11 March 2011


Peter Ackroyd. The English Ghost. Chatto and Windus, 2010

Peter H. Aykroyd and Angela Narth. A History of Ghosts: The True Story of Seances, Mediums, Ghosts and Ghostbusters. Rodale, 2009.

Some time deep in the mists of Brigantian history, somewhere near Halifax, the English novelist and historian Peter Ackroyd and Peter Aykroyd the father of US-Canadian comedian Dan Aykroyd came from the same stock, and it would seem they have both inherited an interest in the paranormal from the their distant common ancestors.
There is not much one can say about Peter Ackroyd's The English Ghost, other than it is a collection of 'true' ghost stories from various periods of English history, with sections on haunted houses, ghosts of the road, poltergeists, phantom animals, crisis apparitions etc. A good proportion come from the Victorian period, and one can see here how they acted as templates for such writers of ghostly fiction as M. R. James. Most of the stories are very short, but have an atmospheric quality, which is presumably what Ackroyd found attractive about them. Given his views on place, memory and history, as demonstrated in his books about London, this book is surprisingly short on analysis, and it might be described, not too unkindly, as an up-market scissors and paste job.

Canadian Peter Aykroyd's book is not, despite the title, about ghosts at all, it is a potted history of spiritualism, of which his grandfather Dr Samuel Aykroyd, dentist, humanist and socialist was a devotee. Dr Aykroyd held home circles with a pet medium who got nothing from this except, it would seem, free bed and board. Much of the history has been compiled from the notebooks compiled by Dr Aykroyd. Peter Aykroyd, who can remember the seances as boy, provides a history which is sympathetic but not entirely uncritical

The interest seems to have rubbed off onto his sons Peter Jnr. and Dan (who is a member of both MUFON and the American Society for Psychical Research). They were both involved in a TV series called Psi Factor which seems to have been largely inspired by a guy named Chris Chacon, who claimed to represent the paranormal division of the Office for Scientific Investigation (OSIR). The OSIR was a real, rather clandestine organisation dealing a variety of mainstream scientific research, but the paranormal division looks very much like a complete fantasy (thousands of scientists with vast budgets investigating the paranormal and having experiences which make the X Files look tame), and seems to resemble nothing so much as the fictional APEN as if run by Steve 'Dress Code' Mera. -- Peter Rogerson.

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