26 September 2012


Gillian Bennett. The 100 Best British Ghost Stories. Amberley, 2012.

Eileen Rennison. Yorkshire Witches. Amberley, 2012.

Gillian Bennett will be known to many Magonia readers as the former editor of the urban legend magazine Letters to Mr Thom as well as the author of a number of books on ghosts and aspects of contemporary legends. In this book she take a hundred stories, largely from published sources, which give a broad impression of the types of narrative which form traditional ghost stories.
And by and large these stories do reflect the ‘traditional’ format - ‘white ladies’, retributive ghosts, daemonic entities, ghostly hounds, etc., rather than the more modern format of haunted council houses and pubs - traditional Halloween fare.

But this is largely an historical survey, covering records from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. In her preface the author notes that many stories are migratory, with almost identical accounts springing up in different locations, so rather than the usual ‘Ghosts of …..’ format, she arranges the stories chronologically. This allows us to get an idea of the way in which the narratives change over time in response to social conditions.
The ghostly apparitions of the seventeenth century were often seen through a strongly religious perspective, and formed part of the debate between Catholicism and Protestantism. The latter, not allowing for the state of Purgatory which gave a role for ghosts within the Christian tradition, demanded that ghosts were either delusions and lies, or the direct work of the devil.

The eighteenth century saw the rise of scientific scepticism, with writers such as Defoe and Goldsmith relating ghost stories in order to denounce the credulity of the believers, Goldsmith‘s CSICOP-like investigation of the Ghost of Cock Lane is reproduced at some length. Later there was the rise of the more literary ghost story collectors like Sir Walter Scott.

In the nineteenth century, and with increasing urbanisation, the ghosts move from the remote farms and grand country houses, into the streets (although they never abandon their traditional haunts). This brings about the advent of the ‘legend trippers’, where crowds of people gather around the alleged haunted locations, often to the distress of the civil and religious authorities. (Peter Rogerson has noted one instance of this in his description of a haunting in the Lancashire town of St Helens.)

Bennett notes that the twentieth century hauntings seem to have continued in the tradition of the previous century, but we also see the rise of the ‘living phantasm’ as a precursor of death. The final few excerpts in the book are some stories originally told to the author as part of her research into contemporary legend.

The great value of this book is that nearly all the narratives are direct transcriptions of the original printed form of the story, either from contemporary sources, or from the works of later collectors and antiquaries, details of which are given after each story. Although this enhances the authenticity of the record, it can sometimes make for rather awkward reading, and in some cases the author has ‘smoothed over’ some of the period orthography.

Unfortunately, the absence of such citations is the major fault in Eileen Rennison’s collection of Yorkshire witch tales. There is a brief list of largely secondary sources, but few direct references to the source for any of the stories she tells. Another difficulty is that the book is arranged in chapters which give individual descriptions of witches and witch trials across Yorkshire, but there seems to be no logic to the arrangement of the chapters, and as is increasingly the case with popular non-fiction, there is no alphabetical index.

Despite this, the book is still of interest. It appears that the down-to-earth Yorkshireman was far less likely to convict and hang alleged witches than the more excitable East Anglian! Most of the stories here are typical accounts of local ‘outsiders’ who have become scapegoats for an individual or family’s misfortune. In many cases these characters seem to have had a very ambiguous relationship with other local people, being both feared for their ability to set curses, but also called upon for help in troubled times.

A chronological index in an appendix serves to reveal how long popular witchcraft traditions survived after the end of the original witch-hunting era, well into the eighteenth and even nineteenth century, with individuals being denounced as witches or sorcerers. (Again, Peter Rogerson has an account of such an incident in Lancashire). We read of characters like Nanny Pearson of Goathland on the North York Moors, a nineteenth-century ‘wise-woman’ who was consulted by local people for both the imposition and the removing of curses, and widely believed to have the ability to turn herself into a hare, a belief which seems to have survived into the twentieth century.

With adequate references to sources and an index, this could have been a useful little reference work, but I have no doubt it will still be of interest to Yorkshire folk with an interest in the odd and the spooky. A nice Halloween gift? -- John Rimmer.

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