Here’s my choice of other key books that floated my folkloric boat during 2012:
The Legend of Spring-heeled Jack: Victorian urban folklore and popular cultures, by Karl Bell (Boydell Press). As readers of my blog will know, the mysterious figure of Spring-heeled Jack has fascinated me since childhood when my grandparents told me stories about a ghostly figure with ‘springs in his boots’ who terrorised the streets of 19th century Sheffield. With this book Jack, in all his many and varied incarnations, can take his rightful place alongside Jack the Ripper and Sweeney Todd in the annals of the great Victorian bogeymen. Before recent research by scholar Mike Dash and others, Spring-heeled Jack had what author Karl Bell describes as ‘a very threadbare historiography’ beset with elaboration, distortion of contemporary sources. Bell is a senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth with a particular interest in the cultural and social history of Britain from the 18th-early 20th century. His previous book The Magical Imagination (Cambridge University Press 2012) prepared the ground for this meticulous examination of a quintessential supernatural entity who continues to haunt the popular imagination almost two centuries since his appearance in Victorian London. Caveat emptor: this is a serious piece of academic writing and if you seek out this text be prepared to stick with it – the journey will be well worth the effort.
Oliver Sack’s Hallucinations (Picador) is an enthralling exploration of the range of visions and ‘apparitions’ experienced by human beings that are often dismissed as delusions or symptoms of insanity. Neurologist Sacks concentrates his attention upon what he calls ‘hallucinations in the sane’ : phantom limb syndrome; the smells, musical notes heard and visions experienced by those who suffer from sleep deprivation and disorders such as epilepsy, migraine and Parkinson’s disease; and ‘supernatural’ visions such as ghosts, night hags and religious visions that provide the foundations for folklore and belief legends. His sources are the best ones: the testimony of his own patients, friends and correspondents and the rich corpus of 19th century medical records that provide the earliest accounts of some rare conditions. Along the way he describes the visions he experienced during experiments with hallucinogenic drugs, including one conversation with a talking spider. On another occasion, whilst withdrawing from a dose of the sedative chloral hydrate on a bus in New York, he found himself surrounded by aliens with egg-shaped heads and insect-like eyes. This gripping history of hallucinations is the ideal present for anyone who struggles with the delusion that we live in a mundane reality.
Roger Clarke (no relation) grew up in a haunted house and, much like myself, began writing about strange phenomena from an early age. In 1981 he was the youngest person invited to join the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) and his stories were published in The Pan and Fontana Book of Ghost Stories when he was just 15. Now a columnist for The Independent, Roger’s A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof (Particular Books/Penguin) is a highly readable guide to the evolution of ghost beliefs the west. Although not quite as comprehensive and authoritative as Owen Davies’s The Haunted (Palgrave 2007), it neatly summarises some of the key stories and controversies that have contributed to the modern obsession with ghosts and hauntings. The chapter on the Victorian ‘flash-mobs’ that gathered in hundreds outside haunted properties leads neatly into a discussion of the social aspects of belief and the modern phenomenon of Most Haunted. And his summary of wartime visions, that draws upon the contents of my 2004 book The Angel of Mons, explains how some stories, created by rumour and imagination, can become reality for those who believe. Literally, believing is seeing.
And finally, this round-up would not be complete without a mention of my own contribution to the literature of supernatural experience: my book for The National Archives, The UFO Files: The Inside Story of Real-Life Sightings, was published by Bloomsbury in September. Unlike other UFO titles it does not set out to browbeat the reader into believing we are being visited by aliens, or that anyone who sees something odd in the sky is deluded or mistaken. It reaches no firm conclusion but rather celebrates the UFO experience, as collected by the incumbents of the British Government’s ‘UFO desk’, as a piece of neglected social history. First published in 2009, the second edition has been updated with a new chapter and special ‘UFO files’ that summarise the highlights of tens of thousands of Ministry of Defence documents opened during the past three years. The transfer of the MoD files to the archives in Kew is scheduled to end in 2013 so keep watching this space for news of the final instalment of what have become known as ‘Britain’s Real X-Files.’