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A New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice "Roger Clarke tells this [the story that inspired Henry James' The Turn of the Screw] and many other gloriously weird stories with real verve, and also a kind of narrative authority that tends to constrain the skeptical voice within… [an] erudite and richly entertaining book." —New York Times Book Review "Is there anybody out ther A New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice "Roger Clarke tells this [the story that inspired Henry James' The Turn of the Screw] and many other gloriously weird stories with real verve, and also a kind of narrative authority that tends to constrain the skeptical voice within… [an] erudite and richly entertaining book." —New York Times Book Review "Is there anybody out there?" No matter how rationally we order our lives, few of us are completely immune to the suggestion of the uncanny and the fear of the dark. What explains sightings of ghosts? Why do they fascinate us? What exactly do those who have been haunted see? What did they believe? And what proof is there? Taking us through the key hauntings that have obsessed the world, from the true events that inspired Henry James's classic The Turn of the Screw right up to the present day, Roger Clarke unfolds a story of class conflict, charlatans, and true believers. The cast list includes royalty and prime ministers, Samuel Johnson, John Wesley, Harry Houdini, and Adolf Hitler. The chapters cover everything from religious beliefs to modern developments in neuroscience, the medicine of ghosts, and the technology of ghosthunting. There are haunted WWI submarines, houses so blighted by phantoms they are demolished, a seventeenth-century Ghost Hunter General, and the emergence of the Victorian flash mob, where hundreds would stand outside rumored sites all night waiting to catch sight of a dead face at a window. Written as grippingly as the best ghost fiction, A Natural History of Ghosts takes us on an unforgettable hunt through the most haunted places of the last five hundred years and our longing to believe.


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A New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice "Roger Clarke tells this [the story that inspired Henry James' The Turn of the Screw] and many other gloriously weird stories with real verve, and also a kind of narrative authority that tends to constrain the skeptical voice within… [an] erudite and richly entertaining book." —New York Times Book Review "Is there anybody out ther A New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice "Roger Clarke tells this [the story that inspired Henry James' The Turn of the Screw] and many other gloriously weird stories with real verve, and also a kind of narrative authority that tends to constrain the skeptical voice within… [an] erudite and richly entertaining book." —New York Times Book Review "Is there anybody out there?" No matter how rationally we order our lives, few of us are completely immune to the suggestion of the uncanny and the fear of the dark. What explains sightings of ghosts? Why do they fascinate us? What exactly do those who have been haunted see? What did they believe? And what proof is there? Taking us through the key hauntings that have obsessed the world, from the true events that inspired Henry James's classic The Turn of the Screw right up to the present day, Roger Clarke unfolds a story of class conflict, charlatans, and true believers. The cast list includes royalty and prime ministers, Samuel Johnson, John Wesley, Harry Houdini, and Adolf Hitler. The chapters cover everything from religious beliefs to modern developments in neuroscience, the medicine of ghosts, and the technology of ghosthunting. There are haunted WWI submarines, houses so blighted by phantoms they are demolished, a seventeenth-century Ghost Hunter General, and the emergence of the Victorian flash mob, where hundreds would stand outside rumored sites all night waiting to catch sight of a dead face at a window. Written as grippingly as the best ghost fiction, A Natural History of Ghosts takes us on an unforgettable hunt through the most haunted places of the last five hundred years and our longing to believe.

30 review for Ghosts: A Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for Proof

  1. 4 out of 5

    Werner

    Note, Oct. 1, 2016: I just edited this review again to correct a minor typo. Note, Nov. 28, 2014: I just edited this review slightly to make a factual correction --I recognized two of the names in the bibliography, not just one. Full disclosure at the outset: I won a free copy of this book in a recent Goodreads giveaway. Because of my liking for supernatural fiction and my interest in folklore, it's perhaps not surprising that I'm intrigued by unexplained phenomena in the real world, and have been Note, Oct. 1, 2016: I just edited this review again to correct a minor typo. Note, Nov. 28, 2014: I just edited this review slightly to make a factual correction --I recognized two of the names in the bibliography, not just one. Full disclosure at the outset: I won a free copy of this book in a recent Goodreads giveaway. Because of my liking for supernatural fiction and my interest in folklore, it's perhaps not surprising that I'm intrigued by unexplained phenomena in the real world, and have been since childhood. My own attitude is one of open-minded inquiry, tempered by caution and a critical faculty. While I don't "believe in ghosts" in the conventional sense, I also don't dogmatically assume that naive materialism explains all observed reality. I've never had any paranormal experiences of my own (I'm using "paranormal" as most people do, in the sense of uncanny or strange, with no connotations about the cause --not, as Clarke defines it at one point in this book, as a technical term that itself implies a non-supernatural explanation); but I have family members who have, and a neighbor whose veracity I have no reason to doubt, who fully believes that her house is harmlessly haunted by the ghost of a child. So my interest in Clarke's book was piqued when I saw the giveaway. Roger Clarke grew up in the 1960s and 70s on England's Isle of Wight, an area with folk beliefs in ghosts, and lived in houses that had tales of hauntings connected to them. As a kid and teen, he developed an avid interest in ghost hunting, becoming the youngest member of the Society for Psychical Research at the age of 14. (The first chapter of the book provides this background, and discusses the several "haunted" sites he's visited personally.) While the bulk of the Goodreads description just reproduces the cover copy, which is a bit sensationalized, it does give a pretty accurate idea of the book's flavor. It's not really a systematic treatise on the subject, or a full history of ghost beliefs (it's organized topically, rather than chronologically), but it's a very wide-ranging discussion, with a lot of fascinating factual information. Clarke takes it as a given that some people do experience "ghost" phenomena; the question for him is not whether these exist or not, but rather how they should be explained, and what ghost beliefs tell us about ourselves. (And, at least in this book, he doesn't really attempt to suggest definitive answers.) Though the book isn't really a "natural history" of ghosts, the second chapter does provide a "taxonomy" or classification (actually taken from ghost researcher Peter Underwood) of eight types of "ghostly" phenomena: "elementals," poltergeists, traditional or historical ghosts, mental imprint menifestations, crisis or death-survival apparitions, time slips, "ghosts" of the living, and haunted inanimate objects. Some of these categories, which are mostly distinguished by how they can possibly be explained, are concepts I was already aware of from other reading, but I still found the discussion informative. The succeeding chapters deal with a variety of subjects (which aren't always neatly organized), including 20th-century style ghost hunting, spiritualist seances, attempts to photograph ghosts, use of other kinds of technology for ghostly research, ghost phenomena associated with the military in wartime, and bogus ghost phenomena. Another interesting theme is the role of religion in European ghost belief. In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic church explained ghosts as souls from Purgatory; once souls were in heaven or hell, they stayed there. The Protestant rejection of Purgatory was associated with denial of the possibility of ghosts, and the explanation of all alleged ghostly phenomena as demonic in origin. (An exception was the early Methodist movement, which was open to the idea of ghosts due to the Wesley family's experience of poltergeist phenomena in Epworth in John Wesley's early years.) Much of this information was new to me or only vaguely grasped before. Several chapters concentrate on famous cases of "hauntings," including the 17th-century Tedworth Drummer, the phenomena at Hinton Ampner in the 18th century, the "Brown Lady of Raynham Hall," and the case of Borley Rectory in the 20th century. For the most part, Clarke expresses no opinion, or ambiguous opinions, about the phenomena he describes, with the exception of some incidents, like the Cock Lane "ghost" in London in 1760-62, that were clearly faked. Based on the material here, I would say that there is a good deal of claimed "ghost" phenomena that can be discounted or that is susceptible of a natural explanation. There is, IMO, a core residue of data that is more resistant to that sort of explanation. This doesn't mean that we're obliged to explain it as the activity of revenant spirits of the dead, though I don't dogmatically deny that some of it could be. (I personally believe that the souls of the dead are normally unconscious and inactive until the time of the future resurrection; but that's a Biblical interpretation, not a proven fact, and what's normal may also not be invariable. I also don't rule out the reality of genuine demonic activity as an explanation for some phenomena; and I would recommend Kurt Koch's Between Christ and Satan as a worthwhile resource on that topic. But that's also not a handy-dandy explanation that all data can be forced to fit.) One of the most fascinating aspects of the book to me was Clarke's highlighting of connections between supernatural fiction and real-life incidents. For instance, he makes a good case that the Hinton Ampner haunting suggested Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. Daniel Defoe's "True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal" turns out to be an only lightly fictionalized account of an actual reported event; and famed ghost story writer M. R. James had a traumatizing paranormal experience as a boy. Clarke isn't a scientist as such; he's an interested dabbler in the subject, writing for interested lay persons. His style is lively and chatty, but not ultra-scholarly, and his treatments of various facets of the subject are often not deep. He uses endnotes, but they're often just factual tidbits about a subject, not documentation of sources, and a lot of quoted and other material isn't documented. (The book is also indexed, but there are some omissions in the indexing.) Also, the editing was sometimes careless; information will occasionally be repeated because he apparently forgot he supplied it earlier. More than once, he left me wanting more information than I got. He did, however, clearly do his homework, and took it seriously. The bibliography for further reading fills about three-and-a-quarter pages, and consists of apparently solid sources, several of them from university presses. I haven't read any of these, and the only authors I recognized were folklorist Andrew Lang and Peter Haining (who edited The Mammoth Book of True Hauntings); but at least one is a book I'd like to read. Two valuable sources not included are William G. Roll's The Poltergeist, and True Irish Ghost Stories by St. John Seymour and Harry Neligan. All in all, I enjoyed the book enough to feel it earned its fourth star. It's not the definitive exploration of its subject by any means. But if that exploration is ever written, this is one source its author will probably want to make use of!

  2. 4 out of 5

    Maya Panika

    Roger Clarke has to be the most well-placed person to write a ‘natural history’ of ghosts. Haunted as a child, he became the youngest ever member of the Society for Psychical Research. The subject has been a matter of fascination for him ever since, and he has remained a keen investigator to this day. A Natural History of Ghosts gives detailed accounts of famous hauntings. They range from ancient ghost stories, through the Victorian passion for séances, to the modern ghost investigation – which Roger Clarke has to be the most well-placed person to write a ‘natural history’ of ghosts. Haunted as a child, he became the youngest ever member of the Society for Psychical Research. The subject has been a matter of fascination for him ever since, and he has remained a keen investigator to this day. A Natural History of Ghosts gives detailed accounts of famous hauntings. They range from ancient ghost stories, through the Victorian passion for séances, to the modern ghost investigation – which is not new at all, but began with famous faker Harry Price, who pioneered the live ghost hunt on radio in the 1920s – coming bang up to date with TAPS, Most Haunted and Ghost Adventures. An attempted taxonomy details different kinds of ghosts: the ‘stone-tape’ type, doomed to go through the motions over and over and over again, who seem to be mere recordings in time. And the far more chilling kind, who speak and interact, intelligently, with the living and their fellow dead, like the – still unexplained - Enfield poltergeist. Clarke tries his hardest to maintain a dry and sceptical look at hauntings, ancient and modern, but cannot help observing that ghosts are certainly real; ghosts have been and continue to be experienced and documented across time and space, and the only debate is, what are they, really? Are they all figments of the imagination or out and out fakes? The actual spirits of the dead? Or a phenomenon that is, as yet, unexplained? Sadly, Roger Clarke has no answers, and provides no conclusions, either, he simply delivers pure information with which we must make up our own minds. As the sceptical George Bernard Shaw told Henry James that, "No man who doesn't believe in a ghost ever sees one." Maybe the truth is the other way around? That those who believe in ghosts, do so precisely because they have seen one. Roger Clarke keeps his account objective, distancing himself personally, from what he is documenting. Personally, I would have enjoyed a wee bit more personal input and opinion from a man who, above almost all other authors, is best placed to give an informed opinion. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this book is that it is never in the least bit dry. Roger Clarke is a natural writer and story teller. This is a smooth, easy, fascinating read to anyone with the slightest interest in the subject, and very highly recommended indeed.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Trilby

    If you're looking for the dime-a-dozen, sensational "tales of the supernatural" kind of book, you won't find it here. Instead, you will find something unique and much more interesting: a natural history of ghosts. Over nearly four decades, I've collected scores of ghost stories. This scholarly, yet entertaining book is a wonderful examination of the tellers and tales of uncanny doings. I was captivated by the backgrounds to the most famous stories of the paranormal from Britain and America--and s If you're looking for the dime-a-dozen, sensational "tales of the supernatural" kind of book, you won't find it here. Instead, you will find something unique and much more interesting: a natural history of ghosts. Over nearly four decades, I've collected scores of ghost stories. This scholarly, yet entertaining book is a wonderful examination of the tellers and tales of uncanny doings. I was captivated by the backgrounds to the most famous stories of the paranormal from Britain and America--and surprised at the number of well known historical figures involved, like John Wesley and Horace Walpole. Clarke covers it all, from poltergeists to séances to ESP to ghost hunters--and more. He examines the hoaxes as well as the unexplained. My personal favorite was the story of a cursed German WW I U-boat--which Clarke calls "a mobile haunted house." I was fascinated by the tracing of the story upon which Henry James based "The Turn of the Screw," my favorite literary ghost story. There are quite a few memorable quotes, but the one I like best is by Harry Price, the first ghost hunter: "People don't want the de-bunk, they want the bunk." Alas, one need look no further for proof of this statement than the current spate of paranormal TV shows, such as the laughable "Alaska Monsters". At least the gullible viewers of these shows are not as dangerous as the 18th century "flash mobs" of thousands that showed up, ready for action against the alleged ghost--even if it meant tearing down the allegedly haunted house. Now that's scary.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Christoph Fischer

    "A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof" by Roger Clarke was maybe a case of wrong expectations but I was a little disappointed by this book. It provided interesting insights into the history of ghost hunting and a selection of good stories but for me it did not come together properly and left me wanting more of a conclusion or round up.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Icy Sedgwick

    The title of this book is a little of a misnomer; it’s not a natural history of ghosts at all. Rather, it’s a natural history of the ghost story. Roger Clarke investigates a whole range of stories, from now-demolished ancestral homes to the famous Cock Lane ghost. In so doing, he explores the beliefs about ghosts apparent at that time. It’s fascinating to see how the belief in ghosts has changed over time. And Clarke has done a good job of rounding together a range of stories that aren’t the usua The title of this book is a little of a misnomer; it’s not a natural history of ghosts at all. Rather, it’s a natural history of the ghost story. Roger Clarke investigates a whole range of stories, from now-demolished ancestral homes to the famous Cock Lane ghost. In so doing, he explores the beliefs about ghosts apparent at that time. It’s fascinating to see how the belief in ghosts has changed over time. And Clarke has done a good job of rounding together a range of stories that aren’t the usual suspects that appear in collections like this. While I don’t think he has in any way found “proof” that ghosts exist, he has found proof that belief does…and in spades. It’s an enjoyable read, perfect for anyone with an interest in the supernatural.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Chronics

    Note this book is not scary, its literally a history of english ghost stories, with the occasional european or american story added. I was quite dissapointed, the author seems to just go on and on for the sake of it, he also seems to imply that all the stories are fake, at least the ones he writes about but will then end the chapter with a question, as if to say "or is it"? Would have prepared more genuine story telling rather than just his commentary, followed by an analysis of the story which Note this book is not scary, its literally a history of english ghost stories, with the occasional european or american story added. I was quite dissapointed, the author seems to just go on and on for the sake of it, he also seems to imply that all the stories are fake, at least the ones he writes about but will then end the chapter with a question, as if to say "or is it"? Would have prepared more genuine story telling rather than just his commentary, followed by an analysis of the story which without the authors blatant views on whether it fake or real.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Christine

    I finished this book, and I was left with a question. How do you keep live sparrows in your anus? Inquiring minds want to know. That aside, this is a rather interesting look at the use of ghosts in English memory, landscape, fiction, and folklore. There are connections made to literature (including Robert Browning’s poetry) as well as how the view of ghosts reflects on class warfare in England. Interesting. But I am really wondering about those sparrows.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Patrick

    Enjoyed this very much. It manages to be a skeptical, reasoned survey of the history of hauntings in Britain while also being a personal expression of the author’s own abiding interest in the inexplicable. He gets the second part out of the way early on in the very first chapter when he describes poring for hours over a mysterious photograph of what was once considered the most haunted bedroom in England, describing how he would later go on to sleep there, ‘and was, I suppose, haunted’. That air Enjoyed this very much. It manages to be a skeptical, reasoned survey of the history of hauntings in Britain while also being a personal expression of the author’s own abiding interest in the inexplicable. He gets the second part out of the way early on in the very first chapter when he describes poring for hours over a mysterious photograph of what was once considered the most haunted bedroom in England, describing how he would later go on to sleep there, ‘and was, I suppose, haunted’. That airy modifier is crucial, since like those involved with so many of the incidents in this book, he didn’t ever actually see the ghost. But does that make the experience any less real? It’s a rather ponderous book, long on detail and digression, but short on conclusions about the nature or truth of ghosts in general. Most of the cases described are extremely compelling - and no less so for the fact that they are more often than not exposed as fakes – but the author isn’t particularly interested in offering any single overarching theory as to how or why we see or hear ghosts. Indeed, it frequently seems like there are as many reasons to encounter or to fake such encounters as there are motivations for any other aspect of unusual human nature: typical labels like ‘greed’, ‘loneliness’, ‘trauma’ hardly seem to cover it. A staunch materialist might be put off by the author’s own dogged insistence that there is something worthwhile and enticing about the mysteries of these stories, but fortunately I have never been one to let my own doubts get in the way of a good yarn. I should confess that part of me desperately wanted one of these tales to be proved true, especially since the progress of the years in the book only seems to reveal an increasingly cynical view of what might be called the ‘ghost industry’ in this country. Wherever an individual can exploit the overactive imaginations of others for their own benefit, it seems they almost inevitably will – the key example here being Harry Price, the original ‘psychic researcher’ who pioneered the ghost hunt as live broadcast, only to be later discredited following his investigation into Borley Rectory. What might be the most remarkable thing about this book is that it ends up being so critical that it almost destroys its own subject as paranormal (or should I say supernatural?) occurrence. An early chapter lays out in detail a ‘taxonomy of ghosts’ in all their varieties (‘Elementals, Poltergeists, Traditional or Historical ghosts, Mental Imprint Manifestations…’ etc) and this is fascinating, but these distinctions are rendered somewhat redundant when so many of the stories which follow are revealed to be of indistinct imaginative origin: pretty much all of what occurs turns out to be a sort of mish-mash of ‘all of the above’ in taxonomy terms. But again, if (like me) you don’t expect much in the way of consistency in an assessment of such an esoteric subject, you probably won’t be too put off by this. It's a very interesting book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Emma

    It is jaw dropping how this author has shown exceptional skill in making such a diverse and fascinating subject into one that is shamefully dull. Bravo sir, you have provided me with some wonderful reading should I be suffering from a random bout of insomnia, your writing puts me to sleep in minutes. His research is commendable and the subject itself, fascinating, but the writing lacks any real emotion and leaves the overall experience feeling like a monotonous, uninspiring lecture. Needless to It is jaw dropping how this author has shown exceptional skill in making such a diverse and fascinating subject into one that is shamefully dull. Bravo sir, you have provided me with some wonderful reading should I be suffering from a random bout of insomnia, your writing puts me to sleep in minutes. His research is commendable and the subject itself, fascinating, but the writing lacks any real emotion and leaves the overall experience feeling like a monotonous, uninspiring lecture. Needless to say I left it unfinished and have moved onto better, bigger things.....namely staring at walls and watching paint dry.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Anne Billson

    Excellent, impeccably researched account of ghost-hunting through the ages; scholarly without being turgid; entertaining without ever insulting the reader's intelligence. Describes Britain's most famous hauntings in a clear-headed way that neverthless sometimes gave me goose-bumps if I was reading late at night - and I don't even believe in ghosts. Should appeal to believers and sceptics alike.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Nancy Oakes

    Much more to come about this book when I have several free moments. For now, unlike many people, I didn't find this book boring at all.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Lima Reads

    Rtc

  13. 5 out of 5

    Steve Duffy

    "Natural history", according to one popular definition, "is the research and study of organisms... in their environment, leaning more towards observational than experimental methods of study." That's pretty much exactly what Roger Clarke gives us in this entertaining overview of Britain's best-known hauntings over the last few hundred years, from the poltergeists of Tedworth House to Sky Living's "Most Haunted" TV show. Like M.R. James before him, Clarke understands the importance of setting in "Natural history", according to one popular definition, "is the research and study of organisms... in their environment, leaning more towards observational than experimental methods of study." That's pretty much exactly what Roger Clarke gives us in this entertaining overview of Britain's best-known hauntings over the last few hundred years, from the poltergeists of Tedworth House to Sky Living's "Most Haunted" TV show. Like M.R. James before him, Clarke understands the importance of setting in all the best ghost stories, and one of the many pleasures to be had from this book is its success in establishing the relationships between the revenants and the spaces they inhabit. The sociological and historical context of these events is succinctly and clearly established by the author, and is often illuminating; however, this illumination doesn't necessarily mean that all the Gothic shadows are banished. The more impressionistic elements of the stories - the intangibles, the sensations, the reactions of the participants, the little details that probably won't ever be explained away - are given their due prominence in Clarke's carefully measured accounts. The function of the ghost story is, after all, to reach those parts that other narratives can't reach.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Carole Tyrrell

    I finished this book with a real feeling of regret as I was enjoying it so much. The author, the youngest person ever to be invited to join the Ghost Society. He grew up in 2 hauinted hosues but never experienced anything untoward despite wanting to. I heard Roger Clarke talking about this book on Radio 4 and couldn’t believe my luck when I found it in my local library. He begins by asking the interesting question ‘Why do ghosts wear clothes?’ And when you think about it, yes why do they? Surely I finished this book with a real feeling of regret as I was enjoying it so much. The author, the youngest person ever to be invited to join the Ghost Society. He grew up in 2 hauinted hosues but never experienced anything untoward despite wanting to. I heard Roger Clarke talking about this book on Radio 4 and couldn’t believe my luck when I found it in my local library. He begins by asking the interesting question ‘Why do ghosts wear clothes?’ And when you think about it, yes why do they? Surely they should be in shrouds, bedsheets or even au naturel. But most observers see them in dark clothes or grey outfits or maybe they just assume they’re in the clothes of the day. Although Clarke discusses well known and documented supernatural tales such as the Tidworth drummer, the Hinton Ampner hauntings and the Wesley family’s experiences at Emsworth this is not just a book of ghost stories related without comment. After all, as ghost hunter par excellence, Harry Price, said ‘ People don’t want the debunk, they want the bunk.’ Instead he puts them into a social and historical context and reveals surprising facets. For example, the Hinton Ampner haunting may have inspired Quint in Henry James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’. Isaac Mackrell, an ambitious and suspected dishonest manservant who was seen staring in at a window and whose last resting place remains unknown. I was also unaware of how much John Wesley’s experiences of the haunting at Emsworth whilst growing up encourage him to make the supernatural a basic tenet of Methodism until he was persuaded to water it down. Samuel Wesley, his father, was detested by his flock and one wonders what it must have been like growing up in that household especially as the ghost manifested itself during times of family tensions unsurprisingly. Clarke also discusses the well know tales of the two ladies at Versailles, Mrs Veal and the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall. He also exposes the Cock Lane Ghost which has its echoes in TV programmes like Most Haunted Live in which the supernatural appears on cue. He also delves into supernatural literature and asserts that Sheridan Le Fanu was Ireland’s Edgar Allan Poe as they shared certain similarities. I did see a Dolores Le Fanu exhibiting in a smart London gallery and wondered if she was a distant relative. MR James is also mentioned in the probably location of Wailing Well which may be Worborrow Bay. This is now an MOD firing range and unwitting people have been shot there. He also thinks that Professor Parkin was a poor Latin scholar in that he didn’t correctly translate the inscription on the whistle. Along the way there’s also a chapter on the Angel of Mons, séances, table rapping and ectoplasm and Houdini’s message from beyond the grave. Ted Serios, a man who specialised in thoughtography which was the ability to project images from his mind into photos , and which he later lost is also briefly discussed although his Serios abilities remain unproven. An interesting and entertaining book which I really enjoyed. However, I resisted amazon’s invitation to click inside as who knew what might be waiting to greet me?

  15. 5 out of 5

    Vheissu

    This is a wonderful book, 4 1/2 stars, that every spook lover should read. Mostly about paranormal England ("the most haunted place in the world"), it includes ghosts, poltergeists, places, people, mediums, séances, frauds, folklore, mind-readers, telekinesis, ghost hunters--the works. Clarke writes in a credulous but skeptical, tongue-in-cheek manner with real wit and charming conclusions. I loved it. Especially interesting to me were the sociological, historical, and technological aspects of sp This is a wonderful book, 4 1/2 stars, that every spook lover should read. Mostly about paranormal England ("the most haunted place in the world"), it includes ghosts, poltergeists, places, people, mediums, séances, frauds, folklore, mind-readers, telekinesis, ghost hunters--the works. Clarke writes in a credulous but skeptical, tongue-in-cheek manner with real wit and charming conclusions. I loved it. Especially interesting to me were the sociological, historical, and technological aspects of spirituality. In England, belief in ghosts existed mostly among the lower classes and, occasionally, upper, while the middle classes hardly believed in ghosts at all. The professional classes tended to dismiss unexplained phenomenon as the wicked tricks of servants or the decadence of the ruling classes. Ghosts were an important subject of conflict among Catholics and Protestants, the latter believing that souls transmigrate directly to heaven or hell and not, as in Catholic doctrine, Purgatory, where souls linger before their final destination. For Protestant England, supernatural phenomena were the product of demons or witches, and hence their unrelenting oppression of the occult, or worse, evidence of secret Catholic leanings. Catholics, consequently, were less dismissive and fearful of the paranormal. Only with John Wesley and the spread of Methodism did Protestantism come to embrace the supernatural, mostly because Wesley's childhood home was presumably haunted. In medieval times, religious leaders viewed ghost sightings as scandalous, whereas Enlightenment thinkers saw them as signs of mental illness. By the mid-nineteenth century, ghosts became objects of entertainment, to be welcomed into English parlors by mediums, and by the late nineteenth century, the subject of professional debunkers. In the twentieth century, science and technology tackled the job of demonstrating once and for all whether paranormal activity can be empirically validated, and none other than the American Association for the Advancement of Science granted paranormal investigation recognized status, mostly at the encouragement of Margaret Meade. Paranormal investigation, indeed, gave birth to some important medical and technological accomplishments in the twentieth century, including the electroencephalograph, the X-ray, radio, and 3-D photography. A few abject frauds have obscured the many very real unexplained phenomena still examined by parapsychologists today. The real history of ghosts, the one thing that explains our never ending fascination with the possibility of life after death, is neatly explained by Clarke in one simple word: money.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Selena

    This book was fascinating, if a little slow in parts. Ghosts: A Natural History is basically the evolution of ghosts and the ghost story. What people have thought of ghosts has changed, as well as what they've looked like. "Ghost Hunting" has also evolved throughout the years (yes, there was ye olde ghost hunting; it's not just a recent phenomena). It talks about the rise and fall of seances. It talks about the poltergeist. It talks about a lot of ghostly stuff from strictly historical and litera This book was fascinating, if a little slow in parts. Ghosts: A Natural History is basically the evolution of ghosts and the ghost story. What people have thought of ghosts has changed, as well as what they've looked like. "Ghost Hunting" has also evolved throughout the years (yes, there was ye olde ghost hunting; it's not just a recent phenomena). It talks about the rise and fall of seances. It talks about the poltergeist. It talks about a lot of ghostly stuff from strictly historical and literary point of view. It's not trying to make you believe, but instead talks about the history of believers and skeptics alike. This is by no means a totally comprehensive Ghostie Goo book, however. It mostly focuses on European and especially British hauntings and ghost belief. It mentions America and Japan briefly in the context of European stuff, but doesn't go into much detail on these. African, South American, Canadian, etc. ghosts are largely ignored. This is a bit disappointing, since I know a lot of different countries saw ghosts differently than their European counterparts. I would be super interested in reading more ghostly histories on other parts of the world if you write them, Clarke. ;) So, whether you're a believer or not, this is a good book to read if you like a good ghost story. Free copy courtesy of St. Martin's Press and Goodreads First Reads, which in no way influences this review

  17. 5 out of 5

    Brandi

    Roger Clarke's "Ghosts: A Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for Proof" was not quite what I hoped it would be. When I first got the book, I became hopeful, especially when I read the summary and realized the tales were from England. Once I started reading, though, I realized it wasn't quite what I hoped for. Whereas there is a lot of interesting information presented in the book, it didn't flow too well. It seems like the author would be referring to an event that occurred in the 1200's, Roger Clarke's "Ghosts: A Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for Proof" was not quite what I hoped it would be. When I first got the book, I became hopeful, especially when I read the summary and realized the tales were from England. Once I started reading, though, I realized it wasn't quite what I hoped for. Whereas there is a lot of interesting information presented in the book, it didn't flow too well. It seems like the author would be referring to an event that occurred in the 1200's, jump to the 1900's, go back to the 1400's and so on. It wasn't quite as organized as I would have liked. Also many of the stories, especially towards the beginning of the book, that I found most interesting, were never elaborated on. It's almost like he wanted to cram in so many stories that he didn't thoroughly go into detail over many of the more interesting ones. Overall, though, there was a lot of interesting information and stories presented in the book and I did enjoy the author's narration style. I would probably read another one of his books were I to encounter one. In spite of it's flaws, it is a book that many fans of the paranormal would probably enjoy. This book was won from the Goodreads.com website in exchange for a review.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Tina Rath

    Roger Clarke knows his ghosts and he takes an interesting approach to them. Why do we have ghosts? What do they mean (besides the obvious – if there is an obvious?) He examines various famous hauntings including Cock Lane, the Demon Drummer, various poltergeist episodes, even the Angels of Mons to delve not only into what happened but to what people thought was happening, and what they did about it. He also looks at the curious way that ghosts seem to be associated with social class. In the Age Roger Clarke knows his ghosts and he takes an interesting approach to them. Why do we have ghosts? What do they mean (besides the obvious – if there is an obvious?) He examines various famous hauntings including Cock Lane, the Demon Drummer, various poltergeist episodes, even the Angels of Mons to delve not only into what happened but to what people thought was happening, and what they did about it. He also looks at the curious way that ghosts seem to be associated with social class. In the Age of Enlightenment, for instance, only servants were afraid of ghosts. Officers and gentlemen stayed up with loaded pistols ready to deal with the mortal trouble makers who were sure to be behind the disturbances. There were changing fashions in ghost too. They moved from the white sheets (the shrouds they had been buried in) to fashionable black satin when a crowd saw “the black ghost” of Maria Manning pass the window of a house in Bermondsey, a change which the author suggests led to an upsurge in black clad female ghosts – especially nuns. Fresh, interesting and well worth reading.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Stephen Curran

    When I picked this up I didn't realise the author was much more inclined to believe in the existence of spirits than I. I'm happy to say our difference of opinion made for an even more engaging read. It was particularly entertaining to watch him repeatedly pull the carpet out from under his own statements in the first few chapters. So he turned the central heating on in an old house and found himself surrounded by strange banging noises all night? You don't say! I don't mean that to sound snippy. When I picked this up I didn't realise the author was much more inclined to believe in the existence of spirits than I. I'm happy to say our difference of opinion made for an even more engaging read. It was particularly entertaining to watch him repeatedly pull the carpet out from under his own statements in the first few chapters. So he turned the central heating on in an old house and found himself surrounded by strange banging noises all night? You don't say! I don't mean that to sound snippy. The author's descriptions of historical hauntings are lucidly written, excellently researched and fascinating, especially in the later chapters where his focus moves to the twentieth century. Relating the stories in roughly chronological order lets the reader see how our attitude towards ghosts has changed through the years, and there are plenty of arresting facts (for example: statistically speaking, the French are far less likely to see ghosts). The hardback edition is lovely, too. Highly recommended.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Boorrito

    This could have done with a better editor - there's a couple of footnotes that aren't in the right place, some weird typing errors and it would have made sense to organise by chronology, considering Clarke doesn't manage to organise by theme. Also, it'd be really easy to fake a "ghost" in a spellchecker if you knew how to modify the dictionary file in Word and I'm surprised that Clarke considers it a weird unexpected mystery instead. Then again Clarke really, really wants to believe. Conclusion: This could have done with a better editor - there's a couple of footnotes that aren't in the right place, some weird typing errors and it would have made sense to organise by chronology, considering Clarke doesn't manage to organise by theme. Also, it'd be really easy to fake a "ghost" in a spellchecker if you knew how to modify the dictionary file in Word and I'm surprised that Clarke considers it a weird unexpected mystery instead. Then again Clarke really, really wants to believe. Conclusion: I didn't change my view from reading this, I went in thinking it's inconclusive if ghosts exist, but anyone who claims to be able to summon them at will is a liar and fraud.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Sonya

    The question at the heart of this book - why do we see ghosts? - drew me to it and I'd really wanted to enjoy it more than I did. There are interesting snippets of information, but the book is let down by its lack of clear organisation (and therefore its repetition and frequent referrals back and forth across the book).

  22. 5 out of 5

    David

    This is a well-written and well-researched book, but I was a little disappointed there wasn't more discussion and analysis about what ghosts actually are. I felt that too much of the book was devoted to recounting what's known about historical hauntings, many of which would appear to be faked.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Michael Kleen

    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 g 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: A Natural History by Roger Clarke helps illuminate this often-neglected side of history.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Bill Wallace

    Thoroughly enjoyable social history of ghosts and hauntings, how the notions surrounding them have changed following religion, fashion, psychology, and taste. The tone strikes a good balance between scholarly and popular. In the course of tracing the changes in ghost lore, Clarke revisits some of the most famous hauntings and incidents in, mostly, British history and some of this material may be over-familiar to ghost fans. A small criticism though because the point here is not to recount the ev Thoroughly enjoyable social history of ghosts and hauntings, how the notions surrounding them have changed following religion, fashion, psychology, and taste. The tone strikes a good balance between scholarly and popular. In the course of tracing the changes in ghost lore, Clarke revisits some of the most famous hauntings and incidents in, mostly, British history and some of this material may be over-familiar to ghost fans. A small criticism though because the point here is not to recount the event but to analyze it and the question is never "are ghosts real" but rather "what do ghosts mean?" Fast, engaging reading; wouldn't mind at all reading a similar book with a more global approach.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Fernanda

    This is what dreams (nightmares) are made of.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Katrinka

    Would like to find something similar for the world at large; a global history, essentially, of how we've approached the supernatural, what we think it is, what we're getting out of that belief, etc.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    If you want a solid overview of ghosts, ghost beliefs and a dissection of how class, religion and technology shifts the interpretation of ghosts, this is the book for you.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Alex Sarll

    In a manner recalling the gentleman scholars of earlier ages*, Clarke picks a comprehensive and wilfully provocative title, and then provides a book which is at best tangential to it. This is no comprehensive survey of the field and, while it may be a personal journey of sorts, that’s more in the sense of its being an idiosyncratic trip through the high points of haunted history than the prime cliché of modern non-fiction structures. Not so idiosyncratic as to miss out 50 Berkeley Square, Borley In a manner recalling the gentleman scholars of earlier ages*, Clarke picks a comprehensive and wilfully provocative title, and then provides a book which is at best tangential to it. This is no comprehensive survey of the field and, while it may be a personal journey of sorts, that’s more in the sense of its being an idiosyncratic trip through the high points of haunted history than the prime cliché of modern non-fiction structures. Not so idiosyncratic as to miss out 50 Berkeley Square, Borley Rectory and Cock Lane, mind (there are references to Teutonic poltergeists, Babylonian shades and the classical undead, but at heart this is very much a book about the British and even more so the English ghost). Even within that, it’s more a social history than a natural one. Clarke is keenly aware of the part class has played in Britain’s relationship with its spooks, especially as it intersects with religion – so Catholicism, with purgatory and exorcists, acknowledges the ghost; and Methodism’s early embrace of the spirit world comes as no surprise once you hear about the Wesleys’ own haunted house**; but the C of E has always had that very middle-class sniffiness on the matter. Consider the symbolism of all those spectral monks and nuns… There’s also a recurrent interest in the way historical hauntings often tie in to some aspect of female sexuality - most obviously this applies to poltergeist activity, generally found around pubescent girls, but Clarke also digs out the sexual aspects of the Victorian fascination with mediums, or the hauntings which were at least in part cover for illicit assignations and non-standard living arrangements. He never quite takes this as far as formulating a unified theory, which in some ways is a shame – but in others I’d rather have an intriguing collection of related suggestions than see them all hammered into a framework which more likely than not would only disappoint. And this is the book’s great charm – the fact that it has its own perspective, but not really an agenda. Clarke has the classic British attitude towards ghosts, in that he neither quite believes nor disbelieves (or maybe truer to say, he does both, at different times). He’s fully aware of the way rumour spreads, tales grow in the telling, and people convince themselves they saw/wrote/felt something years before for which there’s not the least evidence (there’s some excellent forensic work on the corruption of Machen’s ‘Bowmen’ into the Angel of Mons legend, and especially on the people who insisted Machen was himself working from some never-quite-findable eyewitness account). Not to mention outright fraud - he’s perfectly willing to accept that several of the famous stories known to every aficionado of the supernatural were fakery. And yet, as he points out, just because fakery has been proved, doesn’t mean it was all fake (I’m reminded of that greatest Carnacki tale, where there’s both proto-Scooby-Doo fakery *and* a real phantom). Anyone can turn out a debunking jeremiad, or a heap of woo for the credulous; crafting something either faction can read with enjoyment (or more likely, but just as praiseworthy, something which will irk both parties) takes a lot more skill. (Quite incidentally – after reading sections of this some years ago, it’s now the first book I’ve ever finished as a library ebook. And if nothing else, the One Click Digital app has lovely page-turning animation) *It would be tempting to mention the standard MR James protagonist here – but Clarke makes a convincing case that they’re not the self-portraits for which they could be taken, often making foolish mistakes in Latin translation or similar which mark them out as, by James’ standards, barely educated. Of course, Clarke does then himself refer to one of James’ best-known stories as 'The Casting of the Runes’, so. **Clarke loves a celebrity link to a haunting, or an odd connection, especially when it emphasises the degree to which parapsychology was at times considered another perfectly respectable science. My favourite is that the same chap came up with the words ‘ectoplasm’ and ‘anaphylaxis’, as well as being behind the first helicopter.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Mark Maguire

    This was an intelligent and enjoyable study of 500 years of ghostly encounters and the psychology of folklore. The book was utterly compelling, and unlike other books on the subject, was written in a sober and considered style which "lifted the lid" on some of the 18th and 19th Centuries most notorious hauntings, and posited that "Hauntings" can be as much psychological as they can tangible. The book is organised into sections covering the Taxonomy of ghosts; pyschological theories of ghosts, an This was an intelligent and enjoyable study of 500 years of ghostly encounters and the psychology of folklore. The book was utterly compelling, and unlike other books on the subject, was written in a sober and considered style which "lifted the lid" on some of the 18th and 19th Centuries most notorious hauntings, and posited that "Hauntings" can be as much psychological as they can tangible. The book is organised into sections covering the Taxonomy of ghosts; pyschological theories of ghosts, an articulation of the Quantum Theory of ghosts, (a more advanced and considered variant of stone tape theory) and the significance of Living TV's "Most Haunted" and the service industry that has been fostered by the paranormal and those seeking to "monetise" the paranormal for commercial gain. The central narrative of the book is concerned with the evolution and democratisation of ghosts by century, and the effect that this has had on the rise and slow decline of organisations such as the SPR and parapsychology as an academic discipline. The Author also considers the psychological and political importance of Ghosts and the rise of the Spiritualist movement as a form of social protest, and the requirement for a belief in a better future and / or validation of the existing arrangements dependent upon where the subject was placed on the social scale. The accessibility to Ghosts and experiences of the paranormal was once the preserve of the Clergy; Spiritualist Meduims, and professional Ghost Hunters such as Harry Price. In line with the increased access, the content and form of the Ghost itself has changed from the religious iconoclast of the 16th Century; murderous and mischevious Poltergiest of the 18th and 19th Centuries, through to the "Residual" and "Intelligent Haunting" of the present Century. The Author cover's this evolution in great detail, and whilst the narrative appears critical of the camcorder-weilding glamour pusses whom run around screaming in tunnnels and abandoned prisons, the unearthing of the catalogue of fraud and deception by the Clergy; Spritualists, and unscrupulous property owners of the 18th and 19th centuries suggests that the current mode of investigation varies little from the ongoing historical approaches to the paranormal, only this time, aided and abetted by technological advances and watched by millions worldwide. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and I have personally learnt a great deal from the central narrative, and the evolution of the concept of the Ghost by century and social class.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Kathleen

    First, I should note that I received a free copy of this book via a Goodreads giveaway and St. Martin's Press, and that this does not influence my review. I love ghost stories and was intrigued by the idea of examining belief in ghosts, the way people's perception of ghosts has changed over time, and the methods they have used in attempts to contact ghosts. Clarke is more inclined to believe than I am (yep, I'll admit I'm a skeptic), but his research is solid, his knowledge of the subject is exte First, I should note that I received a free copy of this book via a Goodreads giveaway and St. Martin's Press, and that this does not influence my review. I love ghost stories and was intrigued by the idea of examining belief in ghosts, the way people's perception of ghosts has changed over time, and the methods they have used in attempts to contact ghosts. Clarke is more inclined to believe than I am (yep, I'll admit I'm a skeptic), but his research is solid, his knowledge of the subject is extensive, and he doesn't ignore or gloss over evidence of fakery or natural explanations when they crop up in the cases he examines. Throughout the book, he shows that he means what he says in the first chapter: this book isn't about proving or disproving the existence of ghosts, but about the way people perceive and interpret ghosts and the way they subsequently tell stories about them. And sometimes Clarke's most interesting observations regarding people's fascination with ghosts can be found in stories that were fiction from the beginning. A good example of this is his discussion of the Angels of Mons, which began as a short story by Arthur Machen about ghostly English archers from Agincourt protecting the troops during World War I. Clarke contrasts this hopeful, patriotic story from the beginning of the war with that of the U-Boat U65, which presents a darker, more cynical view from the end of the war. I found Clarke's writing style to be compelling and even dryly funny at times (Here I feel I must mention his end-note nods to Warehouse 13 and Dan Aykroyd's inspiration for Ghostbusters; I also love the phrase "Victorian flashmob" and think it would make an excellent name for a band). Clarke is a good storyteller, and I also appreciate his clear affection for other good storytellers. I especially enjoyed his mentions of M.R. James and his discussion of the story that might well have been the inspiration for Henry James's The Turn of the Screw. I do have a nitpick of criticism. A little tangential information is good, but I think Clarke occasionally packs too much of it into the book, ultimately distracting a bit from the main subject. He also sometimes packs more info into his discussions than he has room to fully explore. I wish the book were longer, because that would allow Clarke to unpack and further analyze some things he mentions briefly that I think would be fascinating to look at in depth. On the whole, though, I very much enjoyed this book.

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