29.4.12

GHOSTS, BOGGARTS AND BIG-FOOTED BEASTIES

Daniel Codd. Paranormal Lancashire. Amberley, 2011

Unlike some books with similar titles this is not the work of a self proclaimed psychic or a group of overgrown teenage sensationalist ‘ghost hunters’ but a serious and interesting look at the folklore of the modern (i.e. post 1974) county of Lancashire.

The first two chapters trace the development of ghost lore, often using original sources. By this means it can be seen that a good number of the ghost stories, especially those surrounding ‘venerable piles’ can be traced back several centuries, and that modern ghost lore is often a continuation of this tradition. It isn’t, of course, easy to distinguish those stories in which genuine dramatic events led to the circulation of ghost stories as a sort of memorial, and others in which pseudo historical stories were invented to account for peoples anomalous personal experiences. Some of these ghosts like ‘white ladies’ suggest euhemerised and historicised versions of stories originally told about fairies or pre-Christian deities, or at least the survival of folk paganism.

In later chapters Codd looks at tales of the Pendle and other witches, mystery creatures both natural and supernatural, and modern UFO stories. Some of both the mystery animal and UFO occupant stories if told in earlier times would have been attributed to boggarts and fionns, suggesting how protean anomalous personal experiences can be reinterpreted in different times and cultural conditions. Recommended for anyone with an interest in folklore.

Leo Ruickbie. A Brief Guide to the Supernatural: Ghosts, Vampires and the Paranormal. Constable and Robinson, 2012.

As can be seen from the title this book briefly covers a wide range of topics, not all of them in the main canon of psychical research. The approach is that of the sociologist and historian rather than that of the psychical researcher and his approach is both eclectic and agnostic. In the first section he deals with “supernatural entities”, not just ghosts but fringe topics such as vampires and the undead, angels, demons and extraterrestrials.

Today, of course, people still claim encounters with ghosts and angels and these represent a still living folklore. Few people today though claim actual encounters with vampires, though tales of zombies, largely the product of western mythology can still be encountered in Haiti, and still few with devils, outside of rituals of exorcism. Extraterrestrials involves the whole subject of ufology, and here I suspect Ruickbie is on less familiar territory.

In the second part of the book Ruickbie summarises the various approaches to “the supernatural”, that of magic, spiritualism and science, the latter covering mesmerism, psychical research and parapsychology. Here he takes a refreshingly neutral point of view, as against the polemics of believers and skeptics. Though the coverage is general, there is a surprisingly well detailed account of the origins of spiritualism. The book is well referenced in the form of footnotes and makes a good general introduction.

Jonathan and Corrina Downes (Editors and Compilers) Centre for Fortean Zoology Yearbook 2012. CFZ Press, 2012.

Another wide ranging collection of articles on all aspects of cryptozoology from the seriously scientific to the whimsical (the cryptozoology of the Dr Doolittle stories) and from the rational, through the paranormal to the outright bonkers (the nasty old djinns/boggarts are about to launch an invasion of the earth, as per the late and unlamented Gordon Creighton).

There are plenty of stories here which challenge the paws-and-pelts view of cryptozoology such as Neil Arnold’s discussion of ghost horses and apparent centaurs. The mythological is covered with a discussion of the mystery creatures of Inuit and other North American mythology. The whole is rounded off by reports from the various branches of the CFZ.

Debi Chestnut. Is Your House Haunted: Poltergeists, Ghosts or Bad Wiring Llewellyn, 2011 .
Kenneth W. Harmon. Ghost Under Foot, The Spirit of Mary Bell: A True Story of One Family’s Haunting. Llewellyn, 2012

These two books are strictly for the spiritualist true believer. Debi Chestnut’s subtitle suggests that this might have been a sensible study of the different natural events, physical and psychological, which give rise to the belief that one’s house is haunted. There are a few pages on this, and a couple on conducting historical research, but most of the book is devoted to what type of spirits (existence assumed without question) are haunting your house. The author is a medium, need I say more.

Kenneth Harmon is perhaps representative of the sort of people I used to meet when I was a local history librarian, they have some unusual experiences, assume their house is haunted, and then try to conduct historical research to find out who is haunting it. In Harmon’s case not only does he conduct this research and ends up trying to communicate with the spirit (again existence assumed without question) doing the haunting by means of diving rods. The answers, which include yes, aliens did land at Roswell; no, evolution is wrong, clearly reflect the authors own beliefs.

Much of his time was spent photographing ‘orbs’, which competent psychical researchers know are artefacts of digital photography, and other alleged spooky things. Needless to say none of these photographs are reproduced in the book. The ‘spirit’ later seems to have moved house with them, which suggests that it is a product of the family’s imagination in some way or other.

Stan Gordon. Silent Invasion: The Pennsylvania UFO-Bigfoot Casebook, edited by Roger Marsh. Stan Gordon Publications. 2010.

A previous generation of ufologists will recall an article by Berthold Eric Schwarz in the first issue of Flying Saucer Review for 1974 which detailed a Pennsylvania man’s encounter with a strange light, Bigfoot-like creatures, and a bizarre visionary experience. Stan Gordon was the principle investigator of that case, and in this book he catalogues dozens of cases of Bigfoot-like creatures, strange lights in the sky, mysterious close encounters and general weirdness, almost all from Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania from 1973 to 1974.

Judging by the cases catalogued here there may have been as many claimed Bigfoot sightings in this East Coast state in two years than in the whole of the Pacific North West in decades. Gordon admits there is little or no physical evidence, only dodgy three-toed tracks and skin and hair samples, all of which were found to have conventional origins. Gordon confesses himself completely baffled as to what was going on here, but one explanation that comes to my mind is a social panic of the sort studied by Robert Batholomew, which was aided and abetted by a good number of hoaxers, though whether that would be entirely sufficient is perhaps a moot point.

Of course the events/experiences recounted here mainly took place during the last truly great American UFO wave, at a time when the headlines were being increasingly dominated by Watergate. These were strange and paranoid times on both sides of the Atlantic, and this study should be of interest to both Forteans and sociologists.

L. B. Taylor Jnr. Monsters of Virginia: Mysterious Creatures in the Old Dominion. Stackpole Books, 2012.

Virginia writer L. B. Taylor here tackles the “monsters” of Virginia from the viewpoint of the folklorist rather than that of the cryptozoologist. While there are a number of stories of bigfoot and out of place pumas, there are also folk stories of vampires, the wampus cat (here presented as an upright walking cat, devil dogs that announce the end of life and even more devilish ones which steal the souls of sinners, tiny humanoids with cloven hoofed feet, some werewolves, and quite a number of other traditional tales. Further evidence that much modern Fortean lore is part of an age old tradition. -- Books reviewed by Peter Rogerson

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