Books reviewed by SPR reviewers
The subtitle does not reflect the analytical approach taken by Gordon Rutter, who replaces Melvyn Willin and Jim Eaton for the latest in David and Charles’s series devoted to ostensibly paranormal (or just plain weird) photographs. Rutter uses his technical knowledge to try to determine the issues at play in a given image, and supplies a reasonable, if not necessarily definitive, explanation for a surprising number of them. This should be helpful to people who find some anomaly in their own snaps, but will perhaps disappoint those expecting the supernatural to be displayed before them.
For as Rutter intimates – and can be confirmed by examples which reach the SPR’s Spontaneous Cases Committee – people are often rather optimistic in interpreting some oddity as paranormal. He covers issues such as orbs, condensing breath, camera straps, slow shutter speeds, pixel noise, pareidolia, and definitely not least, ‘photographer blindness’, which can catch the most consummate professional (always treat the claim “there was nobody else around when I took it” with caution, however sincerely made). Such explanations should help to educate photographers so that they can rule out the normal before proclaiming uncritically that they have evidence of the paranormal. This will surely save psychical researchers some time (though orbs seem remarkably resistant to patient explanations featuring the effects of flash on dust particles).
Many of Willin’s examples were drawn from the SPR’s archives, and Eaton’s from his Ghoststudy.com website. Some of the images included here were passed to Rutter as a result of his talks on paranormal issues and his well-known interest in the subject, but many surfaced as the result of an appeal made as part of the Edinburgh Science Festival in early 2009 for photographs showing anomalies. The project was called Hauntings: The Science of Ghosts and was organised by Rutter with Richard Wiseman and Caroline Watt. The criterion for acceptance was that photographs were previously unpublished, either in print or online.
The response was enthusiastic, and thanks to the nature of the internet, international, with a large quantity, largely taken recently, sent in. Most were easily explained, but there was a small percentage which warranted further investigation. The hundred best were posted online and comments invited, leading to a huge number of hits and an impressive degree of debate, sometimes to a high standard. There was a voting mechanism, with the four options being: genuine ghost, normal explanation but not faked, fraud or uncertain. Totting up the 300,000 votes cast, the five images which voters found most convincing were chosen, and these appear at the end of the book. A summary of the research was given by Wiseman at the SPR’s 2009 conference at Nottingham.
As one would expect, images cover a wide range of effects. Orbs/lights and mobile phones have their own sections, and there are plenty of ghostly figures and faces appearing as extras. Historic locations feature extensively, unsurprising given the number of photographs taken at them. One odd inclusion is the old picture of a small girl in a gingham dress which seems to show a strange little face peering over a wall. This is not quite the same image as the one which can be seen on the Science of Ghosts website. Rutter explains that there were two photographs, one taken after the other. The earlier one is in the book, the one on the website was taken moments later. The one in the book was used presumably because the girl is looking down, and there is no need to superimpose a large oval over her features to shield her identity, as in the website one in which she is looking at the camera,. But in the book there is a red circle to show where the ‘face’ looking over the wall is, and it is in the wrong place, being positioned well in front of the girl, rather than just behind her. As the whole photograph is included in GCOF3, the salient detail is hard to see, especially if the reader is looking in the wrong place. The website version is cropped and the pixieish ‘face’ is much more obvious as a result. It does not appear to be a chance configuration of light, shadow and leaves.
You would think, given the length of photography’s history, and in particular the stupefying numbers of images unleashed by the digital revolution, that there would be a vast supply of convincing examples of the paranormal captured by the camera, and authors would be spoilt for choice. But having looked at all four of David and Charles’s Paranormal/Ghosts Caught on Film volumes, many of those in the SPR’s archives including the ones collected by Maurice Grosse and Cyril Permutt, as well as samples of those submitted to websites, there are fewer decent ones than might be supposed. Rutter is naturally conscious of the problem of fakery on top of technological and cognitive limitations, and with Photoshop, and now phone apps, certainty becomes ever-more elusive. The books put out by David and Charles provide a valuable compendium, produced to a high standard, of historical and contemporary examples, but those taking an open yet critical approach who are hoping for photographic evidence for ghosts must wonder if it will ever be forthcoming. They can only keep looking.
Amberley have published another volume in their useful series of gazetteers, this one linking those two natural bedfellows, paranormal research and pubs. David Taylor is the founder of the West Midlands group Parasearch, and has a wealth of practical experience. Andrew Homer is joint national investigations coordinator for the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena and managing editor of its magazine Anomaly. They are both good communicators and in this book they look at over sixty pubs in the Black Country, providing a readable mix of folklore, archival research and recent investigations.
.An introduction gives a potted outline of the evolution of the pub and theories of ghosts, and is followed by a guide to haunted pubs in the area. These are arranged alphabetically irrespective of location, which is fine when reading straight through, but for field reference a geographical index would have helped.
The authors end with two non-pub appendices, one on local sightings of Spring-Heeled Jack, the other an intriguing phantom hitchhiker case from 2000. The whole is well illustrated and attractively presented, and will be of interest to residents and tourists alike. The term Black Country may not be the greatest marketing name, but Taylor and Homer have provided ample justification, if one were needed, to visit this part of the country and sample its attractions, both earthly and otherwise.
This is not a case book, and psychic detection arrives fairly late on in Robert Cracknell’s career. We begin at the beginning, in 1935, and trace his fractured childhood, including an unhappy period as an evacuee in Nottingham. After an abortive stint in the RAF he became a tramp, living on the edges of society. He had trouble finding a niche, and drifted for many years; as Colin Wilson says in his introduction, Cracknell falls into the category of outsider. This part of the book could very easily have veered into misery memoir territory, but Cracknell’s inner strength and lack of self-pity, plus a determination to learn from every situation in which he finds himself, allow him to write dispassionately about this period. The implication is that his challenging experiences assisted the development of psychic abilities, though he is adamant that these are possessed by all, not a select few, and what he does can be done by anybody.
Cracknell’s explorations of the psychic side of his life make for interesting reading. He tells us about the profound influence Meher Baba had on him, brushes with black magic, a meeting with the witch Alex Sanders, another with a security-obsessed Uri Geller, in love with his own celebrity. A visit to the set of Coronation Street to meet William Roache may have had a calming influence on the place, but clearly not enough, as there were still phenomena there for the Most Haunted team to investigate later.
Psychic detection is less prominent than is promised by the subtitle. There are confidentiality issues, but Cracknell concedes that police forces do not admit to using psychics. Unfortunately this means that there is no independent corroboration of his statements concerning his involvement (and the cynical sceptic will also notice the repeated references to his associations with downmarket newspapers like The News of the World and most notably The Sunday People). He hints that he has been involved in far more cases than he details, but it is unclear why he presents these ones rather than others, and to what extent the ones he does mention were materially assisted by his efforts. Since the police aren’t saying, it is impossible to assess his claims. Cracknell says that some of his predictions were lodged with the SPR but if they were, the files seem to have disappeared. Going by his own accounts here, the results are decidedly patchy, even though he claims something like an 80% success rate overall.
The section on Genette Tate, who vanished in August 1978, age 13, is brief and not particularly informative. After accusing Genette’s father John of abusing Genette, Cracknell says he was “astonished” that John Tate, who “seemingly had an alibi” for the time of her disappearance, was not charged with abuse. The “seemingly” suggests that the alibi was not a strong one, but in his book Genette is Missing, John Tate states that he was in Exeter that afternoon with his wife Violet, Genette’s step-mother. That seems fairly robust. Psychics, including Gerard Croiset and Nella Jones, swarmed all over the case, to the extent that the ubiquitous Colin Wilson contributed a chapter to Tate’s book specifically on the involvement of psychic detectives. Wilson was keen for Cracknell to solve the mystery as he was trying to place Cracknell’s autobiography for him and success would have guaranteed a sale. Business is business.
Wilson devotes rather more space to Genette in The Psychic Detectives than Cracknell does in his book. According to Wilson, Cracknell predicted that Genette’s body would be found within ten days, a prediction missing from Cracknell’s book. Cracknell also omits the information, which Wilson includes, that Violet told Cracknell that her husband was having an affair. This person, it transpired, was Genette’s step-sister, aged nine. John Tate confessed to the police and the story appeared in a Sunday newspaper in May 1980. He was not prosecuted, Wilson says, because of the distress already experienced by the family. Rather different times, one feels. In any case, Wilson is completely satisfied that Tate’s alibi for Genette’s disappearance was genuine, as must have the police. He does not mention Cracknell being involved in Tate’s confession, nor is there any reference to Genette having been abused, but in Cracknell’s version, Tate went to the police as a direct result of Cracknell being hired by the News of the World to reopen the case “some years later“, and confessed to abusing both Genette and her sister.
Melvyn Harris in Sorry, You’ve Been Duped says that almost five hundred psychics supplied information on Genette‘s disappearance, and the police had to deal with some 1,200 letters. He says that one of these individuals, left unnamed, came unbidden from Cornwall to Devon, and “shook like a leaf” at the scene of the abduction. This person said that Genette would be found in two days and the murderer caught the day after that. When these predictions failed to come to pass he disappeared, though later he claimed in a newspaper to have been called in by the police. Cracknell was on holiday in Cornwall when the story broke, so one does wonder if he was the person being described by Harris. Despite all this unsavoury hoopla, Genette is still missing.
Another claim concerns the Yorkshire Ripper. Cracknell says that following an eighteen month lull in murders he was having dinner with Colin Wilson and unspecified others. He told his fellow diners that there would be a final murder, after which the killer would be arrested. The eighteen month figure is wrong: Sutcliffe murdered Barbara Leach on 2 September 1979. The next and penultimate murder victim (others survived in between) was Marguerite Walls, murdered on 20 August 1980. She was not initially considered a Ripper victim as he had changed his MO. Sutcliffe’s last murder victim was Jacqueline Hill, on 17 November 1980. The gap between the deaths of Barbara Leach and Jacqueline Hill was not eighteen months, but was a considerable period. Someone would only think though that the Ripper had not killed in the interval if they were relying on newspapers for their information and missed the death of Marguerite Walls.
At the dinner, Cracknell said that the Ripper would murder again “very soon”, which, he says, is precisely what happened. Colin Wilson’s account in The Psychic Detectives is slightly different. Cracknell is vague on details, but Wilson dates the meal to November 1980, actually with the sales director of the publisher which had accepted Cracknell’s autobiography, and in his version Cracknell specifically predicted that the next murder would be in two weeks. It was actually six days, Wilson says. Melvin Harris has a chapter fittingly entitled ‘The Yorkshire Ripper and the Psychic Circus’ describing the contributions made by psychics to solving the case. Despite Cracknell saying that he will always be associated with the Ripper investigation, Harris seems to have missed him completely.
The longest chapter devoted to a case is that of the kidnap of the eighteen-year old daughter of Oscar Maerth, Gaby. This was Oscar Kiss Maerth, author of the repulsive 1971 book The Beginning was the End, which postulated that human intelligence was caused as a by-product of apes eating the brains of their fellows to increase their sex drive. The family lived in some style on the shores of Lake Como and Cracknell was flown out to try to help find Gaby. Cracknell says that she had been kidnapped six months earlier. He did not like Maerth, whom he found self-absorbed and selfish, pleading that he was not a rich man when he seemed to have substantial wealth. Cracknell says he provided pertinent information, though Gaby’s freedom was not obtained by his efforts or those of the local police, and she was released in rather murky circumstances.
Cracknell tends to be vague about dates anyway, but here he manages to get the year completely wrong. He says the kidnap occurred in 1980, but Gaby was abducted on 7 May 1982 and was released at the beginning of October, five months later. The report in the Times (4 October) said that initially a ransom of £2.2m was demanded but was later reduced to £550,000. A police source suggested that about £70,000 was paid, though an accurate figure was not available. Gaby claimed, somewhat implausibly one feels, that she had been kept drugged in a tent the whole time by her captors. As Cracknell suggests, there is surely a lot here that was never made public, but at least he managed to obtain a nice fee from the Sunday People for his trouble.
This is an expanded version of the autobiography published in 1981, Clues to the Unknown, but some of the text has not been altered since the first edition. We learn that Sue Blackmore is about to take her PhD, and Cracknell wonders if she will follow the sorts of ideas he propounds. The intervening thirty years have shown Blackmore following a very different path to the one that might have been predicted as she put the finishing touches to her thesis on Extrasensory Perception as a Cognitive Process. Uri Geller is referred to as a “relatively” young man, which he must find ’fairly’ flattering. Cracknell is pretty contemptuous of Gordon Higginson, president of the Spiritualists’ National Union for over two decades, but there is now no reason to withhold his name as he died in 1993 (not that his identity was difficult to work out). Cracknell’s hostility to the Spiritualist movement is repeatedly expressed, and from what he says it is mutual. He is an individualist, not suited to the constraints of a movement.
He comes across as a strong personality who has weathered adverse circumstances and emerged stronger for it. Whether he deserves the (presumably self-proclaimed) accolade of being the No 1 Psychic Detective Agency is an open question, as there is not enough here to be able to make an adequate judgment, and no opportunity to evaluate claims from competing psychic detectives who covet the top spot. Given the woeful track records of many psychics in crime detection, particularly considering the high stakes, it is wise to be cautious. But leaving aside uncertainty over Cracknell’s hit rate, this is a very readable account of one person’s spiritual journey.
As I was writing this review, news arrived of the death of Osama Bin Laden, hiding not in a mountain cave but in a suburban compound not too far from Islamabad. This is definitely one situation where accurate information would have been useful, but as far as I am aware, not one psychic detective – including Cracknell – made a firm, unambiguous and verifiable prediction about what was an unlikely location. In Renée Scheltema’s film Something Unknown is Doing We Don't Know What, Nancy Myer was asked where he was and responded that she would not answer on camera as it would get her killed, presumably by vengeful Al-Qaeda operatives, and Stephan Schwartz was surprisingly uninterested in such a project. Hard information derived psychically that made sense beforehand, and not retrospectively, would have been invaluable. An opportunity to demonstrate the existence of the blue sense lost.
Amberley Publishing continues its series documenting the country’s paranormal heritage. Ross Andrews contributes guides to Oxford and the Forest of Dean to add to his one on Cheltenham (reviewed for the SPR website by C J Romer). Andrews has a great deal of experience as a ghost hunter, including involvement with the Gloucestershire group PARASOC, and his enthusiasm is palpable. The emphasis in both these books is on presenting locations that can be visited, rather than accounts from anonymous premises, and they are organised into geographical sections making them ideal for the visitor with limited time.
The Oxford volume begins with a stroll round some of the city centre’s most haunted spots, including the site of the execution of the Protestant martyrs Latimer and Ridley, whose screams echo down history, the Sheldonian Theatre and Bodleian Library, and the Bridge of Sighs. The second chapter moves inside, taking in the theatres, a pub and an hotel. The third chapter is devoted to haunted colleges, and Oxford Castle has its own. A pair of chapters deals with miscellaneous Oxford ghosts and some further afield in the county.
Andrews notes that a lot of Oxford ghost stories hinge on town vs. gown, religion or the Civil War, so reading up on its ghosts is an opportunity to learn about the history of this beautiful city and the surrounding countryside. One gets the impression though that he has not personally carried out investigations here as the volume is free of case reports, with the stories being collected second-hand rather than resulting from local group activities.
The Forest of Dean volume is different in that respect. It covers mostly that part known as The Royal Forest Route, and unlike the Oxford book Andrews has first-hand experience of investigations in the area. Two chapters describe a variety of haunted locations in the forest, then one focuses on Littledean. Goodrich and Raglan Castles and Tintern Abbey have a chapter to themselves.
The meatiest section, almost half the book, is devoted to St Briavel’s Castle, which Andrews has examined extensively as a member of Phamtomfest, a non-profit group set up specifically to organise investigation there. He goes into considerable detail, outlining a wide range of phenomena. This is fascinating stuff, though it renders the book less useful for someone who wants a general guide to forest locations but does not have a particular interest in St Briavel’s Castle (and as he concedes, the level of detail provided may contaminate future reports). Both books conclude with brief sections of advice for the ghost hunter.
As with other Amberley guides the physical quality of the books is good, but the copy editing on these ones could have been tighter. Andrews writes clearly but the facetious tone does grate after a while. Both are well illustrated, mostly with the author‘s own photographs. If you want to have a handy and relaxed guide to the spookier elements of these places, Ross Andrews’ books are useful companions.
Authors of regional paranormal books generally fall into one of two categories: those who carry out (what in some cases can only be loosely described as) psychical research; and local historians who are strong on library resources but don’t have much if any primary material to share. Frank Meeres (author of Norwich Through Time and Thetford and Breckland Through Time, both from Amberley, as well as a number of books about other aspects of East Anglian history) falls into the latter category, and he has relied heavily on papers in the Norfolk Record Office, where he is a Senior Archivist, for his rather random look at strange Norfolk, a big county with a lot of strangeness in it.
The book kicks off with John Polidori, Lord Byron’s doctor and author of The Vampyre, who happens to have lived in Norwich for a while. Meeres wonders if elements of his novel could have been inspired by his time in the city, a plausible assumption. More substantial is the chapter on Black Shuck, though it adds nothing new to the subject, and does not mention Simon Sherwood, who has been collecting accounts for some years, and who gave a talk on ‘Apparitions of Black Dogs’ to the 2010 SPR conference. A chapter on witches gathers together a few stories from the area.
Ghosts are divided by location: essentially rural, urban, clerical and modern. This is a useful compilation for the casual reader, with many old standards, such as - to take a few at random - the Drummer Boy of Hickling Broad, Blickling Hall, the haunted bridge at Potter Heigham, the ghostly monk seen hanging at St Benet‘s Abbey (though Meeres does not include the information that it is supposed to be a cyclical ghost which appears on 25 May each year; I have been and found the place heaving, but Edric failed to materialise), and more. Raynham Hall is another old standard, but it is disappointing to see the Brown Lady photograph discussed without reference to the recent research which has shown that there is far more to the story than is contained in general ghost books, and with suggestions how it was probably faked. Accounts gathered by local historian W H Cooke are given their own chapter. There is no index, which makes locating a particular story can be awkward as it can be in one of a number of places.
Long chapters are devoted to the Snettisham and Syderstone ghosts. The former relies heavily on Rev. Rowland Maitland’s authoritative booklet, which is credited, and adds further information, but the latter, mostly comprising long screeds of correspondence, could have acknowledged its obvious debt to Eliot O’Donnell‘s Ghostly Phenomena and Haunted Places in England. By the way, if anyone wonders why there appears to be little reference to the Snettisham Ghost in the SPR’s publications (despite Alan Gauld calling it "famous" in an article on Andrew Lang, who covered it in his The Book of Dreams and Ghosts, as did Andrew MacKenzie in Hauntings and Apparitions), that is because (as Maitland notes, but Meeres does not), it was not called Snettisham, Norfolk when details were first published, but instead Meresby, Suffolk. It is Case P. 220 in Frederic Myers’s ‘The Subliminal Self’ in Volume 11 of Proceedings.
Meeres’ primary interest appears to be true crime, and there is a lot of it in the book. On occasion it can obscure any paranormal element - for example, we get quite a long narrative about William Suffolk murdering his mistress when she dumped him in 1797, and his subsequent confession is printed verbatim, but the payoff is merely three lines recounting an anecdote that some unspecified children in the 1980s, playing at the spot where the gibbet which held his body was supposed to have stood, saw a skeleton lying on the grass, but it had disappeared when they returned with their parents. Other stories similarly have a thin paranormal component, though they still make good yarns - an entire chapter on the non-paranormal babes in the wood ends with the information that one may still hear them wailing on dark stormy nights (nothing to do with the wind in the trees of course).
Frank Meeres has produced a nicely illustrated and enjoyable book, on its own terms, one which will be of interest to those seeking an overview of the supernatural in Norfolk, as found in its central archives. It will hopefully encourage readers to find out more about this beautiful part of the country, and perhaps to delve further into its rich paranormal heritage.
Amberley publish a large number of regional guides to the paranormal. Their website is at: http://www.amberleybooks.com.
Veteran ghost hunter Peter Underwood dips into his files and pulls together a collection of haunted gardens. Or rather, with the odd exception, a collection of rather nice buildings which have allegedly haunted gardens attached to them, the accounts tending to focus on the insides as much as the outsides. Underwood is skilful at interweaving ghost stories, indoors or al fresco, with local history, and the book will be useful to those with a general interest in the places, many of which are open to the public, as to those wishing to know about the ghost sightings said to have occurred in them.
Gardens often have an uncanny quality so it does not seem surprising that they should be associated with ghosts. Thirty-seven are included here, the majority in England, but several in the other home countries, a few on the Continent, three in the USA and singletons in Jamaica and Singapore. In general there are no huge surprises. Some are better known than others, some very well indeed, and none more so than Borley Rectory, which is included even though there is nothing new added to the story and nothing left for the pilgrim to see. Entries are in alphabetical order irrespective of country, rather than grouped geographically. The book is well illustrated, mostly from the author’s own collection.
There is a distinct sense of recycling material from previous books, but Underwood always writes well and seems to have known a lot of interesting people, often of an elevated social class, with a huge fund of anecdotes between them. The text is more detailed than is sometimes the case in books of this type, and the whole is attractively packaged by Amberley, making Hunted Gardens a pleasure to read. It is well worth having to hand if you intend to visit, as Underwood is knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and his book will inform you about a place as much as about the ghosts that walk there.