a_natural_history_of_ghostsGhosts have haunted us, it seems, for as long as we have been able to worry about the afterlife. The ghost of Achilles wails to Ulysses, “I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground, than king of kings among the dead.” Nowadays even our computers’ spellcheckers may be haunted, at least according to a footnote within “A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof” (Particular Books) by columnist Roger Clarke, who grew up in a haunted house and was the youngest person ever to be invited to join the British Society for Psychical Research. In 1998, the SPR investigated the case of a report being typed about a particular ghost named Prudentia, and the spellchecker highlighted the name and suggested that “dead,” “buried,” and “cellar” be considered for alternatives. Ghosts, you see, go through their fashions as much as do we living. This ought to tell us more about people than about ghosts, and Clarke’s book is a wonderful entertainment, with plenty of spooky stories, frauds, pranks, impossibilities, and seemingly inexplicable events. Clarke is obviously fascinated with his subject, and is able to convey the fascination. He has a good reporter’s distance on the stories he covers here, with an appropriate skepticism that makes the tales more, not less, fun.

Before investigating what ghosts do, it might be best to consider the big question: Do ghosts exist? You won’t get an answer here because Clarke is dismissive of the question, one that he says belongs in a London of the nineteenth century. “In a basic sense,” he writes, “ghosts exist because people constantly report that they see them. This is not a book about whether ghosts exist or not. This is a book about what we see when we see a ghost, and the stories that we tell each other about them.” The most famous of the ghost stories told here is that of the Cock Lane Ghost, referenced plenty of times by Dickens and even by Melville in “Moby Dick”; Hogarth included a reference in his picture “Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism: a Medley.” Part of the reason for its fame is that Samuel Johnson himself was on a committee to investigate the ghost, and his committee spotted a hoax, but not before what Clarke says was the first ever media circus. The other famous haunting covered here is more recent, one that continued into the twentieth century: Borley Rectory, often called “the most haunted house in England.” One of the reasons it was called that is that Harry Price, an investigator within Clarke’s Society for Psychical Research, made it so. Price was sometimes a diligent and serious investigator, and sometimes a promoter of belief in the supernatural beyond what the evidence showed. One of the ways people used to celebrate ghosts was by what we would call now “flash mobs.” In 1868, for instance, a body was fished out of the Thames, and before an inquest could be held, rumors spread that the body was walking all around the churchyard at night. “In consequence, an estimated two thousand people congregated nightly outside. Efforts by the vicar and parish officials to disperse the crowd were entirely in vain; as the police arrived, one James Jones, aged nineteen, climbed up onto the railings and shouted at the murmuring, agitated crowd, ‘Don’t go – there it is again – there’s the ghost!’ He was promptly arrested.”

Clarke examines the haunting of Hinton Ampner, which may have inspired Henry James’s story “The Turn of the Screw”, the Victorian craze for seances, the Angel of Mons that was (never) seen by soldiers in World War I, and the class-consciousness of ghosts (with headless Anne Boleyn haunting stately homes and highwayman Dick Turpin sticking to pubs). He has comments on the gadgetry now trained on catching ghosts, and on the television shows that promote such technology. Suffice it to say that the new ways of hunting for ghosts have failed to clear up conclusively even their existence. They have infested us living people for millennia, and my guess is that we have cleared up their mysteries just as much as we ever have or ever will.