by Roger Clarke

5 stars

Roger Clarke has to be the most well-placed person to write a ‘natural history’ of ghosts. Haunted as a child, he became the youngest ever member of the Society for Psychical Research. The subject has been a matter of fascination for him ever since, and he has remained a keen investigator to this day. A Natural History of Ghosts gives detailed accounts of famous hauntings. They range from ancient ghost stories, through the Victorian passion for séances, to the modern ghost investigation – which is not new at all, but began with famous faker Harry Price, who pioneered the live ghost hunt on radio in the 1920s – coming bang up to date with TAPS, Most Haunted and Ghost Adventures. An attempted taxonomy details different kinds of ghosts: the ‘stone-tape’ type, doomed to go through the motions over and over and over again, who seem to be mere recordings in time. And the far more chilling kind, who speak and interact, intelligently, with the living and their fellow dead, like the – still unexplained – Enfield poltergeist.
Clarke tries his hardest to maintain a dry and sceptical look at hauntings, ancient and modern, but cannot help observing that ghosts are certainly real; ghosts have been and continue to be experienced and documented across time and space, and the only debate is, what are they, really? Are they all figments of the imagination or out and out fakes? The actual spirits of the dead? Or a phenomenon that is, as yet, unexplained? Sadly, Roger Clarke has no answers, and provides no conclusions, either, he simply delivers pure information with which we must make up our own minds. As the sceptical George Bernard Shaw told Henry James that, “No man who doesn’t believe in a ghost ever sees one.” Maybe the truth is the other way around? That those who believe in ghosts, do so precisely because they have seen one.

Roger Clarke keeps his account objective, distancing himself personally, from what he is documenting. Personally, I would have enjoyed a wee bit more personal input and opinion from a man who, above almost all other authors, is best placed to give an informed opinion. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this book is that it is never in the least bit dry. Roger Clarke is a natural writer and story teller. This is a smooth, easy, fascinating read to anyone with the slightest interest in the subject, and very highly recommended indeed.