Review published on January 10, 2013. Reviewed by Richard W Jackson
“Ghosts are no longer souls. Ghosts are now an emotion field.”
Enter any public library across Britain and you will likely find a secluded corner devoted to the Isle’s obsession for peculiar, ghoulish oddities. More-often-than-not it is found at the rear of the building, beyond the malodorous volumes of books known only to enthusiastic hobbyists — crafts, scale modelling, and the like — a mere Dewey decimal away from serial killer topographies, adjacent to macabre tales of local crime and punishment. Stories of witches, pagan rituals, unidentified objects, and mythical creatures, will dominate, along with the most British of supernatural parables: ghosts.
It as a subject to which author Roger Clarke has devoted much of his life. Growing up in a 17th century former rectory on the Isle of White, from an early age he was surrounded by suggestive shadows, household groans, and night-time creaks. Devouring books on the subject, learning that England has “more ghosts per square mile … than any other country”, he soon succumbed to thinking “about ghosts and ghost hunting all the time”. By 14, he was the youngest person to ever join the Society for Psychical Research; a year later, a number of his own ghost stories were published. And so we now have A Natural History of Ghosts – Clarke’s attempt to explain, “what we see when we see a ghost, and the stories that we tell each other about them”.
Simmering as it is with personal reflections, this handsome – chunky – volume reads and feels like a boy’s scrapbook of stories: albeit one that is bursting with a giddy passion, buoyed further by an expert’s intelligence and thirst for abstruse facts. Before embarking on a loose chronological tour of ghost stories throughout the ages, Roger Clarke chooses to dive in at the deep end. Arming the reader with a brief though serious introduction to ghost hunting phenomena, he offers a taxonomical understanding of spectral varieties: elementals (“primitive ghosts connected to burial grounds”); poltergeists; traditional or historical (“souls of the dead, aware of the living”); mental imprint manifestations; crisis or death survival apparitions (“close bond to the moment of death”); times slips; ghosts of the living; and ‘haunted’ inanimate objects.
A Natural History of Ghosts is heavy on such theory, to an extent that it may alienate some before it impresses. But persevere and what remains is a deeply interesting, revealing read. Let’s take on of Clarke’s chosen tales: ‘The Ghost of Mrs Veal’.
Published on Christmas Eve in 1705, this domestic ghost story (popular for the period) finds an elderly lady, the wife of an alcoholic, abusive husband, alone in her Canterbury home. Set on All Hallows Eve, as the clock strikes noon (“ghosts are summoned by extreme transitional stages of the clock”), she is startled by the appearance of an old friend: Mrs Veal. Chatting as old ladies do, Mrs Veal offers comfort to the troubled woman; in return, she scribes a letter on her visitor’s behalf, to Veal’s untrustworthy family, detailing her final wishes and testament. A day after she was seen disappearing down the street, a local undertaker informs the lady that Mrs Veal had died, at the time she was supposedly seen in Canterbury.
An example of a literary ghost story (“England’s great gift to the world”), Clarke deftly reveals how a simple supernatural tale can function as a suggestive portrait of 18th century society. A meditation on morality, gender conflict, even class division (it turns out British ghosts seethe with the latter – who’d have guessed?), the story of Mrs Veal’s apparition popularised the importance of having one’s financial and funerary affairs in order, as well as a condemnation of domestic abuse. Popularised by Daniel Defoe, high – even royal – society, soon learned of the event in Canterbury, adding to the tale’s notoriety.
‘The Story of Mrs Veal’ reveals much ghost literature from this period. A conventional spirit, Veal appears fully clothed as a ‘crisis apparition’, typically free roaming and unconstrained – yet another English-specific characteristic. Yet this is only a single example: A Natural History of Ghosts refuses to hold back on the grislier stories. The historical tour includes infamous sights, as well as the lesser known. The Tower of London, where Ann Boleyn lurks, “reeks of death at night”…“a focus of death and torture for a thousand years”, whilst The Brown Lady – star of perhaps the most infamous paranormal photographs – continues to haunt Norfolk’s Raynham Hall. Then there is the bizarre case of Berlin bookseller Friedrich Nicolai, who discovered that bloodletting – achieved through attaching leaches to his anus – halted ghostly visitations.
Part of the charm of A Natural History of Ghosts is that it will never cease to shock. Not solely focussing on ghost literature, Roger Clarke is thorough in his ‘hunt for proof’ – the section on ghost photography is amongst the most interesting. Critical of the use of technology, from x-rays to camera obscuras, he expresses contempt for many of the methods used. Not knowing, it seems, is far more interesting and exciting for Clarke. As he points out using his historian’s pen, there is a far reaching precedent in exploiting the ghost story for gain: the 1732 Stamp Act made non-fictional writing taxable, causing many journalists to turn to the supernatural, whilst today television shows such as Most Haunted are simply exploitative. At no point does Clarke fall into this category: the main pleasure of reading this book is Clarke’s own enthusiasm, intelligence and seriousness.