Paul Adams, Eddie Brazil and Peter Underwood. The Borley Rectory Companion: The Complete Guide to 'The Most Haunted House in England'. The History Press, 2009.

This encyclopedia will probably tell you more about Borley Rectory than you are likely to want to know. It consists of a synopsis of the story, an A-Z encyclopedia and a chronology, and is well illustrated. The authors, it must be admitted, are strong proponents of the paranormality of at least some of the phenomena at Borley and investigator Harry Price, and have little time for critics such as Eric Dingwall, Trevor Hall or W. H. Salter. It would seem that senior author Peter Underwood has clashed with these personalities several times in the past. That being said the authors do make a reasonable attempt to be open minded. This book will be useful for those to whom 'The Most Haunted House' is but a vague name, and does give an insight into the sorts of complexities which investigations of such cases can lead.

Of course most of this story now relies on anecdote, memory (often years after the event) with little in the way of actual evidence which could convince the sceptic; the authors concede that a photograph touted by Price as a levitated brick was in fact thrown by a workman, and a photograph suggested to be 'the nun' taken by co-author Brazil looks nothing so much as a photographic stain.

Part of the problem of the Borley story has been that up to now approaches to the story have very much polarised between those who argue more or less that the whole story was sexed-up and partially faked by Harry Price himself, and those who argue that it was a genuine paranormal experience. The more objective reader may come to the conclusion that the story was more complex than either.

The Borley story probably begins in the family of the elder Rev Henry Bull in the late 19th century as a classic Victorian ghost story. The tale of the eloping nun who was caught and walled up may well have been just the sort of story which might have been appealing to a group of cloistered and corseted teenage girls in an isolated rectory with a domineering father with a contentious relationship with the local community. Perhaps they found echoes of their own situation in feeling cloistered or 'walled up'. This seemed to have been a closed family of children, dominated by Ethel. Their father was clearly unpopular in the neighbourhood and all sorts of stories circulated about him in later years: that he used his whip on parishioners who annoyed him, that he got at least one maid pregnant, and even that he abused his children. He may well have spread ghost stories to try and keep the locals out of his grounds, which seem to have been thought of as a sort of public park.

The next parson, his son Harry, married probably bigamously, a woman twenty years younger than himself with a 10 year old daughter, they had no children of their own. The new Mrs Bull was hated by her in-laws and more scurrilous stories were spread. This Rev Bull may have suffered from narcolepsy and had all sorts of odd, probably subjective, experiences.

By the time the Anglo-Indian Smith family moved in 1928 the Rectory was considerably declined, it had been empty for at least a year, and it seems probable that in this time both the rectory and its grounds had become the haunt less of phantom nuns than local children and teenagers, and was used as a sort of unofficial lovers lane. The Smiths were the epitome of the sort of people one finds in many of the ghost stories: strangers in their own homes, and coming from India they were strangers in a strange and foreign land. Like Harry and Constance Bull's theirs was a childless marriage. Whether as 'people of colour' they were subject to racial hostility from sections of the local community is unclear, but this may have been a motivation of some of the strange things happening in their time. Whether Harry Price was responsible for all the odd things which happened when he arrived on the scene, or whether this was again just an opportunity for local youngsters (and perhaps others) to play, up is another moot point. But to Mrs Smith at least the rectory was in every sense an anti-home, cold, bleak and spooky.

The arrival of the Foysters marks a major turn for the worse in the saga of the rectory. In previous comments I have argued that homes are meant to be refuges of order, domesticity and habitat in a wild world and that the essence of the poltergeist is to turn the home into a wild anti-home, a true disorderly house. This is especially true of the rectory. In the ideology of the period from the mid-Victorian until very recently, the rectory was meant to be a centre of moral rectitude, the rector and his wife were to construct the perfect bourgeois family setting the example to the community around them. The Foysters, particularly Marianne, who may well have been one of the least appropriate vicar's wives in the long history of the Church of England, with their chaotic lifestyle, subvert this completely. The explosion of poltergeist activity associated with their arrival symbolises the rectory's total descent into physical, psychological and moral chaos. It is now in every sense a disorderly house, a veritable anti-rectory. The wilderness has won.

Remember Harry Price's own chaotic history, he is the child of the family that fell into the abyss and crawled out again. Like the rectory itself beneath the ever so respectable facade he hides dark secrets and a hidden wildness. Perhaps his whole saga of involvement in psychical research is confronting and controlling that wildness. If he faked some of the phenomena at Borley the reasons are likely to be a good deal more deep and complex than a mere lust for publicity.

The fascination of Borley today must lie in its messages to us: not to be taken in by facades of respectability whether in people, families or institutions, not to take the road of those adoption societies which let Marianne Foyster serially adopt and then abandon (or in one case perhaps worse) child after child because she was a 'respectable' vicar's wife.

For psychical researchers, that arguments about whether these phenomena are paranormal or not are beside the point, for either way at their heart may well be pain, rage, chaos and sickness which beggars the imagination and threatens to consume all who approach it.

And that nun, surely she was no ghost from the seventeenth century, no sister of mercy she, rather she is the shadow on the lawn and the shadow in everyone, who warns us that all attempts to build perfect families, perfect houses and perfect societies will fail, that the wilderness will always win in the end. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson

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