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Review: A Natural History of Ghosts / Author: Roger Clarke / Publisher: Particular Books / Release Date: Out Now

Roger Clarke joined the Society for Psychical Research at just 14 years old, becoming its youngest ever member. He also had the guts, at the impressionable age of 19, to sleep in what is allegedly the most haunted bedroom in England (in Sawston Hall in Cambridgeshire, where he heard a gentle but inexplicable knocking. Get me out of there!). All of which makes him the ideal person to pen this book, whose purpose isn't to debate whether or not ghosts exist but to discuss “what it is we see when we see a ghost, and the stories that we tell each other about them.”

What emerges isn't so much the natural history of ghosts promised in the title as a fascinating social history. Clarke explains how unquiet spirits originally enjoyed some status as a bona fide part of the religious order (souls in purgatory, smelling of sulphur) but then got demoted to the margins of folklore with the suppression of Catholicism in this country. Many hauntings seem to have been the result of mischievous servants playing pranks on their masters and mistresses, or using blood-curdling yarns to explain away strange noises that in fact had more to do with them hopping into bed with each other for a bit of after-work hanky-panky. Moving on, Clarke also looks at the recently uncovered phenomenon of ghost-hunting flashmobs in 19th century London (one theory being that pickpockets incited these to generate opportunities to ply their trade), and shows how the seances of the late Victorian period provided scope for women to emerge on the cultural stage, before bringing the story up to date with tales of haunted mobile phones, spell-checkers and suchlike.

By the time you reach the end of this exceptionally well written and researched book, you'll probably be none the wiser as to whether there actually is such a thing as a ghost, but you'll have learned a lot about the changing psychology of a nation. A small, attractive hardback with some nice illustrations, this is definitely worth considering as a Christmas present for the spookaholic in the family.


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