9 April 2020


Karl Bell (Editor) Supernatural Cities; Enchantment, Anxiety and Spectrality. Boydell Press, 2019.

Karl Bell is the author of The Magical Imagination: Magic and Modernity in Urban England 1780-1914, a fascinating account of the persistence of supernatural beliefs in the growing industrial urban areas of the 'long nineteenth century'. [Reviewed HERE]
In that book Bell demonstrated that far from dissipating with the growth of industry, education, steam engines and gas lights, the ever-spreading urban areas retained much of the traditional folklore, and more particularly supernatural lore, of the rural regions where the new urban proletariat originated. And the growing towns and cities created their own supernatural visions and beliefs.

In the present volume Bell edits a collection of essays by different authors which develop the themes of modern urban supernatural lore. They cover a much wider range of topics than Bell's original account of beliefs in nineteenth century England, and the collection loses some of its focus as a result.

The first essay, 'Magical Capital', which examines the relationship between witchcraft, the supernatural and the press in Paris, is perhaps closest to Bell's original study. The press in England and France was by the mid-nineteenth century firmly of the opinion that witchcraft and magicians were remnants of primitive rural folk, and had no place in the teeming cities of the industrial age. No matter how many times they published stories that contradicted this contention, they always seemed to be surprised when another one came along.

The chapter's author, William Pooley begins with an incident reported in the Journal de Police in 1841. A Parisian court was taking on the case of a navvy named Pestiaux who had attacked one of his workmates with a shovel, but seemed to show no remorse over his actions, saying that his victim was a troublemaker who was “always casting spells on me”, and claiming that he made the navvy's tools disappear. He had no reason to do this, Pestiaux explained, other than that 'mischief makers' like that “cannot help themselves”.

Pestiaux seemed to have got off comparatively lightly with a fine of 30 francs, but with a stern warning from the magistrate that any repetition of such an incident might involve a life sentence. Pestiaux declared that he was going back to the country, “there are no mischief makers at home.”

Here we see a comment from the defendant that reverses the conventional view expressed by the newspapers of the era. One journalist commenting on the case saying “Good God, who would believe it. Witches capable of finding dupes in Paris! Paris the heartland of civilization and enlightened thought!” Pestiaux however seemed to think otherwise. It was the crowded, dangerous streets of the city that held the magicians, the mischief makers and the witches. It was much safer back in his country village.

Throughout the nineteenth century in France, Britain and elsewhere, 'elite' opinion insisted that similar 'primitive beliefs' were fading under the glare of science and reason, despite the evidence crossing the writers' desks almost every day; and where they did note it, it was often assumed to have been some sort of importation from the various colonial empires. Not until the final decades of the nineteenth century, with the growth in élite circles of intellectually-based occultism and magical practices, did the idea of magical 'survivals' became accepted, even though these new 'magicians' were not actually 'survivors' of earlier times.

An interesting perspective on how elements of city life have taken on occult and supernatural overtones is described in Oliver Bett’s essay, ‘The Occultism of the New York Slums, Perceptions and Apparitions’. This essay was prompted by the author’s reading of H. P. Lovecraft’ story The Horror of Red Hook, regarded by most critics as one of his weakest tales, and filled with what was, even by the standards of the time, a remarkable degree of racism and xenophobia. It depicts Brooklyn’s Red Hook area, in Lovecraft’s time a decayed slum, but which now, as is the pattern in many cities, is becoming a fashionable area, with craft gin bars, art galleries and boutiques.

Moving from Providence to New York in his doomed, short marriage, Lovecraft found the social and racial mixing of the bigger city uncomfortable, even frightening. Failing to understand the decay and deprivation of slum areas like Red Hook in political and social terms, he saw only physical and moral decay, largely in his view due to the presence of immigrants bringing their ‘older, terrible faith and superstitions’ onto American soil.

Bett’s shows that Lovecraft’s impression of the urban slum was by no means unique, and his depiction of the horrors of the slums is contrasted to the writings of reformers and campaigners like Jacob Riis, concluding that Lovecraft, in Red Hook was “exorcising his own urban demons”, before retreating back to the more familiar decaying horrors of New England!

Magonia readers may be familiar with the phenomenon of the Maryland Goatman from reading Nathan Crouch’s Goatman, Flesh of Folklore (reviewed HERE). Although encounters with ‘Goatmen’ type creatures have been reported from across the USA, the epicentre of the phenomenon seems to have been Prince George County, Maryland, a once largely rural county adjoining Washington DC. This is the area studied in David Puglia’s essay.

Puglia traces the Goatman legend back through local press reports to the 1970s, where it began as series of ‘friend of a friend’ stories, with tales of weird creatures attacking cars parked in ‘Lovers’ Lanes’, or prowling round isolated farmhouses stealing dogs and livestock. It was explained variously as being an escapee from a sinister research station, or a hermit goat-keeper persecuted by local youths and seeking revenge. Inevitable it became a focus for ‘legend tripping’ expeditions.

Puglia points out that the 1970s was the time when urban Washington began to expand into neighbouring counties, and Prince George rapidly changed from a predominantly rural area to a part of the metropolitan area. Crime escalated in this period, and Goatman seemed to become a psychological symbol of the intrusion of ‘habitat’ into ‘wilderness’. Now that the area has settled down as an accepted suburban extension to the Capital, Goatman has virtually faded from popular consciousness.

This seems to me to be an almost exact replication of the Spring Heel Jack phenomena around London in the early and mid nineteenth century. A frightening creature appearing in rural and semi-rural areas as the city stretched out to embrace them, firstly as outlying settlements and villages fell into the sphere of influence of the metropolis, and later as the physical structure of streets, houses and transport moved the city into hitherto rural areas.

Many of the other essays in the collection contain a great deal of interesting material. I would mention particularly Tracy Fahey’s account of folklore and folklore revival in a specific area of Limerick, linking modern urban legends to older folk beliefs, and recording them on film. We are taken to explore the haunted sewers of Tokyo, the modern horror tales that have developed in the industrial Soviet cities of the Urals, based both on the cruelty involved in their creation with slave labour and ‘Gulag’ prisoners, and the apocalyptic fears of the future destruction as their poorly constructed industrial infrastructure collapses.

However for a lot of the time we fall into the academic desert of Derrida, post-structuralism and sentences like “we live inside a set of relations that delineates sites which are irreducible to one another and absolutely not superimposable on one another” - Foucault, of course.

Although there is much in this book which is of interest, and a great deal more which could have been of interest, far too much of it is academics writing for a very small number of other academics. I think the more general reader will get a better understanding of most of the topics which are covered here by returning to Karl Bell’s original Magical Imagination. -- John Rimmer.

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