Sunday, 18 November 2012

REVIEW A Natural History of Ghosts by Roger Clarke

They had seen the ghost of Mrs Maria Manning in the window, glimpsed her from the street. She was looking down on them with her dead murderess eyes.

If there is anyone struggling to hunt down ideal Christmas presents for a special someone in their life with a thing for the supernatural, consider this dilemma completely solved.
Firstly, there is Ghost Stories for Christmas - The Definitive Collection on DVD, about which eerie joyfulness no more need be said here, and now there is Roger Clarke's outstanding A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting For Proof. Put together, these two presents will be unassailable - a direct hit of the eeriest kind. In so many respects, they are perfect companions. Throw in a copy of The Woman in Black by Susan Hill or a collected MR James, and all will be well on the day.

Those of us who have spent years fascinated by the fiction of the supernatural - devouring books and films on an endless loop - will be in love with Clarke's book from the very first page, if not indeed first sight of the marvellous cover. Glimpses in its darkened doorways are returned to time and time again while reading the book - is there a figure there? Is there something there in the photo? The waxy quality of the dustjacket picks up smudges, and these in turn become new small shadows in the photographs. Blow up the image of the cover, and yes, maybe there is someone there - in that left hand door? A face? A skull?

Clarke is immediately engaging, starting with a very personal reminiscence of his introduction to the world of ghosts. In 1981 he became the youngest ever member of the Society of Psychical Research. His early ghost stories were published when he was only fifteen. Throughout, the book has the quality of stories well told, and this skill is evident from the very opening sentence:

"There was a dead woman at the end of the passageway. I never her saw her, but I knew she was there."

What follows, in Clarke's own words, is "a book about what we see when we see a ghost, and the stories we tell about them" and these stories run from the very earliest accounts of hauntings, to the frantic green screens of people screaming in corridors on haunted TV programmes - closing just as we begin to form a view of a ghostly future, sitting as we are on the cusp of the spirits of virtual reality.

Several key grandstand hauntings and personalities, some familiar some less so, form the spine of the narrative and act as exemplars as trends in ghost sightings move forward and change (The Cock Lane Ghost, for example, The Borley Rectory, The Ghost of Mrs Veal) but the book is by no means a simple chronology of hauntings. While important events are dealt with in detail, the reader is treated to a wonderful array of incidental tales and observations in the passing, often through Clark's occasionally very witty end Notes.

This is the book, for example, where I became familiar with ghost sighting flashmobs of old London town, the ghosts of submarine  U65 and the sinister yet compelling Daniel Dunglas Home, the "Algernon Swinburn of the spirit world". Something about the tale of the ghost of Mrs Manning was deeply spooky, and I found Clarke's dissection of the shocks, sadnesses and sexiness of the seance tables from the late Victorian era brilliantly done - a cast of entirely outrageous characters that would fill a book of their own drift moaning and joint cracking across the pages.
There is something of Mark Gatiss's recent explorations of horror cinema about this book. By that I mean principally the very real sense of enduring fascination that comes across, that deep love of subject that I find hugely engaging. Whether they know each other, I don't know, but you can imagine the two having a great deal to discuss over a glass of wine or two. For those of us who grew up as kids sneakily watching Hammer movies after bedtime, or poring over ghosts of Britain compendiums (titles now forgotten), there is some sense of a shared experience with both Clarke and Gatiss - perhaps agreeing with Clarke in his suggestion that the supernatural has a particular hold over a society for a period, for particular reasons, and that this hold then diminishes, or changes - only to return with the next new development.
The book is deeply enjoyable, hugely informative and at times distinctly unsettling. It does not set out to prove whether ghosts exist or not, and makes no attempt to overtly direct the reader one way or another. Just as Clarke seems to be implying one thing, he implies another. Science, religion, politics, popular culture - all are explored. Charlatans are unmasked in photo scams and yet some photos hold secrets. Just as a particular strand of clairvoyancy is debunked, some simple strain of it remains naggingly unexplained. Is there anybody out there, indeed. What Clarke does splendidly well in this book, I feel, sometimes wistfully so, is tell us just how genuinely fascinated by the subject we remain, sometimes why we want to believe or disbelieve, and how much we love the things that go bump in the night. At a distance, of course ...

If I have a regret about the book it is only this: that I did not actually read it at Christmas, at night, by a crackling fire with a warm brandy. With only the slow candlelit journey up to bed at night, when the shadows lengthen behind me as I go, the staircase creaking beneath my feet, as before I reach the landing, a dark figure flits across my line of sight.