Fright Favorites, by David Skal

David Skal’s Fright Favorites: 31 Movies to Haunt Your Halloween and Beyond (2020) should perhaps more accurately be titled, 31 Movies to Which Turner Classic Movies Owns the Rights.  Skal compiled this for TCM, and as many notable horror films have been omitted, it is reasonable to assume he was limited in the pool from which he could pick.  Fortunately, he was still left with some excellent films, resulting in a selection of mostly established classic horror.  Nothing is covered in depth, but Skal’s commentary on each is insightful, and there is enough to encourage anyone unfamiliar with the films to give them a try.

Despite the subtitle, 62 films are included, as each major choice is accompanied by another, linked by the notion that ‘if you enjoyed — you might also like —’.  The primary films are listed in chronological order, from Nosferatu (1922) to Get Out (2017), but of the 62, only seven (11%) were released in the 30 years prior to the date of publication.  The book’s dedication identifies the target audience: ‘To monster kids of all ages everywhere.  (You know who you are.),’ suggesting Skal aspires to be the new Forrest J Ackerman.

The subsidiary titles have been chosen for their possession of thematic or stylistic echoes rather than because they are copies or sequels, and Skal has been able to cast his net wider.  The entries are very short, but he has come up with some intriguing connections, for example Cat People is paired with A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, not a film that would necessarily spring to mind when thinking of the Lewton/Tourneur collaboration.  It would have been useful to have had more of these extra recommendations.

The sales pitch pegging these films to Hallowe’en is odd as, apart from Skal’s introduction discussing Hollywood’s take on the season – titled ‘Halloween: a Hollywood state of mind’, as if Hollywood has the monopoly on its representation – there is nothing about the films that obviously connects them to it.  Certainly the end of October is a spooky time of the year and one might want to catch a horror film to get into the spirit of the thing, but as any buff knows, a horror film isn’t just for Hallowe’en (as Skal himself concedes).  The introduction lists a number of films connected to Hallowe’en, but none appears in the list.

For anyone wanting to read a handsomely-illustrated (its major pleasure) book with basic information on a mostly well-known set of films, this is ideal.  There are bound to be quibbles about what has been included and what omitted (the anglophone emphasis feels particularly parochial, and dated in an age in which foreign-language films are more accessible than ever before), but it is an inoffensive read for anyone who doesn’t know much about the genre and would like to obtain a quick grounding on possible choices for that late-night watch.

Fluent in 3 Months, by Benny Lewis

Benny Lewis’s Fluent in 3 Months: Tips and Techniques to Help You Learn Any Language (2014) gives tips on how to become fluent in another language, though the three-month figure is a little misleading as there are varying degrees of fluency, a term Lewis spends some time dissecting.  Fluency is not the same as mastery, and he is clear it is unlikely anyone would be able to speak at anywhere near a native level in that time.  Even so, it is possible to acquire a degree of competence and a solid foundation for further progress.  Sadly, for those who hope this is basically a shortcut to learning a language, Lewis stresses it requires effort to become proficient, whatever the timescale, though there are techniques to assist the process.

Lewis is a polyglot, able to speak a number of languages at different levels, so he knows whereof he speaks.  An engineer by profession, he runs a website dedicated to language learning and has published a several books on the subject.  His goal is to find ways to speak (and the emphasis is on speaking) languages more quickly and efficiently.  The internet has made it much easier than it used to be, when so many resources, not to mention native speakers, are readily available to assist the learner.

So, what’s the trick?  Essentially, his approach is one of immersion, having conversations in the target language from the first day, getting to grips with the language by doing.  Buy a phrase book, look at the basics, and have a go.  As an initial support, have some pre-prepared phrases to keep the conversation flowing.  Don’t worry about hesitations: native speakers are generally tolerant with learners, pleased they are making an attempt.  Lewis is not describing a novel method by any means, but one many learners do not adopt, preferring to undertake formal courses to get the grammar and vocabulary in place before trying the language in the real world.  Lewis is adamant this is not nearly as useful as plunging in, practising and refining as one progresses (and he suggests the typical experience of attempting to learn a language at school bears that out).

In Lewis’s scheme, such niceties as perfect grammar can come later.  The immediate aim is to get hands-on experience, not wait until one feels ready to unleash one’s learning on the real world.  Nor does one need to go to a country to pick up the language; in fact, Lewis moved to Spain at 21 and contrary to expectations found his language skill did not improve, mainly because he was being used as a free source of English conversation by his Spanish ‘friends’ and not speaking Spanish with them.  He believes it’s best to have had exposure to a language before visiting the country, and with the world at our fingertips these days, this is easily done.

Lewis is clearly at ease in company and not afraid of striking up conversations with strangers, a distinct advantage when following his guidance.  For those who are shy he has some brief advice, which is essentially to forget inhibitions and have conversations anyway.  That may be fine for some, but those worried at the thought of exposing themselves at an early stage in the learning process will probably consider his advice not terribly helpful, while acknowledging some degree of confidence and willingness to try is necessary for his method to work.

For those putting barriers up to justify past failures, Lewis emphasises several points: one does not need to rote learn, there is no ‘language gene’, adults can learn as well as children – in fact better – and a busy schedule need not be an excuse.  Suggestions are included to help those who complain of poor memory learn large quantities of vocabulary.  He emphasises that he could not speak a language other than English with confidence until he was in his twenties, when he adopted the approach he propounds in the book, so he is strong evidence for its validity.  His case studies of polyglots show them to be, like him, ordinary people with no innate talent, but a passion to learn.

His advice is geared to those who would want to use a language in practical situations, not those whose primary objective is to read in it.  But it isn’t either/or, and immersion in the spoken language would sit alongside more formal analysis of its structure.  Lewis downplays the need for formal study initially but there is a case for arguing that not bothering too much at the start will cause problems later, and he is light on any discussion of how difficult it might be to unlearn bad habits.  While he does not rule out formal courses, he points out there is no need to spend a lot of money on them, and specifically says expensive Rosetta Stone is effectively no better than a free equivalent like Duolingo, and the money saved would be better spent on one-to-one sessions with an online tutor.

Lewis has clearly been successful in his efforts, and he makes the case that if he can do it, anyone can, as long as they are motivated and commit to being an active learner.  He concedes his way is not necessarily the best for everyone, but claims many people have found it useful.   He may be right, yet the three-month tag unnecessarily oversells what is actually a straightforward way of getting to grips with a language.  However, there are lots of useful tips, whatever one’s preferred learning style and possible reservations about his approach, and his enthusiasm will give a boost to those reluctant to plunge in because they think learning a language is beyond them.

The Brain, by David Eagleman

David Eagleman’s The Brain: The Story of You (2015) was published to accompany a PBS television series, so it is an accessible introduction which does not delve too deeply into technical issues.  This is a fascinating time to be involved in neuroscience, and Eagleman provides an overview of what we are learning about the brain, and what discoveries may lie ahead of us.  The subtitle is important, because the book is not just about brain architecture and chemistry, it is about the interactions between the brain, the person who houses it, and the external world.

Six chapters pose a series of wide-ranging questions:  Who am I?  What is reality?  Who is in control?  How do I decide?  Do I need you?  Who will we be?  Together they allow Eagleman to combine a historical perspective with current findings in neuroscience to show how the human brain develops, and what distinguishes it from the brains of animals.  He looks at how we decide that ‘you’ are ‘you’ – the continuity of personality – and touches on the ‘hard problem’ of how consciousness relates to brain processes.

He addresses the complexity of the brain’s architecture and the way the component parts interact, with implications for the messiness (and not always optimal outcomes) of decision-making.  It is certainly sobering to know how inaccurate a record our memories are, when from the inside they seem so reliable.  In a sense, with separate sensory streams being integrated into an internal model that incorporates a degree of prediction, we each live in our own virtual reality.  Also, it is surprising how much of what we consider to be within our conscious control is in fact automated, with implications for our notion of free will.

The focus is not entirely on the self, as the brain’s network is connected to the wider social network.  Our relationships with those around us and with society more broadly are essential to an understanding of ourselves as individuals.  Hell may be other people, but we cannot do without them, and for a full understanding of the individual brain we need to consider the way it interacts with other brains.

Eagleman also asks where we go from here, as our knowledge of the brain increases and consequently our ability to manipulate it.  Technological advances will extend the reach of the brain in ways our forebears could not have imagined, allowing us to augment the range of inputs we possess; advances in sensory substitution that may be able to help disabled individuals regain lost abilities are already being explored.

Eventually it might be possible to upload consciousness into an artificial medium, potentially promising immortality of the personality.  However, while an expanded understanding of the brain, and its relationship to our emotions, can help to enhance both individuals and society, it increases the risk of control by sectional interests.  It is remarkable how much light has been thrown on how the brain works in recent decades, but where it will end is anyone’s guess.

Those with some prior knowledge may wish Eagleman had probed the topics further, and feel the treatment is at times simplistic, but the general reader curious about the brain will find this book a good introduction, and be stimulated to learn more about those three pounds of tissue we carry around on top of our spinal columns.  They will certainly end up amazed at the complexity of what goes on ‘under the bonnet’ to enable its owner to function.

The Haunted Vagina, by Carlton Mellick III

I opened Carlton Mellick III’s The Haunted Vagina (2006) assuming it was going to be a unique entry in the annals of psychical research.  Sadly, I discovered it is fiction, and that Carlton Mellick III is associated with a literary movement called Bizarro which is self-consciously whacky.  This entry falls squarely in that category, though despite the title it is merely risqué and not pornographic.

Weak-willed Steve is in love with his domineering Asian girlfriend Stacy, who likes to think she is creatively quirky even though she is frankly annoying.  She sleeps on clean laundry spread on the floor.  She did course after course right through her twenties until her adoptive father stopped paying the bills and she had to get a job.  She goes to restaurants but always orders something different from whatever they specialise in, like steak at a seafood restaurant.  She licks her spectacle lenses to clean them.  Of course, Steve is so enamoured he is in denial and feels these habits are a sign of cuteness, apart from the restaurant idiosyncrasy which even he finds irritating.

They move in together and things seem to be going fairly swimmingly, until Steve starts noticing odd noises, including voices, emanating from Stacy’s nether regions.  It is then she drops her bombshell, which Steve might have appreciated hearing before they had penetrative sex together: she says her vagina is, as the title indicates, haunted, though that turns out not be completely accurate once they delve further into the matter.  Stacy explains she has been this way since childhood, and even once had an imaginary friend who popped out of her vag.  She isn’t bothered by the situation, while Steve understandably is slightly more exercised, and it puts him right off his stroke.

The situation comes to a head when a skull pops out of Stacy’s lady garden attached to some kind of animated skeleton while Steve is pleasuring her ‘glowworm’, as she endearingly calls it.  It looks like there’s more going on down below than a mere haunting.  Stacy wants Steve to have a peep, and he seems to see a dot of light some distance along her hootenanny.  Stacy, most definitely the dominant partner in the relationship, persuades him to climb in so he can find out what is going on.  Lubed up and shaved for a spot of caving (spelunking rather than spunking, one might say), in he dives.

As he moves further inside Stacy he becomes miniaturised, and discovers that her bobbin is a portal to a self-contained world inside her.  As he explores, he sees a rather bendy pale woman with pink horns and latex-like skin named Fig living among more of those skeletal beings (Fig possibly refers subtly to D H Lawrence’s poem linking a fig and a yoni; or possibly not).  He has a bit of a poke around before returning, after a struggle, to the outside.  Stacy realises Fig was what she thought was her childhood imaginary friend.

Despite his harrowing experience, Stacy orders Steve back in so she can write about her unique physiology.  Investigating the world further, he finds an entire community of strange beings.  However, he is trapped by Fig who wants him to play with her, and eventually the environment’s atmosphere removes his skeleton, which takes on an independent existence, making him bendy like her.

While adjusting to his new state Steve is appalled to discover Stacy having sex with someone else who makes her pregnant, sealing his world in with the foetus.  Faced with this treachery, belatedly the scales fall and he comes to realise she had some annoying habits.  Acknowledging the origin of the place is a mystery, he eventually settles down with Fig, happy despite her alien ways.  He has a walkie talkie that hadn’t worked, but now he manages to make contact with Stacy to tell her he has ‘moved on’, which is putting it mildly.

The book is actually better written than the ridiculous premise suggests it will be, and the conclusion is surprisingly touching.  Carlton Mellick III has produced a lot of novellas with similarly odd titles, though this must surely be the oddest.  However, it is not quite as original as he probably thinks because it reminded me of an ancient joke, too filthy to recount here, the punchline involving a man with a horse and cart.

Leave This House, by Lee Brickley

Lee Brickley’s Leave This House: The Frightening True Story of the Birmingham Poltergeist (2022), is the allegedly true story of a poltergeist case he investigated in late 2021 at a house in Minstead Road, situated in the Gravelly Hill area of Erdington.  It involved a family he refers to as Evans, consisting of parents and two daughters, Maggie, aged 12, and Emily, aged 4.  Christine Evans was a primary school teacher, her husband John a building manager for a large company.

‘Celebrity supernatural expert’ Brickley received a letter from Mrs Evans who recounted how she had bought a wooden picture frame from a charity shop, and when she opened it to remove the backing card she found a sinister photograph inside.  She threw the picture in the bin, but the following morning found it was back in the frame in the kitchen.  Nobody in the family had done it, and when she threw the photograph away again, it reappeared in the frame once more.

Putting it in the bin outside merely resulted the next morning in finding the back door wide open and a trail of rubbish from the bin into the kitchen, with the photograph again inside the frame.  Even burning it didn’t solve the problem, as it still reappeared in the frame.  When it was taken to a different room it always found its way to the kitchen.  Bizarre as that was, it was merely the precursor to a range of poltergeist phenomena, such as bangs from the loft, scratching from behind a wall, and a penny rolling across the room.  Mrs Evans concluded by saying there had been other phenomena as well, and appealing to Brickley for help.

Immediately packing his electronic equipment, he drove over, and arrived during a spate of activity.  Barely had he got through the door when a bread knife flew past his face and embedded itself in the wall (which immediately puts one in mind of Caroline Mitchell’s 2013 Paranormal Intruder, also featuring flying knives), and a cupboard door repeatedly opened and banged shut.

Excited by such clear-cut manifestations, Brickley spent almost a fortnight in the house, and after his experiences there rates it as ‘arguably the most horrifying poltergeist haunting the British Isles has ever known.’  As well as the typical poltergeist bangs it featured the ghost of a little boy which was evading the ghost of the man whose picture was in the frame, not typical activity for a ghost.

The picture itself continued to resist disposal.  Brickley locked it in his car overnight, only to find next morning the back door was open, his car alarm was sounding and the doors, boot and bonnet were open.  Of course the picture was in the kitchen.  Another morning the alarm went off and Brickley found a brown substance had been smeared over his windscreen and the words ‘Leave this house’ scrawled in it.

Events quickly escalated.  Hearing screams, Brickley found Mrs Evans on her knees in Maggie’s room clutching her throat and ‘Leave this house’ scrawled thousands of times on all the walls (Brickley initially says the words were on the walls in Emily’s room, but that was presumably a slip).  Something, Mrs Evans told him, had tried to strangle her after the bedroom door slammed, preventing from leaving, and she had smelled a rancid odour.

She thought she had passed out, and when she came round the words were on the wall, having taken about a minute to produce.  It was clearly not a feat possible for a human.  Thermal imaging showed some kind of shadowy figure about six and half feet tall, resembling the figure in the photograph, rising up behind Mrs Evans and throttling her. 

Maggie was a focus for the entity’s attention.  She was found on her bed shouting she could not move, with her dressing gown belt taut round her neck.  More spectacularly, she was found levitating in the corner of her room, her head inches from the ceiling.  She began speaking in what sounded like an unknown language which when analysed turned out to be ‘Leave this house or you will die’ spoken at three times normal speed.  The family took to sleeping together in the living room.

Brickley brought in a friend, Mark Wells, an ex-priest and knowledgeable about poltergeists.  Belatedly they checked the loft from where banging sounds were emanating, and found a box bouncing up and down.  The photograph had gone missing earlier but, yes, it was in the box.  Wells immediately recognised it as a police mugshot and said he might be able to determine the identity of the individual through police contacts.  Meanwhile, taps turned on of their own volition, causing a flood.

Brickley and Wells agreed between themselves that Maggie was becoming possessed, despite which Wells whipped out a Ouija board and they had a family séance.  Maggie disappeared, and they found her under the floorboards.  When lifted, they discovered a hitherto-unknown cellar (subsequently filled in) with an occult painting on the wall.  Remarkably, Wells had had a vision of it in a dream before visiting the house.  As Brickley and Wells looked at it they thought they were experiencing an earthquake in the basement, but those above detected nothing.  Scratches appeared on Maggie’s body and she talked in tongues (if only they could have been made available for analysis).

Wells’s contacts in the West Midlands Police archive suppled a name for the individual in the photograph: Isaac Ellery, taken in 1853.  He was the first individual recorded in a UK police mugshot (that much apparently is true).  When the name was said, they found Maggie suspended in the air in a crucifix position.  Brickley and Wells tried to pull her down but were hurled against the wall with great force, before she collapsed to the floor and began channelling Ellery, who was a most unpleasant individual.

Contacted via Facebook following an appeal for information about Ellery, ‘Josh from Aston’ recounted a tale told by his grandfather’s grandfather, that when Ellery was transported to Australia for theft, his house was ransacked by locals and the body of a little boy was discovered.  The looters could hardly inform the authorities without compromising themselves so they moved the body before reporting it.  It transpires the Evans’s house was built on the very spot once occupied by Ellery’s shack.

The task now was to get rid of Ellery’s spirit from the house without the little boy he was so keen to seize, a task Brickley considered required a thorough cleansing.  Down in the basement a cross appeared on the floor, and on digging Brickley found an old tin that had been buried (at least he didn’t find the bones of a peddler).   He briefly saw the young ghost boy, now smiling.  Upstairs Maggie had been violently dragged around by her hair.  The tin contained a child’s teeth, perhaps belonging to the ghost boy.

The following day the cleansing took place in the cellar – after the adults had drunk alcohol – with Maggie snarling and growling before she and the chair she was sitting on rose in the air, and Wells and the parents thrown across the space.  Maggie had a fit and began to ‘glow brightly’, and when her chair crashed down she banged her head and lost consciousness.  Literally the only one left standing, Brickley, brandishing a crucifix, bravely told Ellery to go to hell, and peace was restored.

Maggie, bruised and scratched, was unconscious for four days and stayed in hospital for two weeks.  The involvement of Social Services in the case is not recorded, but she was suffering nightmares of the old man at the time of writing.  Wells suffered broken bones; the parents were unharmed.

Brickley discovered the name of the boy (not divulged here) and the location of his resting place.  He reunited the teeth with the rest of the remains (which were presumably deposited in a common grave), on the grounds that it was necessary if the child were to be at peace.  The photograph was returned to the police archives where it belonged, and Ellery, despite presumably having been cheated of his prey, created no more mischief.

The case raises obvious ethical questions because of the involvement of children.  Brickley regularly muses on the devastating and long-lasting effect the experience must be having on Maggie at such a young age, yet it is clear he handled the situation in a poor manner, and the parents, while desperately worried, were astonishingly negligent in not seeking medical help.

When she developed a feverish temperature, her skin turned a greyish pallor and she drifted in and out of consciousness, grounds one might have thought for an emergency, they were slow to seek medical advice.  Curiously, when they finally requested a home visit from their GP they were told there was no immediate danger but she needed to see specialists at Birmingham Children’s Hospital (we are not told what the diagnosis was, but it seems unlikely the GP was given the whole story).

Maggie was present at the séance, and channelled the old man in a gruff voice (shades of Enfield).  By the time events reached a climax, she was struggling to breathe, looked barely alive, and had scratches all over her body.  Brickley also interviewed young Emily, who provided information on the little boy, though fortunately she was eventually sent to stay with her grandmother.  Leave This House is a textbook case study on how not to involve children in an investigation.

So, the question remains: is any of this true?  It may be, but doesn’t feel like it, for a number of reasons.  The first is Brickley’s reputation.  Having established Cannock Chase as a hotspot bursting with paranormal phenomena he had already chalked up the discovery of signs of Bigfoot, black-eyed children and Slenderman.  Now he has recorded one of the most remarkable poltergeists on record.  Other investigators will be wishing they had a tenth of his success, because that is about what they can expect, if they are lucky.

Further, apart from the florid nature of the phenomena, which at times have the air of being derived from horror films, the psychology of the parents does not ring true.  They were acquiescent, putting themselves in Brickley’s hands to an extent that seems implausible, and failed to protect their children, particularly Maggie, who on this evidence suffered terribly.  Whatever one thinks of Caroline Mitchell’s quite similar experiences, at least she removed her family from the danger zone.  To say the Evans family could not remove Maggie because she was too poorly is risible when she became less well with every passing day.

Then there is the lack of evidence.  The presence of the type of data usually gathered during an investigation may not convince the sceptic there was a paranormal element, but at least it would have indicated there is a real case one can discuss.  Brickley says he was plagued by equipment failures throughout the investigation, and at the end of it found that, bar a couple of samples uploaded to the cloud, he had no concrete evidence whatsoever, as every electrical device in the house was destroyed during the cleansing procedure, losing all his records.  It feels convenient that the material has vanished so it cannot be assessed.  He does not say why he had not backed up all his files, and the omission at best makes one wonder about his competence.

There is also the issue of how the photograph triggered the phenomena (leaving aside its remarkable indestructibility), which only began when it entered the house.  Was Ellery aware Mrs Evans wanted a picture frame, and did he remove the photograph from the police archive and somehow get it into the charity shop so she would buy it and take it home?  Was it by chance Mrs Evans bought the frame, or was she manipulated into doing so, to allow Ellery to pick up where he left off a century and a half ago?  Ellery showed himself to be tremendously powerful, so why did he need the picture as a vehicle to return to the house now occupying the site of his old shack?  What was the mechanism by which the child was brought back to the house to be victimised once more?  The whole business feels very thin, and unsavoury, when one starts probing.

Brickley says the family want to put the experience behind them, understandably, but it means the reader has to rely on his word, without any supporting evidence.  Whatever one thinks of the Mitchell case, at least she and Mike Hallowell are definitely real people, whereas we cannot be sure about the Evanses.  At least Wells and Josh from Aston could step forward to demonstrate they exist: it’s not much, admittedly, but it’s something.  Wells would be able to confirm the book represents an accurate account without breaking any confidences, and there is no reason for his reticence.

Perhaps the Birmingham poltergeist as described by Brickley is completely true, and he has witnessed one of the most remarkable exhibitions of paranormal phenomena ever recorded.  But as it stands, without anything to back up his account we might as well be reading poorly-crafted fiction.  However, I’m willing to revisit this curious tale should any credible evidence emerge.

Investigating Ghosts, by Benjamin Radford

Ben Radford’s Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits (2017) is useful reading for anyone who wants to make a study of ghosts in real-life settings.  Such balanced treatments are badly needed in a landscape of amateur ghost hunting groups using methods that are shoddy and unlikely to obtain any worthwhile results despite significant investments in time, effort and money on the one hand; and armchair sceptics airily dismissing the entire business as unworthy of scrutiny on the other.  The book is divided into three parts: approaching an investigation, analysing evidence, and a series of case studies.

The first section contains practical advice on how to apply the scientific method in field research.  It starts with a brief historical overview in order to provide some context for the current scene.  There is general advice on conducting an investigation before a dive into common assumptions about the nature of ghosts, on the grounds that if one is looking for something it helps to have an idea of what it is (hint: it might not necessarily be the spirit of a dead person); what’s scientific and what is not in methods used to search for ghosts; and technology, discriminating between the useful and the pointless.

The second section looks at the different types of evidence proffered for the existence of ghosts.  A chapter examines the visual, covering the history of ghost photography and the assessment of anomalies in still and video images.  The attempt to capture electronic voice phenomena is also popular, and a chapter deals with issues regularly neglected by recorder-wielding aficionados.  Other chapters look at spirit writing and the drawbacks of claiming personal experience and intuitions as evidence of the paranormal.

The final section describes a number of cases in which Radford has been involved.  These include photographic and video analyses, and on-site investigations.  A lengthy account of one at Fort George in Ontario for a TV show (a pilot that was not picked up) demonstrates the difficult role the token sceptic plays among participants ready to jump to paranormal conclusions on slender evidence.  These shows inevitably prioritise entertainment over serious research, and Radford’s dissection should give pause to anyone who believes that what they see in a television programme is educational.

As the case studies indicate, Radford is not an armchair pundit.  He has been getting out in the field for over twenty years and has consistently applied critical thinking to the subject.  He employs a multidisciplinary approach to develop a dialogue between all sides of the debate in the hope of raising standards that are frequently woeful.  Ghost hunting groups are prone to adopting a ‘sciency’ (to use Sharon Hill’s term) approach, having the appearance of science – but not the substance – in order to bolster their credibility.

Radford takes a sceptical approach, while being careful not to rule out the possibility, however remote, that ghosts exist; he merely notes he has not found convincing evidence of their reality, but has found a great deal of error and amateurism, and a tendency to fall back on belief unsupported by credible evidence.  Unlike some pseudo-sceptics he is not an arrogant debunker, rather his tone is always respectful.  He is able to appreciate the efforts of sincere ghost hunters while finding their methods lacking, and he acknowledges the pursuit can be fun (though I would add it is often tedious), just not likely to generate any meaningful information.  Using the scientific method will yield results, but learning it requires a degree of effort enthusiasts are not always willing to make.

He points out that the subject has been tackled in various ways for decades, yet we still do not know if ghosts exist and therefore whether or not those who pursue this interest are wasting their time.  Perhaps, he argues, there is a problem in the way the topic has been addressed, with methods too often flawed, and an over-readiness to subscribe to paranormal explanations on shaky assumptions.  By insisting on a rigorous approach the spurious can be eliminated, allowing the focus to shift to possible evidence of the paranormal.  The alternative is the current muddle.

While this is not primarily a technical manual offering guidance on the nuts and bolts, Radford’s book will be of assistance to anyone who wants to conduct research in a scientific manner.  While most people in the field are amateur hobbyists, it does not preclude them from using the methods outlined here.  As for those making a lot of money out of their media interests, they should be upfront that while they may have set out to entertain (allegedly), what they are doing is not psychical research.

Radford could perhaps have been more succinct at times, but his points do bear repeating, especially as one does not have to look far to appreciate the level of knowledge among those interested in spontaneous paranormal cases can be depressingly low.  Unfortunately, it has to be conceded that those who would benefit most from his words probably prefer to obtain worthless information from media celebrities than sit down to read a serious book.

So Nude, So Dead, by Ed McBain

So Nude, So Dead was first published in 1952 as The Evil Sleep!  It had Evan Hunter on the cover, the name Salvatore Albert Lombino legally adopted the same year.  It was reprinted in 1956 as So Nude, So Dead under another pseudonym, Richard Marsten, and in 2015 by Hard Case Crime as So Nude, So Dead under the most famous name at his disposal, Ed McBain.  It was his first crime novel, and only the second of his novels to be published.

Ray Stone is a washed-up jazz pianist, hooked on heroin.  His life revolving around his next fix, his promising music career a distant memory, he will do anything to get drugs no matter who gets hurt.  He struggles to obtain the money he needs, even exploiting his own father.  Other sources, including his long-suffering ex-girlfriend, have dried up.  His prospects improve when he meets Eileen Chalmers, a nightclub singer and fellow addict who has 16 oz of heroin she is willing to share.

Unfortunately for Ray, when he wakes the following morning he finds she is, to coin a phrase, so nude and so dead, having been shot lying next to him during the night.  As nobody is likely to believe a hophead, no matter how hard he protests his innocence, he is obviously in the frame for the murder, presumably the reason his life was spared.  Perhaps worse, already suffering from withdrawal, the heroin is gone.

To clear his name and score a hit, he desperately runs around town, avoiding the cops who are out to bust him, his face prominent on the front pages of the newspapers.  He tries to discover what had happened while he was unconscious, all the while with the monkey on his back and no money (plus dealers understandably reluctant to do business with him) to get what he needs to scratch it.

To compound the difficulties, criminals want the heroin Eileen had and think Ray must have it.  Abduction and a savage beating add a further layer to his problems while another murder makes his job harder still.  A half-Chinese femme fatale takes his mind off his troubles for a while, until jealousy shows her to be unhinged.  He turns out to be a decent investigator, disguising himself in order to interrogate a network of suspects, gradually drawing the threads together to solve the mystery.  It involves worlds, both musical and drug-related, he knows only too well.

Ironically, having an absorbing problem to solve means that Ray can put his obsession with getting a fix to one side, helping him to go cold turkey.  As the days pass, his cravings diminish; in fact, rather than climbing the walls he is able to function normally to a surprising extent much of the time.  He suffers, but does not have the luxury of being able to fixate, if you will, on his next shot as he has too much on his mind.  His addiction is psychological as much as physiological.

Pacily plotted and evoking the grimy world Ray inhabits, the reader roots for him to sort out the tangled plot, kick the habit, and get back to fulfilling his promise as a jazz pianist.  His saintly old dad and lovely ex-girlfriend are clear indications of potential redemption.  We learn how he became a junkie, an occupational hazard of being a jazz musician exposed to harder and harder drugs, and while he has done bad things because of H, he is essentially weak but decent.

A talent in the making, the future author of the 87th Precinct series seems to have done his research to show how one can be enslaved by addiction, in the process damaging not only one’s own life but also many of those with whom one comes into contact, as well as supporting a criminal network comprising both low-level dealers and ruthless gangsters.  It is a cake-and-eat-it scenario, presenting the degradation, violence and exploitation that accompany addiction as social commentary, while shovelling it up for the reader’s voyeuristic pleasure.

Bundled in is another McBain, a short story titled ‘Die Hard’ (1958).  It features washed-up down-and-out ex-private dick Matt Cordell, who falls into an investigation he does not want.  A distraught man buttonholes him in a bar as he drinks his sorrows away, beseeching him to stop drug dealers supplying the man’s junkie son.  Cordell gives him a dusty answer, only for the old man to be gunned down outside.  Despite his initial reluctance, Cordell decides to investigate, and of course gets his man.

30-Second Brain, by Anil Seth (ed.)

Anil Seth and his contributors’ 2014 30-Second Brain: The 50 Most Mind-Blowing Ideas in Neuroscience, Each Explained in Half a Minute, covers a lot of ground.  However, the bite-sized format hinders understanding as much as helps because it is hard to put the 300-word sections together to form a unified overview of the subject.  Nor is the title really accurate, because while technically one can read a section in half a minute, comprehension may require rereading.  Do not think you will be done in under half an hour unless you possess some prior knowledge, in which case this isn’t really aimed at you.

Following a foreword and introduction, the book is divided into seven sections: building the brain; brain theories; mapping the brain; consciousness; perception and action; cognition and emotion; and the changing brain.  A glossary at the beginning of sections helps orient the reader to the content to follow.  The entries are pitched at a non-technical level, and with cross-references to related sections, but there is repetition where topics overlap, and no opportunity to delve in any depth.  It is useful though for dipping into if some areas appeal more than others.

As well as tackling the brain’s structure and functions, there is historical material to show how ideas of neuroscience developed.  Unfortunately, the one-sentence mini-biographies and timelines of some notable researchers are of little value and the space would have been better used to discuss their work. Similarly, the illustrations, while attractive, add nothing, and the space could have been more usefully devoted to text (but that is constrained by the 50×30 arrangement).  A short list of resources will help to guide the reader who wants to explore further.

In sum, the book could as easily have been called Neuroscience for Those with a Short Attention Span.  One comes away knowing something about the subject, certainly, but a straight narrative approach, sections taking as long as they need, would have been easier to digest.  It does though provide a useful foundation for anyone new to the subject.  The likely feeling on finishing will be a sense of awe at the sheer complexity of the brain, how much is crammed into such a tiny space and what it is capable of: the brain certainly is mind-blowing.

The Following Story, by Cees Nooteboom

Cees Nooteboom’s 1991 novella The Following Story divides into two halves.  In the first, Herman Mussert, who had taught Classics until his sacking for involvement in an unseemly incident and is now scratching a living writing travel guides under a pseudonym, wakes up in an hotel room in Lisbon, though the night before he had fallen asleep in his own bed in Amsterdam.  He recognises the room as one in which he had had sex with a colleague twenty years before.

This liaison had led to the unseemly incident.  The colleague and her husband had taught at the same school as Mussert, and she had slept with him because her husband had had an affair with a student, one for whom Mussert had felt a platonic spiritual attraction.  When the hypocritical husband found out about Mussert and his wife he beat Mussert in the playground, watched by the school population, after which he drove away with the student, crashing the car and killing her.

Not surprisingly, that episode became a key moment in Mussert’s life.  The three teachers had all been dismissed, though the other two had made a new start abroad, leaving Mussert to a bookish life alone in his room.  Now he ponders the past while wandering around Lisbon: his career as a teacher, the emotional web he had become entangled in at school. and the unsatisfactory nature of more recent years.

In the second half it becomes clear what has happened to Mussert.  The action shifts to a ship travelling to Brazil, on board which he meets a small disparate group of fellow passengers.  They sail across the Atlantic and up the Amazon, the reader inevitably reminded of the 1944 film Between Two Worlds (with a similar group of souls sailing towards the afterlife), as Mussert’s fellow passengers recount how they came to die, and then disappear.

As he sails further and further into this heart of darkness, Mussert knows his body still lies in his Amsterdam flat, suggesting that, as in Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’, his subjective time has expanded, with all his ruminations since he woke in what is his mental reconstruction of Lisbon occupying a brief moment.  The dying are afforded time for self-reflection before going on to whatever awaits each at the end of the river.

Mussert is the last on the ship, apart from a mysterious woman, to account for his life.  She, it transpires, is actually the student who died in the crash decades before, and Mussert, having had the opportunity to ponder his time on earth, tells her ‘the following story’, that is, the story we have just read.  Perhaps the spiritual attraction to her he had felt had called her to him, and she will lead him to a better place.

The story he tells, though, is largely of disappointment.  Mussert’s nickname at school had been Socrates, on account of his appearance rather than for any profundity.  He does not possess the wisdom of the Greek philosopher, rather a bland self-absorbed stoicism.  The difference between the two Socrates shows how far short he has fallen from a life well-lived.

Thus the elliptical delicacy of Nooteboom’s prose cannot save Mussert from a celestial verdict of an existence lived mostly in the company of ancient writers, and, after losing his job, further disengaged from society.  His sterile example obliges us to ask what good deep erudition is if not harnessed to some practical end.  It is significant that he had been mistaken for a corpse by a neighbour who saw him motionless while reading, because he already had only one foot in the land of the living.

He had engaged in sex with a fellow teacher not through his initiative but at her instigation, as her instrument of revenge, into which he had read more than it warranted.  It was an unlikely act for such a dull man, of whom Noteboom seems to be suggesting that it was the most significant event he had ever experienced, because it was the hinge in his transition from life to death.  He had said that he did not believe in the immortality of the soul, and he may now discover that was yet one more thing he had got wrong.

Billy Summers, by Stephen King

The title character of Stephen King’s Billy Summers: A Novel (2021) is an ex-Iraq marine-turned-sniper-for-hire, and he is very good at what he does.  He considers himself a bad man, but he does have a code of ethics, only assassinating bad people.  He has lasted by pretending to be slow witted (what he refers to as his dumb self) but he is actually extremely intelligent, and while indicating a liking for comic books in order to encourage those he deals with to underestimate him, he is actually secretly reading Zola’s Thérèse Raquin.  He has been damaged by war, but also by having spent much of his childhood in a home after killing a man who was abusing his mother, leaving one institution to join another, the army.

Now in his early 40, Billy is hoping to retire and disappear with a new identity, but he is lured back for one last high-paying job.  This is the assassination of another contract killer, who has been arrested in Los Angeles and is likely to name names once he is extradited back to the small city of Red Bluff.  The hit to take place as he is being led into the local court house.  What makes the job unusual is that Billy has to wait for his target to appear.  This could take weeks or even months, and while he waits he needs a cover story.

The one provided is to blend into the neighbourhood while pretending to write a novel, justifying his occupation of an office with a sight-line to the court.  Billy decides he really would like to write a book, so he works on an autobiographical account of his experiences as a child and during his time in Iraq, at first in the style of dumb Billy (knowing that what he writes is being monitored) but more and more in his own voice.  This allows King to give Billy an extra dimension as we come to understand how he is who he is through his past.

Unfortunately, Billy finds himself becoming increasingly integrated into his neighbourhood, an ordinary suburban community full of good people leading modest but meaningful lives.  He participates in activities with his neighbours and builds a rapport, making him uncomfortably aware of the magnitude of the betrayal they will feel once his task is accomplished.  The big day inevitably arrives but, job done, Billy knows he is expendable.  Far from the assassination being the story’s climax, the novel shifts gear as he goes into hiding from both police and his erstwhile employers.

Here he finds his isolation compromised when he sees a young woman being dumped outside his house on a cold night after being sexually assaulted.  From a sense of self-preservation as much as compassion – wanting to avoid house-to-house enquiries – he takes her in and the two form a bond which refreshingly never becomes sexual, though it teeters on the brink; it could be argued that for someone who has been through such a traumatic experience Alice comes to trust Billy rather more quickly than one might expect in her situation, even though he is able to employ tactics picked up in combat to help her get through her panic attacks.

Not able in the circumstances to bring the perpetrators of her assault to justice, Billy takes it upon himself to exact revenge of a non-lethal but humiliating kind on them, further cementing their relationship despite Alice knowing what he does for a living.  So, when it becomes clear Billy has been stiffed on the bulk of his fee, the two decide to get the money, and carry out their own contract on a paedophile at the same time.  As one might expect, each learns about life from the other in the process, as Billy attempts to achieve a kind of redemption.

Billy is an ambiguous character in that he kills for a living, but King never suggests there are ignoble traits in his character.  The only-kills-bad-guys feels a cop-out allowing us to like him, and the reader is encouraged to assign him a higher evaluation of his moral worth than he does himself, a worth confirmed when he rescues Alice and takes care of her.  Recognising he is treading a fine line in using her to carry out his plan, he repeatedly offers her the opportunity to walk away, but she can see how he has helped her shed her old life and given her a chance at a new one, and refuses to leave.

In lesser hands this would be a clichéd and derivative thriller, but King is able to bring a fresh take, once one gets past the implausibility of a low-profile hitman agreeing to put himself in untrustworthy hands and develop such a public persona over an extended period, making it obvious to the authorities who the shooter is.  Breaking the genre boundary though, in Colorado Billy and Alice hole up with Billy’s fixer, and close by there is a cabin looking across a valley to the site once occupied by the Overlook hotel, a supernatural intrusion into a tale otherwise told in a realistic manner.

Once again, by interleaving Billy’s autobiography into the present-day action, King writes about the writer’s life, showing how it can be a compulsion, yet cathartic.  Billy knows his book cannot be published as it stands, but no matter, the point is he is a writer, thinking like one, and the act of creation is paramount.  It offers the ability to shape one’s subjective world when the objective one is less malleable: Billy Summers has two endings, one ‘fictional’, the other ‘real’.  The first is poignant, the second tragic, the actual ending throwing the tragedy of Billy into relief and in the process superbly demonstrating the control the writer can have over the reader’s emotional response.

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