A Natural History of Ghosts - a review
Roger Clarke presents an intricate, deeply engaging and beautifully-written examination of the 'most haunted' history of England. Review by Ally Wilkes.
Roger Clarke has a personal history with ghosts, and this book is a wonderfully entertaining examination of all aspects of supernatural encounters, focusing on England as having “more ghosts per square mile than any other country in the world.”
His opening anecdote about a childhood house with a sensed presence on the upper landing (“there was a dead woman at the end of the passageway. I never saw her, but I knew she was there”) will feel pleasingly authentic to anyone who’s ever spoken to family and friends about whether they’ve ‘seen’ a ghost. It’s this experience which kicks off Clarke’s ghostly coming-of-age – as a teenager, he corresponded with many authors writing on the subject, and at fourteen became the youngest member of the Society for Psychic Research. His evident life-long fascination with ghosts – and what it means to ‘see’ one – makes this book feel richly-textured and intimate; not a recitation of spooky tales, but an exploration of all of our personal histories with ghost-belief.
The book takes a pleasingly down-to-earth stance on whether ghosts exist or not, making the very obvious (but often overlooked) point that “in a basic sense, ghosts exist because people constantly report that they see them.” England’s first ‘celebrity’ ghost-hunter, Harry Price (who we meet several times in the course of the book) says dryly: “The tea-party question, ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ is one of the most ambiguous that can be asked, but if we take it to mean, ‘Do you believe that people can sometimes experience apparitions?’ the answer is that they certainly do.” Clarke, of course, has conducted ghost hunts of his own: he presents us early on with a rather creepy account of an overnight vigil in the haunted bedroom at Sawston Hall, complete with the sound of a child’s ball bouncing, and a tape which, when played back, contained three notes on a woodwind instrument and ‘backwards’ sound waves – impossible in nature. The tape was then destroyed, perhaps creating the ghost of a ghost.
The book delves repeatedly into attempts through the ages to prove or disprove the existence of ghosts, from the pleasingly down-to-death attitude of Eleanor ‘Nora’ Sidgwick of the Society for Psychical Research, who was troubled by why ghosts wore clothes, to the modern research into infrasound (the famous 19Hz wave which causes disturbances in the eye) and the Koren or ‘god’ helmet which uses an electrical current to induce the sense of a presence. As for the latter, Richard Dawkins famously said that he experienced nothing – but perhaps he would, wouldn’t he? This technological examination takes us right up to the intriguing phenomenon of modern-day accounts with the hallmarks of creepypasta: ghosts communicating through spellchecker programs, and silent calls from people buried with mobile phones in their coffins.
What elevates this book so far beyond similar texts is Clarke’s gorgeous, spare, and utterly engaging writing style. The first location we’re taken to is the Tower of London, introduced with the blunt declaration: “The Tower of London is and was a death zone”. A night-time visit to the Bloody Tower finds the author uneasy: “I kept looking at the door. It seemed about to open, all the time. So much of the ghost story is the anticipation.” This sense of anticipation comes into play whenever Clarke embarks on one of his beautiful long-form narratives about a particular location or haunting: each one is conjured with cinematic precision.
So the tale of ‘The House That Was Haunted To Death’ (a lost Tudor house in the grounds of what is now Hinton Ampner) starts with Mary Ricketts, the woman at the centre of the story, coming to stay: “She rattled up the steep land past the church one day in January 1765. The line of lime trees she would have been driven through are still there, as are some of the oaks in the garden, now nearly 500 years old. Weather records for January 1765 in London and the south of England show bright mornings followed by fog and drizzle. The house would have seemed cold and dark after a journey from London, despite the fires having been lit in advance by their own servants from their London house, who had gone on ahead.” A similar immersive technique is later used in ‘Murder At The Parsonage’ to give us a perfectly pitched Raymond Chandler-esque introduction to the story of Borley Rectory, with the fascinating character of Marianne Foyster – the Widow of Borley – a con-woman and bigamist on the run from the English authorities.
The book examines several famous hauntings in considerable depth, and this is where the author shines. ‘The House That Was Haunted to Death’ is a masterful piece of long-form journalism which builds up a very convincing case for this being the ‘ghost story’ told by the Archbishop of Canterbury to Henry James that gave rise to The Turn of the Screw. It’s a classic ghostly tale, starting with slamming doors and the sight of a man in a ‘drab-coloured suit’ going past. It culminates in Mary Ricketts trapped in her room as someone tries the door from outside; a particularly modern-feeling overnight ghost watch; and the Ricketts family giving up the lease and fleeing the house – which was later demolished as it was said to be impossible for anyone to live there. Clarke examines all different accounts and sources in some detail to tease out the identity of the former steward (a thief who had risen above his station) who called to people from the window: a clear precursor to Quint at the window of The Turn of the Screw’s Bly Manor.
Clarke is clearly ferociously well-read when it comes to his subject-matter, and the book also addresses “the literary ghost story: England’s great gift to the world” which reached its apogee in the late Victorian and Edwardian era. He traces its origins back to the first formal English ghost story, Daniel Defoe’s 1706 A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs Veal. This is a quietly domestic story in which “a ghost comes round for tea”, but absolutely simmering with a buried gender-war aspect, and in its noonday haunting – which used to be a far more common way to encounter ghosts – perhaps a potential source of inspiration for any authors exploring the trend towards ‘daylight horror’ we see in the modern horror film.
I was also impressed by the quiet ingenuity of his (almost throw-away) explanation of why the tradition exists of the Christmas ghost story: house servants were traditionally hired at Martinmas (early November) and so young people would be spending that part of the year away from their families for the first time, in an unfamiliar and perhaps intimidating house. And in turning to MR James, Clarke gives the reader a beautiful commentary on O Whistle And I’ll Come To You My Lad, linking Jamesian horrors to modern stories such as Ringu, and making the delicious observation that had the protagonist been a better Latin scholar, he might never have blown the whistle – the inscription being more accurately translated not as ‘Who is this who is coming?’ but ‘What is this revolting thing coming towards me?’
Containing an absolute treasure-trove of spine-chilling stories, this book is a frightening read in itself. The disturbing descriptions in ‘A Kind of America’ of the Tedworth drummer, a poltergeist infestation caused by a vengeful vagrant, wouldn’t be out of place in the Conjuring franchise. The ghost-finder’s favourite horse is found in distress on the stable floor, its entire hind leg stuffed into its mouth, and the family is plagued by something invisible which crawls under one of the children’s beds, panting like a dog and emitting “a bloomy noisome smell”. Similarly eerie was the story of the U-65, with perhaps inevitable comparisons to Event Horizon: a haunted or cursed submarine which regularly tried to kill its crew, and added those it murdered to its roster of restless ghosts. The wreck was eventually found off Padstow, with no sign of explosion or damage from an attack – the aft hatches were open as if the crew had simply tried to escape. Beautifully, Clarke observes mid-way through the story: “The night crew was slowly gaining control of the ship”.
Clarke also takes a careful and nuanced approach to his examination of how class – in particular – mediates and informs the ghost story or ghost-encounter, wryly noting that it is the upper and lower classes who have traditionally believed in ghosts: “Your middle-class sceptic would say that toffs like ghosts because it is a symptom of their decadence, the plebeians because they are ill-educated”. There’s class conflict underpinning how ghost sightings by the lower classes have historically been addressed, going all the way back to the Cock Lane ghost of 1762 and the implicit fear in London high society of “the mob”.
Then there’s the mediumship boom of the late 1800s, which started with the working classes – imported from the Fox sisters of upstate New York by Darlington’s David Richmond, who was “an autodidact, self-trained, vegetarian, anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment shoemaker”. Echoing many familiar ‘ghost’ stories or Scooby-Doo mysteries, it was the firm belief of the Society for Psychic Research that the servants or lower classes were perpetuating ghost hoaxes (such as the Stockwell poltergeist) in order to cover up their own misbehaviour.
The zeal for (and methods of) disproving spirit-mediums takes on a particular dimension at the intersection of class and gender, and Clarke is alive to this: “professional middle-class men would… truss, strap, wire up, restrain and interfere with the flesh and clothing of lower-class female mediums… they checked their corsets, examined their hands, feet and shoes, poked, prodded and dominated them.” And I was particularly interested in the story of Daniel Home, a beautiful red-haired medium with a “poetic and fanciful manner and dandyish attire”, who was rumoured by his detractors to have been jailed in France for an “unnatural offence” and lived in an all-male household which existed in an “emotionally romantic haze”.
He was later sued by a wealthy female patron in a high-profile lawsuit, evidently for refusing her marital and sexual overtures. While Clarke rightly notes that it was common in the boarding-school mores of this time for men to be intimate with one another (although kissing and sharing a bed – some might say – is less ambiguous than is sometimes argued by modern commentators), it is possible to speculate that Home’s actual or perceived sexuality may have represented a further marginalisation within the tinder-box atmosphere of Victorian spiritualism.
In his closing chapter, Clarke returns to his opening remark about the per-square-mile density of ghosts in England and traces a short history of ghost-belief to support his thesis that this is “a form of decayed religion”, finding its English roots in the cultural persistence of Catholicism and the violent reforms of the late sixteenth century (as noted throughout the book, so many apparitions take the form of dispossessed nuns or ladies in black). The modern efflorescence of ghost-belief, and the presentation of ‘true stories’ about ghosts, can be traced back to 1848 with the emergence of spirit-mediumship and the publication of The Night Side of Nature by Catherine Crowe (herself a fascinating character).
Readers who are interested in the particular significance of 1848 will enjoy Merlin Coverley’s Hauntology: Ghosts of Futures Past, which examines this cultural context in detail. Even as Clarke bows out, he throws us startling observations worthy of a chapter in themselves, such as the 1930s commentators who saw a connection between the poltergeist and the rise of Nazism in Germany as “a force of inchoate destruction that fed on the energies of the young”. And he leaves us with this great and pithily-expressed summation: “We love ghost stories not just because they explain what happens at the end of our lives but because they take us to the beginning, and we reconnect to our childhood, pleasurably. The deliciousness of mediated fear is a great attraction, one that many do not want to grow out of. Secret ghost-belief is a pleasure, a thread of light back to our childhood selves.”
I suspect many who grew up – as I did – reading the Usborne Book of Ghosts under the bed-sheets will not only relate but will exclaim out loud with dread and fascination throughout Clarke’s text. Simply put, this book is a delight. And don’t forget to read the footnotes.
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