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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Unnatural history, 6 Feb 2013
This review is from: A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof (Hardcover)
Most of us secretly like to believe in ghosts - which, after all, offer spine-chilling excitement, mystery and the possibility of life after death. It seems natural then that, as Harry Price is quoted as saying, we prefer the bunk to the de-bunk, even if we admit that believing in ghosts is irrational. (Fewer could be more rational, by the way, than Albert Einstein: 'Even if I saw a ghost I wouldn't believe it').

In his Natural History of Ghosts, Roger Clarke occasionally hits the mark. He discovers a neat solution to the mystery of the ghostly centurion that haunted his childhood stretch of beach on the Isle of Wight, for instance - the area had apparently once been known as 'St Urian'. He also shows a neat turn of phrase: 'Belief in the paranormal has become a form of decayed religion in secular times: ghosts are the ghosts of religion itself'. His discussion of the Victorian flash-mob presents a colourful picture of entertainment-starved Londoners flocking in droves to sites of possible haunting, and he is particularly interesting when dealing with the sociological side of things (essentially, he claims, ghost belief is confined to the aristocracy and working class, with the middle class traditionally remaining resolutely sceptical).

The problem that Clarke seems to have in this book is that he is trying to do two irreconcilable things: maintain the frisson generated by the idea of supernatural phenomena while explaining them in a cool and dispassionate manner. He tells us that as a youngster he had been an avid reader of ghost stories and a keen hunter of spooks, eventually becoming the youngest member of the Society for Psychical Research. Occasionally, this former enthusiasm shows through. After a lengthy consideration of one case, he concludes that maybe the phenomenon was a ghost, after all.

He is quite right not to spend time debating whether ghosts exist or not. Ghosts exist, he argues, because some people see them. That ghostly phenomena may be no more than aberrations of brain function is not to deny their reality to the individual who 'sees' them. But despite often mentioning advances in brain science which might provide a key to understanding how ghosts are conjured up in the brain, he never really grapples with the nuts and bolts of neuroanatomy to explain precise mental processes. The book is consequently better in its parts than in its sum.
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Jon Chambers
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Location: Birmingham, England

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