Webb’s account, as they have their own local hero, John Stringfellow, who produced a steam-powered monoplane in 1848. Although this only flew for ten feet at its first attempt, a later version, helped by a guide-wire for take-off, flew freely for thirty yards (27m.) on a straight and level path. Stringfellow’s invention is commemorated by a sculpture of the device in the town's High Street.

In the chapter 'Steam Powered Computers and Mechanical Calculators' the author claims “there is nothing startlingly modern about digital computers”. I beg to disagree with this point of view! New micro-chip processors are at the cutting edge of technology and are startlingly modern. Mechanical calculators and Logogrammatic Tables were the pioneers of this new modern technology. Webb continues “Digital computers themselves, their central processors and memory” were all devised 200 years ago, and goes on to say that these devices of the nineteenth century were until very recently in some cases as fast or faster than modern computers, but he does not give any examples, and it is not clear how he could justify this statement.

It certainly does not apply to Babbage’s difference machine, a kind of giant mechanical forerunner of a computer, made with cogs and wheels, that never actually worked successfully. There are many theories and radical ideas based on the analytical difference machine, one being the use of punch cards or tapes to give instructions to the machine, a principle first developed in the Jacquard loom used for making lace, invented in 1804.

Although the author shows that nineteenth-century devices were the forerunner of many of today's modern equivalents, we must remember that all devices, inventions and theories are adapted, changed and added to over time. This is called progress. We all benefit from improvements in communication methods, all the way from beating drums to letters to telegraphs to emails and Skype calls.

I would also wish to note that the book is very well produced, with a carefully chosen typeface and clear page layout. Although I found it became rather repetitious toward the end, this is a very interesting book which is well worth a read for anyone of a Magonian inclination. – Gerrard Russell


26 July 2019

THE DEMONS NEXT DOOR

Michelle D. Brock, Richard Raiswell and David R. Winter (Editors) Knowing Demons, Knowing Spirits in the Early Modern Period. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

This book is a serious piece of academic research consisting of twelve chapters, each by different authors on different but related topics covering the genre of demons. Each page is carefully annotated with numerous footnotes. Already put off? Don't be. The reader will be agreeably surprised by the sheer readability of these academic contributions, as well as often fascinated by the contents.

For example one contributor (Stefan Hessbruggen-Walter) describes how a certain Scribonius was visiting the German town of Lemgo in 1583 when he happened to come across the enactment of the test of whether a woman is really a witch in the trial by water. The scene so familiar seems almost apocryphal so the account by Scribonius proves that such events did indeed occur. In this instance three women were trussed up, the right hand tightly bound to the left big toe and the left hand to the right big toe, rendering the victims immobile. They were then tossed into the river. If their bodies floated, this proved they were witches, but if they drowned they were innocent. In this case they floated on the surface "like logs", ensuring they would be burnt as witches. The shocking thing for the casual reader is the fact that not even the faintest glimmer of outrage at the spectacle is registered in the mind of Scribonius, who, from this point on, engages for several decades in a lengthy academic discussion with colleagues about the merits and demerits of the method. The contributor finds that the debate was conducted in an eminently logical fashion, so that we can discern the early emergence of a pre-scientific rationale in these dialogues, which ironically helped the development of European intellectual thought.

In another chapter Mairi Cowan describes how the Jesuit missionaries in New France (part of what is now Canada) adopted different approaches towards the natives. Some Jesuit missionaries were more enlightened than others. In the latter category was one Jesuit missionary who tried to force a death-bed conversion on a dying native, who however was not cowed by the threat of hellfire, since he felt it presented him with the opportunity of proving his courage, and so he entered the afterlife unbaptised. Whilst the Jesuits saw the spirits who guided the natives as mostly demonic, the Jesuits were themselves seen as "black robed demons" who brought death and destruction in their trail. This was indeed the case since many natives were dying as a result of the impact of European diseases to which they had no immunity.

Another contributor Richard Raiswell tells the extraordinary tale of Edward Terry who published his Voyage to East India in 1655. Astonishingly Terry's long sojourn in India convinced him that this was a land which God had handed over to the Devil, so that millions were destined to eternal damnation. The purpose of this act of divine hatred? Simply to provide a warning to true Christian believers! Terry's intellect had been so completely darkened by dogma that he was unable to discover the least hint of spirituality in Indian religious practices and mysticism, and indeed his experience and attitude seems to have characterised the British occupation of India for several hundred years, with few of the ruling class gaining any insight from the land which produced the Vedas and the teaching of non-duality.

The experience of reading this book has given me a better understanding not only of the beliefs of our ancestors and the inhabitants of the lands they conquered but also of our Western mind-set which has done so much to create the modern world. The book manages to be both educational and entertaining, and is well worth reading. – Robin Carlile.

21 July 2019

IT DOES GROW ON TREES

Ceri Houlbrook. The Magic of Coin-Trees from Religion to Recreation; The Roots of a Ritual. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

My first encounter with a ‘coin-tree’ was in a pub in the charming East Sussex town of Rye. I was settling down for a quiet drink and leaned back from the stool I was sitting on against a wooden pillar. Suddenly I felt a series of sharp stabs in my back, and when I turned around I discovered that the old wooden beam that was part of the structure of the old pub was encrusted with hundreds of coins that had been pushed into it.

Well, you do find these odd sorts of things in pubs, collecting for charities and suchlike, so I thought nothing more of it and simply moved to a more comfortable seat and finished my drink.

Like me, Ceri Houlbrook’s first encounter with a ‘coin-tree’ was entirely fortuitous. As a child in 1998 she was on a family outing visiting Bolton Abbey, in Yorkshire, While strolling through the woodland around the ancient building, they came across a fallen tree which was covered with coins which had been hammered into it. As they looked at the tree they saw that other families were adding to the coins in the wood, and inevitably she and her sister asked their parents for some coins so they could make their own contribution.

This wasn’t really a eureka moment, but a decade later undertaking research for a PhD in British folk customs, she came across a passage in E M Forster’s Howard's End, where one of the characters tells of a tree similarly adorned, but with pigs’ teeth rather than coins, as a traditional cure for toothache. Another character comments, “I love folklore and all festering superstitions”. At the time it was the assumption by many scholars that folk customs “have not survived as a living trait in modern civilisation.”

Recalling her experience raised questions about the nature of the Bolton Abbey coin-tree. Had this been a ‘festering superstition’ but one which had actually managed to hold out into the modern world?


THE BOLTON ABBEY COIN-TREE

In trying to find out more about the tree Ceri Houlbrook contacted the Bolton Abbey estate, wondering if the penny she pushed into the tree was a continuation of a centuries-old custom which had somehow managed to survive into ‘modern civilisation’. The reply she got startled her.

There was no historical background to the tree, it had not replaced any earlier tree or object which had attracted similar ‘tributes’. According to the estate’s Visitor Manager it has simply started when a forester working on the estate had found a coin next to a felled log, and stuck it in. This may be so, but it looks to me that although the coin-tree had only been going for about twenty years, it has already acquired its own creation myth!

Unable to find any other information about coin-trees, Houlbrook started her own investigation. She found several others within a 20 mile radius of Bolton Abbey, and many more across the North of England. Eventually she was able to catalogue 39 trees or clusters of trees (up to five separate specimens at some locations) across the British Isles.

Few of these trees seemed to have been in existence for more than thirty or so years, judging by the dates of the coins embedded in them, although a number, in Scotland and Ireland, hinted at a longer ancestry. Researching further into their background, she found two in Scotland and four in Ireland which seemed to date back to at least the nineteenth century.

For example, the coin-tree on the Isle of Maree, Wester Ross, Scotland, can be traced back to the mid-eighteenth century, and is associated with a ‘healing well’ on the island, dedicated to St. Maelrubha and reputed to cure madness. After a successful cure the patient or their relatives originally left a small piece of cloth from their clothing nailed to a nearby tree. Eventually this practice reduced to just hammering a nail into the tree, and eventually any convenient metal object, usually a coin. The tree gained a wider reputation when, in 1877, Queen Victoria on one of her Highland sorties visited the island and hammered a coin – presumably one bearing her own portrait – into the tree.

Several of the Irish trees seem to have had a similar origin, evolving from holy wells or other sites associated with saints, where pilgrims would leave some small token as a thanksgiving. This was often originally a piece of cloth, but later almost anything would be left at the tree or well, from coins to children's toys, to items which in other circumstances would be regarded just as litter. One site is described as looking like a recycling centre.

The author sees the spread of the coin-tree custom as being a result of the ‘democratisation of the landscape’. It is really only in the twentieth century that most ordinary people have had access to areas of the countryside any distance from where they lived. The majority of the coin trees are alongside well-trodden paths in public woodland like National Trust properties or the grounds of other historic sites.

Often the owners have introduced the trees into the official story of the site, marking them out on visitor maps and information panels, and in some cases encouraging them to be regarded as ‘lucky’, ‘wishing’ or ‘fairy’ trees, and creating back-stories for them, which usually suggest that they have a longer history than in reality, and are part of older folk tales, and stories of fairies, sprites and other legendary creatures.




The people that the author spoke to while researching the phenomenon were mostly family groups, usually on a short visit from another part of the country. There seemed to be few local people or overseas tourists, although some trees did have a few foreign coins in them. Usually the parties included children and as a rule it was the children who sought out the tree and insisted on putting another coin into it. She records a number of amusing conversations, including hearing a rather urgent “no, not the 50p!” as a group of children urged their parents to put a coin into a tree. Visitors also made up their own stories on the origin of the coin-trees, one mother telling her daughter that they were where the tooth-fairies got their money from to put under pillows!

So can the trees be considered authentic folk-lore, or are they to be dismissed as ‘fake-lore’ a term coined (sorry!) by the American folklorist Richard Dawson. Dawson tried to draw a rigid line between folklore which was preserved and disseminated purely through word-of-mouth and personal contact; and those stories, songs and rituals which were spread through print and other media, feeling that such forms of transmission invalidated their purely ‘folk’ character.

But there is no real division between the methods of propagating folk customs and stories; they have always been spread through print media, and now increasingly through audio-visual and digital means, and talk of ‘fake-lore’ fails to understand the complexity of the transmission of ideas, even in societies with far less exposure to multi-media sources than ours.

Coin-trees have been created and propagated through many thousand individual actions. Some perhaps stimulated by the older tradition of holy or curative wells and springs, or spread through the increasing public access to forested areas. Houlbrook suggests that one of the reasons why so many began in the 1970s – as indicated by the dates of the coins implanted in them – is because about that time forestry practice changed from clearing away felled tree-trunks and branches, to leaving them in-situ to encourage biodiversity.

The author speculates on the possible future of the coin-trees. Already some are beginning to decay and coins are falling out of them. She notes the gradual replacement of coins by electronic payment methods and wonders if this will lead to their demise, as people carry fewer coins around with them. An even newer phenomenon is the ‘love-lock’ attached to chains and bridge railings, and which already seems to be causing problems for owners and curators of historic structures. Thousands were cleared from the Pont des Arts in Paris as they were threatening the integrity of the structure.

Whatever their origin and their eventual fate, coin-trees are now very much part of British tradition, folklore and landscape as this most enjoyable book makes clear. Although it is an academic contribution to a series of historical studies on witchcraft and magic, it is a clear and readable account accessible for the non-specialist reader and laced with interesting sidelights and anecdotes, of a fascinating piece of folklore, as authentic as any truly ‘ancient’ tradition.

And next time I’m in Rye, I will take a closer look at that indoor coin-tree, which will involve me in a lot of serious research – and a couple of pints! – John Rimmer.

18 July 2019

CARRY ON VAMPING

Richard Sugg, The Real Vampires: Death, Terror and the Supernatural, Amberley, 2019.

As one of the earliest members of the esteemed British Dracula Society way back in the 1970s – and therefore almost one of the undead myself by now – this book sparks a special interest for me. Even if it was as rotten as a six-month-old corpse, I’d still give it a go, but as it isn’t – in fact it’s not half bad and actually rather good – here I am recommending it, almost unreservedly.

You’d think that by now everything that could be said about vampires has already been done to death. But as Richard Sugg’s often charming and liberally informative work reveals, you would be very wrong. From the dizzying heights of ‘vampotainment’ – the media’s cyclical obsession with the vampire phenomenon, even from before John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1816), and of course Bram Stoker’ Dracula (1897), through the early movies’ delight in sadistic looming and rather bitey older gents with a good line in swirly capes – not to mention leering female ‘vamps’ – through Hammer Horror to the peculiarly puritanical Twilight novels, generation after generation has come to think of vampires as powerful, weird and endlessly fascinating.

To a large extent, this book deglamourizes the vampire. Far from being devastatingly, mesmerizingly attractive – one can even overlook the red eyeballs and dripping fangs, apparently, when in their grip – real vampires were shambolic and often, well, simply fat. And not surprisingly, they were more than a tad smelly. Ew.

But what do we mean by ‘real’? Sugg travelled widely through traditional undead countries – Romania, Serbia and Greece, for example, but also North America – to delve into the ancient myths and alarmingly recent beliefs. He notes: … "what was stranger, wilder, and much harder to navigate was vampire country as a state of mind. In Europe and North America, anytime between 1150 and 2004, ordinary people really believed in vampires; they really did that to vampires…"

And oh God, what they did… We learn, and rapidly wish we hadn’t, that in mid-19th century Bulgaria a child was buried, but the mother heard cries from the grave and rescued it (no gender is given), secretly nursing the traumatised prematurely-buried infant to health. But this was discovered, and as the child was deemed undead, the villagers sought to neutralise its assumed evilness in the most hideous way. Ensuring that the mother could witness their monstrous exorcism, they skewered the child’s gut with a thin stick, taking over a quarter of an hour to kill it. But objectively, Sugg asks, "The question was not just, 'how could people be so barbaric?' but also, 'how could people be so terrified?'"

Terror so all-consuming that it induces paralysis, nervous breakdowns and even death is a major, engrossing theme of this book. But there’s an added insight: "[people] were so terrified that the wild energy of their terror caused the supposed vampire to behave like a poltergeist… many vampires acted like poltergeists [and] poltergeists themselves are real."

Believe me, poltergeists themselves are real, and this interpretation is surely valid – up to a point perhaps, but it does go a long way towards explaining certain phenomena. Those of us who have had the misfortune to be at the sharp end of a polt attack know it is indeed about a wild sort of energy. This is, however, directed and targeted intelligently (though the intelligence involved might only be that of low cunning and naughty-childishness, though sometimes more extreme, dangerous and terrifying), not something altogether developed here.

But the legendary vampires were shambling upright corpses who threatened the sanity and life of the locals and had to be stopped before an epidemic of fear carried them all off. Interestingly, a respected folklorist concluded of Greek vampires: "during their periods of resuscitation they act as reasonable human beings [but] their whole condition is pitiable, and the most humane way of treating them is to burn their bodies." (Sugg’s italics). Often this apparently disrespectful practice is implemented through love for the ‘vampire’ – seeking to give them rest in their graves, besides ensuring the peace and health of the village.

Sugg tells the stories of drunks whose comatose states got them very nearly buried, and very nearly staked. He concludes: "The moral of these stories, perhaps, is that if you decide to get so drunk as to lose all semblance of humanity, you’d best not do it in Romania. There you could wake up not just feeling like a zombie, but looking like a vampire." (By the way, with respect, the capital of Romania isn’t Belgrade. It’s Bucharest. Mind you, the author is in good (?) company, as Michael Jackson greeted the throng there with the immortal words: ‘Hello, Budapest!’ It didn’t go down brilliantly.)

Vampires – or perhaps more properly the fear of vampires – are not simply a matter of the historical record. Far from being merely peasanty fears complete with pitchfork hysteria of yesteryear, we learn how recent the superstitions have reached. Nor is vampire-terror an exclusive province of remote Eastern Europe or rural Greece. In World War I British soldiers often buried German combatants face down, to prevent them doing further damage after death. A British mother told her daughter sharply to shut the front door when her grandmother’s open coffin lay in the front room "as a cat might get in". Shuddering, she elaborated: "If it jumps on the coffin she won’t rest – well, that’s what they say." That was in 1970s Yorkshire. I know, because it was my mother who said that to me.



In the warmth of our brightly-lit, tech-friendly modern rooms, we devour the popular rash of vampire novels and movies, with not only a certain cultural superiority but also an underlying and curious reassurance. Sugg remarks: "You – the educated reader – no longer believe in witches; but it was, all the same, rather exciting to know that some people believed quite fervently in vampires."

We learn much about folklore and local customs in these pages, most of which is fascinating. For example, in Italy (although also elsewhere in the Catholic world) an undecayed corpse is often a sign of sanctity "rather than of the uncanny or of demonic possession." In Italy, "if you saw an undecayed corpse you were more likely to pray to it than flee from it". However, the key is that the saintly corpses smell fragrantly – the ‘odour of sanctity’ indeed – whereas the transgressive undead tend very much not to.

We learn, as wish we didn’t, that real vampires – those hallowed, or perhaps unhallowed, by long-held belief – weren’t the pale elegant creatures beloved of Hollywood, but tended to be red-faced (all that blood has to go somewhere) and noticeably lardy. Their unholy feasts bloated and disfigured them, leaving their bodies ‘tight as a drum’. Of course, it might be that the normal depredations of the grave create the bloating and redness.

But even with these give-away physical characteristics, some vampires did not traditionally feast on blood, but on an innocuous diet of apples and nuts. Apparently the vegan undead were a thing way before 21st-century dietary puritanism took hold.

We are also invited to put the vampire belief into a religious, even spiritual context – absolutely essential for an investigation of this nature. How to make a vampire? "The body needs to be dead, and the soul needs to be the sort that people really believe in… although you could not read… you knew what life was. The soul was life."

To destroy a vampire was not merely a case of dusting off your hands after the staking and forgetting about it, job done. Hopefully you had considered what you were doing to the soul of the undead. If it was excommunicated, then the staking was effectively underlining its anathematization. If this was your relative or friend, you had participated in ensuring their eternity in hell. Not to be undertaken lightly, even in cultures that were more ambivalent about saving the vampire’s soul. It was still a major exorcism that might or might not work, with potentially terrible consequences for the souls of all concerned. This was achingly, traumatizingly, real to them, we must remember.

Often Sugg’s breadth of research brings the reader up sharp. Noting that people perceived it was possible to be ‘slightly dead’, he cites the fact that in the New Testament people were raised surprisingly often. "… at that time, for many observers the risen Christ was probably just one among many brought back from the dead". (Indeed, our own research has revealed that the Emperor Nero was believed to have been seen walking around after his death.)

This is a rare book, in that it straddles that almost impossible line between belief and scepticism – often successfully. While we discover that most if not all of the grotesque physical characteristics of the undead can be explained away by the normal processes of decomposition – especially in the case of victims of tuberculosis, whose rotting lungs produce quantities of bright red blood – there are trickier matters about terror-induced phenomena to consider, and very largely Sugg considers them.

We also travel through the centuries and many countries, including the US, where among other delights we note a Victorian ‘Vampire Hunting Kit’, which among the usual wooden stakes and cross, also features a pistol (well, we are in America) and several custom-made ‘serums’. Sadly, on inspection the Kit is revealed to be a product of the 20th-century, but perhaps if enough people believe in its potency, it could be quite useful one day…

Sugg is very big on sleep paralysis as an explanation for the utter terror that has traditionally affected vampire victims as they lay unable to move in their beds, though apparently wide awake. He presents a great deal of scientific evidence that certainly explains almost all of a certain type of report. Almost…

Admitting that "the medical explanations… offer us only the driest of true nightmare experiences" he enters a murkier world, between our two familiar worlds of sleeping and waking, the supernatural. It’s never totally clear whether he thinks this twilight-world state explains all apparently paranormal experience, but believe me, it doesn’t. And to ‘explain’ the physical manifestations of nightmare terrors – such as livid finger marks on the skin – as kinetic energy is simply not enough. (No mention of the phenomenon of stigmata, though, which is an important omission.) Still, in general, the questions raised and the evidence offered is impressive and thought-provoking. And ultimately largely satisfying.

There’s a wealth of intriguing material about the psychological and social effects of terror and hysteria, especially with reference to poltergeists and alien abduction. Sugg has done his stuff, interviewing a clutch of experiencers and experts. He’s particularly good on ‘voodoo deaths’ – the terrible toll of ritual curses on the mind and body of the victim.

Belief and expectancy, as the parapsychologists of the 80s used to say, are what’s needed to induce discernible physical phenomena, be they beneficial or destructive. And a tiny kernel of fear can indeed rapidly escalate into full-blown, terror-driven hysteria that creates bizarre effect in the material world. (But does it also invite stuff in? That is something that is only very briefly touched on here, perhaps because the implications are so huge and would tilt the book in what many would consider a distasteful direction. But hey, it’s about vampires anyway – why not go the whole way and look at what might be termed potentially real intrusions from elsewhere?)

Vampires are still with us in a big way. Not just as SFX-heavy vampotainment, but also – deeply, deeply disturbingly – out there in everyday belief. In 2006 the body of the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosovic – ‘Butcher of the Balkans’ – was staked by one Miroslav Milosovic (no relation), who handed himself into the police afterwards, but whose only response was to warn him: ‘Be careful or Milosovic’s hand might get you from the grave.’ At least the dictator was dead at the time. Not so in other recent cases of attacks on the ‘undead’. We are told that a young mother in Papua New Guinea was burnt to death as a vampire in 2013. Horrifically, this is just one of many similar cases, and even then, presumably a whole host of such barbaric and hysterical attacks simply go unreported.

To put it mildly, belief in vampires can end in very big mis-stakes. This book is – apart from is wealth of material about folklore, legend and psychology - a valuable tool in reminding us to keep a lid on our fancies and half-baked beliefs.

And you’ll enjoy reading it enormously, which is, after all, everything a good book should be. -- Lynn Picknett.