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Ghosts: A Natural History

Originally published in Great Britain in 2012, Ghosts: A Natural History (2015) by Roger Clarke is an exploration of the subject framed by a taxonomy of eight varieties of ghosts. Each chapter is a micro history of one or two prominent ghosts and trends in ghost hunting, from the seventeenth century Tedworth House and eighteenth century Hinton House, to the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall and the Borley Rectory in the twentieth.

Through these locations and events, Clarke traces a history of not just ghosts but the people fascinated by them. With the exception of the haunted German U-boat, U65, all of the discussed locations are in Great Britain. Clarke describes the British Isles as being particularly overrun with spooks and specters.

Ghosts: A Natural History is a wonderful book, rich with fascinating places and characters. Clarke brings to life the people involved in these events, some of whom may surprise you. For instance, I knew Royal Society member Joseph Glanville was convinced of the reality of witchcraft, but I didn’t know he felt the same about ghosts. Likewise, I was amused to read that his contemporary, Robert Boyle, father of modern experimental science, joined Glanville in investigating poltergeist activity at the Tedworth House and what became known as the “Devil of Mâcon.”

Religion is another interesting aspect of this book. According to Clarke, much of England’s ghost belief springs from latent Catholicism or former Catholic sites. When Catholicism was suppressed in England and the Church’s property confiscated, many rectories, graveyards, and monasteries were left to decay–attracting a reputation for being haunted. With one notable exception, Protestant ministers tried to stamp out ghost belief, since ghosts were supposedly souls trapped in purgatory–a thoroughly Catholic notion. However, John Wesley, founder of Methodism, not only believed in ghosts, but poltergeist activity plagued his family home at Epworth as a child.

Class is another theme Clarke returns to throughout the book. The chapter “On the Vulgarity of Ghosts” explicitly tackles this topic, but among the middle class, ghost belief has long been seen as a province of the boorish and uneducated. The educated gentry and aristocracy, however, has always been fascinated with ghosts. Until recently, formal ghost hunting has been a pastime of the wealthy.

In his chapter on mediums and seances in Victorian London, Clarke shows how the upper class thrilled at supernatural performances. Seances during this time period often took on an explicitly sexual tone. Mediums were usually young, working class women, and the university-educated men who investigated them took full advantage. This also went the other way–Clarke tells of the wealthy older woman who tried to buy her way into marriage with medium Daniel Dunglas Home, who was almost certainly gay.

The chapter on ghosts and technology is the weakest of the book. This is the second attempt to tackle this topic I’ve read and although better than the first, it still falls short. Unlike his other meticulously-researched topics, this felt rushed–almost an afterthought. Perhaps ghosts and technology are just such unlikely bedfellows it’s difficult to effectively discuss their relationship. The information Clarke presents is interesting, however disjointed.

Documented sources are also lacking. Ghosts contains notes elaborating on topics in the text, with a few sources, but it is not formally sourced the way a work of history should be. It’s a shame–the reader is left to just take the author’s word for it, hurting what would otherwise be solid academic value.

Overall, I would rank this with Ghost Hunters by Deborah Blum as among the best histories of ghosts and ghost belief available today. Academic bias has relegated the topic of ghosts to the realm of folklore, but ghost belief has been a notable part of Western culture since the days of Socrates and Plato. Ghosts by Roger Clarke helps illuminate this often-neglected side of history.

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