17 June 2010


Jan-Andrew Henderson. Edinburgh, City of the Dead. Black and White Publishing, 2010.

Ron Halliday. Edinburgh After Dark. Black and White Publishing, 2010.

Peter Underwood. Haunted London. Amberley, Rev. Ed., 2010.

Tony Broughall and Paul Adams. Two Haunted Counties. Limbury Press, 2010.

What is behind the massive explosion of local ghost books over the past few years? My colleague Peter Rogerson, who is a local history librarian, sees it as an offshoot of the growth in local history and genealogy. As the world becomes more open and 'globalised', so people seek to preserve an identity in family and locality.
Peter has written, and I can confirm it from my own professional experience, that when people come into a library enquiring about "the history of my house", the majority of times they are actually wanting to know who died there and might now be haunting it! The collection of books under consideration here will certainly help in that quest.

The two Edinburgh titles take rather different approaches. Jan-Andrew Henderson's City of the Dead is a rather broader overview of a huge range of strange phenomena, legends, rumours and accounts of experiences from a city know to many as the 'Athens of the North' for its intellectual heritage from the Age of Enlightenment. Before that period though, Edinburgh was a very dark place

Like most English people my knowledge of Scottish history is vague - a few battles, which mostly we won (one they won and they're still singing about it!), Macbeth, something about Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie, then it's kilts and haggis all the way down

This book should straighten out a few misconceptions. The author's description of  'Early Modern' (i.e. 14th - 17th Century) Edinburgh presents an image that makes downtown Mogadishu on a bad night look like a walk in the park. And such a history of violence, death and degradation leads to lots of extremely frightful ghosts, scary people and spooky places. The author conducts 'Haunted Edinburgh' walks, and judging by the easy, conversational style of this book, they must be great fun

Halliday's book is much more in the the 'paranormal researcher' mode, rather than the 'tour guide'. As well as a collection of traditional tales and legends, a great deal of it involves the author and his colleagues' own investigations into phenomena in the city and suburbs. As well as the traditional legends it includes account of local UFO sightings (Halliday is author of two books on Scottish sightings), poltergeists and spiritualism

Peter Rogerson's customers looking for the 'history' of their house or street would be well served by Tony Broughton and Paul Adams's book - if they lived in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, as this is very much in the 'gazetteer' style. It would seem that this collection was compiled originally in the 1970s by local ghost hunter Tony Broughall, a member of the Ghost Club. It has the advantage of including many cases of hauntings that the author has investigated personally as well as historical reports and local rumours and legends. Certainly a very useful contribution to the 'local history' genre of ghostlore

Peter Underwood's book is a revised edition of the 1973 publication and also very much in the 'gazetteer' mode. Underwood's ghosts usually seem to be in the classical tradition: frock-coated Victorians, Elizabethan aristocrats, poor chambermaids, cowled figures, etc., with few unruly teenage poltergeists. Nevertheless it is a comprehensive collection, and there are a few unusual phantoms here, such as the ghostly bus of North Kensington and/or Dollis Hill which has featured in the UFO literature from time to time and is believed to have been the inspiration for Harry Potter's triple decker vehicle. Also intriguing is the ghostly chicken which allegedly haunts Pond Square, Highgate, surely the oddest of the capital's phantoms!

Although all these titles will be of interest to readers in the localities the cover, they all suffer to a greater or lesser degree from a lack of documentation or references for further reading, so the cases mostly come across as a series of unattributable stories. We really need more than short reading lists if these books are intended to be more than light entertainment, and only the Beds and Herts book has anything like a useful index -- but maybe these are just the cavils of a grumpy ex-librarian. -- John Rimmer.

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