June 9th, 2006


Here's number two ...

I really do try to get these reviews written as soon as possible after reading a book, so most of the details (and brilliant observations I've made) are fresh in my mind. Unfortunately, I finished up this one on the morning of the day we lost power here, and we didn't get it back for 8 days, so this is a little "staler" than I'd prefer. Oh, well.

Speaking of "stale" (oh, that's a cheap shot), Harry Price's The Most Haunted House in England: Ten Years' Investigation of Borley Rectory originally came out in 1940, with most of the material in the book amassed over the decade of the 1930's. Needless to say, it's almost as interesting as a "peek into the past" as it is for the ghost hunting! The edition in hand, of course, is from the 1989 "Collector's Library of the Unknown" series that Time/Life Books put out (with silver edges and purple bookmark ribbons). I subscribed to that series for a bit, figured that they were charging way too much, and canceled after 3 titles ... however, for purposes of "library continuity", I decided to read them all at a go, so they'd stay together on the shelf, with this being the second volume.

It helps to appreciate the milieu in which Harry Price operated if one has read a lot of Theosophical stuff. In pre-WW2 Europe there were many threads of "genteel mysticism" with Societies set up to study various phenomenon. The "ghost hunting" in this book is much more in this vein than the current "let's use infrared cameras and freak out at the slightest thing" TV genre. Price and his various collaborators took detailed notes, dutifully chalk-circling items on shelves, putting threads across doorways, and noting the appearances of even the tiniest markings on walls. It was all very scientific, of course.

The book focuses on the Borley Rectory, a rather large, rambling house supposedly built on the ruins of an old monastery. It seems to have been haunted by at least one ghost, purported to be the spirit of a nun, and possibly by some additional spirits of later owners of the house. Despite all the "research", the best information that Price & co. got seems to have been from a series of seances in which they communicate with these spirits (although the "most dramatic" material is the scrawled messages on the walls, and the many "poltergeist" phenomenon reported). Now, these days "seance" materials would be likely rejected out of hand as "evidence", but the approach was much in vogue at the time.

What I found quite frustrating in Price's accounts was that they never took action to even attempt to meet the spirits' requests. Again, the "Nun" was the longest-reported haunting, and their research indicated that she'd been killed and buried in a shallow grave in a particular place outside the house. Both the wall scrawlings and the seance materials ("knock once for yes, twice for no" sorts of things plus a tiresome run-through-the-alphabet thing to have stuff spelled out) indicated that this spirit was simply looking for a proper Catholic burial service, but it didn't seem to occur to anybody to go about arranging for this to be attempted! At the end of his 10-year investigation, Price seemed to pretty much wash his hands of the project, only returning after a fire gutted the house some years later (and even then there was no attempt to put at least that one spirit to rest).

Oddly enough, it seems that most of the poltergeist phenomenon were due to the ghost of one of the house's previous owners, who had himself dedicated quite a lot of time to researching the ghosts! While I'm no expert in this particular genre, it would seem to me that the later ghost was trying very hard to draw attention to the plight of the earlier spirit, and BOTH of them could move on if they'd just rung up the local Cardinal's office and requested their best "minister to the disincarnate" to come out and have a go with some Latin, incense, and holy water!

Anyway ... I guess this is a "classic" of the ghost-hunting genre, and if it's your thing, you'd probably like it quite a lot ... if it's not your thing, your mileage may vary ... I found it interesting enough as a "time capsule" from a more genteel era that it seemed worth the reading. The Most Haunted House in England is, not surprisingly, out of print, but copies of this edition are available via Amazon's new/used vendors for as little as $2.99 ... which is about 1/10th of what I paid for it (if I'm recalling correctly) new ... and "new" copies are out there for not much more, if you want it in tidy shape.

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While I'm at it ...

Like the previous review, I've been done with this book for over a week at this point, so some of the "immediacy" of my reactions to the book have faded. However, this, too, has its "quaint" moments. Frankly, reading Louisa E. Rhine's Hidden Channels of the Mind, I couldn't shake the images of the first GhostBusters movie, as in this book she assumes that by now every major university would have a Parapsychology program like that which her husband had set up at Duke. If the name is familiar, it's because J.B. Rhine developed the "Zener" cards as perhaps the classic lab experiment for ESP. While Parapsychology is recognized as a science by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, it's hardly generally recognized as such, and the stance taken by Louisa Rhine in this 1961 book (in which Parapsychology is discussed as an "emerging science" akin to, say, Robotics) seems "long ago and far away". Frankly, I wonder "what went wrong?", but fear the answer is that Psi did not translate sufficiently well to the laboratory to make it supportable in the halls of academia.

Unfortunately, Hidden Channels of the Mind is neither a provocative look at ESP/Psi, nor is it a particularly rigorous look at the phenomenon, but seems to float in a middle ground, with a formal structure, but heavily based on unattributed "stories", many of which reminded me of those Angel books I read a month or so back! I hate to just walk you thought the contents page, but "cherry picking" some highlights might well be the best way to show where the author was going in this book. She discusses "Types of Extrasensory Perception", divided into "from other minds", "from mindless objects" and "from the future", then looks at the "Forms of ESP Experience" which she splits into "realistic", "unrealistic", "hallucinatory" and "intuitive". A section looks at space and time, another looks at the difference of how men and women perform in lab tests, and another looks at performance across various age ranges ... again, these would be a lot more interesting (to me at least) if they focused on the lab results, but they're primarily stories of so-and-so "seeing" such-and-such, but none in a lab setting. The second half of the book is largely set on precognition, with a whole section looking at whether one can or can not avoid "foreseen" events ... unfortunately, here too, the bulk of the "evidence" is tales of distraught mothers/wives wondering if they could have "done something" (or tales of them having prevented loved ones from "getting on that train", etc.) ... needless to say, this sounds pretty weak nearly fifty years down the road.

This is not to say that the book is not worth a read, it's just not the book I'd hope it would be ... if the Rhines had taken the "scientific rigor" that Hynek applied to his UFO studies, ESP might have had a more solid foundation to grow on, but if all their work depended on the sort of "evidence" that's presented here, it's understandable why Parapsychology sort of faded away as a "respectable" field of study!

While this one is officially out of print, the Amazon new/used vendors have "like new" copies available for under a buck ... and given that these are such swank editions (silver edging, purple ribbon book marker, etc.), you might want to snag one just for the heck of it.

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