18 February 2013


S. D. Tucker. Paranormal Merseyside. Amberley, 2013.

Any book which says “[T]he journal Magonia, the main outlet for what might be termed ‘alternative’ perspectives and viewpoints upon ufology, was based in Liverpool under the auspices of its Liverpudlian editor, John Rimmer, for a long period, which is surely worth celebrating” is pretty well assured of a good review here! However, even without this endorsement this book will be getting a good review.
Unlike many books on ‘Supernatural Here-and-There’ this is more than just a collection of well-worn tales and vague anecdotes about cold shivers in pub cellars, although some of them do feature here as well, but are clearly signalled as such.

The book divides into four sections, firstly 'My Mate said…’ which looks at panics and rumours such as Spring Heeled Jack and his alleged visit to Everton, and the strange tale of the Liverpool Leprechauns, where I’m pleased to see full credit is given to Magonia’s coverage of the story, which is now online. Although the very name ‘Spring Heeled Jack’ still carries a slight frisson, less seemingly threatening figures such as the ‘Ghastly Galosher Man’ and the ‘Tranmere Terror’ feature here as well, and receive the credit they deserve.

The second section, ‘City of Faith; Merseyside Miracles’ brings us the disturbing story of the extraordinary life of Theresa Helena Higginson the Bootle stigmatist who subjected herself to the most hideous self-mutilation, and followed the example of St Catherine of Siena in eating rotting and decayed food to demonstrate her sacrifice. Satan would also occasionally visit the Bootle primary school where she worked (would she survive an enhanced CRB check today, I wonder?) and engage in noisy and violent conflict with young teacher. Despite all this Theresa was still apparently popular with her pupils, partly due to her ability to cure their toothaches by touching them with a crucifix.

It is part of the value of this book that stories such as that of Theresa Higginson are not just presented as ‘nowt so queer as folk’ shock-horror anecdotes, but are discussed as part of a wider range of religious and paranormal events, and Tucker examines this particular life-story in relation to such individuals as the Curé d’Ars.

Rather more amenable to reading over a light lunch is the story of the Holy Shroud of Crosby, a phenomenon which I seem to recall was ripped off for a plot-line in an episode of Minder many years ago, and transferred to Hounslow.

The section ‘Scouse Spooks’ is pretty self-explanatory, and although it does touch on some fairly predictable theatre ghosts (a venue traditionally almost as haunted as pubs) we are also entertained by accounts of the Pig Killing Poltergeist of Runcorn and a variety of ‘Grey Ladies’ who haunt the stately homes of the region. The author makes an interesting suggestion here, that the classic ‘Grey Lady’ represented a memory of the ‘vulnerable female’, whether a servant girl seduced and disgraced by a lecherous aristocrat, or the heiress disposed of by unscrupulous relatives jealous of her inheritance. Tucker suggests that the modern version is the female ‘phantom hitch-hiker’, the teenager attacked and/or raped by an anonymous motorist. This is certainly worth consideration and further research.

Here also we can read about the range of phantom animals that roam the banks of the Mersey, from ‘Old Trash’ the black dog of Formby, to various unidentified big cats roaming abandoned golf-courses and railway sidings. Perhaps less terrifying to the casual passer-by was the giant ‘Crank Rabbit’ which haunted the eponymous village near St Helens and was allegedly a forecast of doom to those who saw it.

In all these accounts Tucker is at pains to distinguish between rumour, gossip, folklore, and actual experience, and discovers that a remarkable number of the incidents he describes can be traced to first-hand experiences. When it comes to explaining these events - along with accounts of ghosts, UFOs etc. - the author is prepared, when all else fails, to actually say ‘I don’t know’, something a few more writers of similar books should try.

The final section is UFOs and aliens, and all the familiar cases, and some others are here. Tucker clearly knows his subject and is very well informed, to the extent of referring to cases from the pages of the original Merseyside UFO Research Group Bulletin, the Jurassic Era predecessor of Magonia. There is an excellent account of Runcorn’s own contactee, Jim Cooke and his journeys to Zomdic and Shebic, although fortunately there is no description of his dubious ability to see the personal auras of keen young ufologists who interviewed him back in the ‘sixties.

We also get a full account of Jenny Randles' curious contactee ‘Bob’ and his story of the incredible Star Wars type battles which took place between rival enemy aliens over The Wirral.

Tucker checks out the various UFO-related ‘triangles’ which have been superimposed on maps of the north-west by some writers and researchers, concluding that the only one which seems to actually coincide with an area that does seem to have a higher than usual rate of uncanny experience is that centred on the area around Preston Brook and Daresbury, two small villages to the east or Runcorn. In fact this is the area Jenny Randles has dubbed ‘Wonderland’ (Lewis Carroll lived here) due to the number of UFO and anomaly reports it has generated. Is there a reason for this? Tucker tentatively suggest an ‘earthlights’ solution, but concludes with another honest ‘I don’t know’.

There is a very extensive bibliography, which includes many references to on-line discussion groups, which I suppose are today’s version of folk-tales told around the fire on cold winter nights, and provide excellent starting points for further exploration of Merseyside’s strange landscape. I must also comment the author’s own illustrations - like the one above - to some of the stories, which display a touch of real Scouse humour.

In all, an excellent account of regional rumour, lore and anomalous experience, and my only criticism is the lack - it seems almost inevitable these days - of an index.

Magonia Rating: buy this book now! -- John Rimmer

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