No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel is set in Texas in 1980.  Llewelyn Moss, who had fought in Vietnam and therefore knows how to take care of himself, is a welder living in a trailer and married to a child bride, Carla Jean.  One day he is out hunting in the desert near the Mexican border when he comes across the scene of a drugs deal gone very wrong, with bodies scattered around and a load of heroin in one of the vehicles.  Close by he finds another body with a satchel containing over 2 million dollars in cash.  He ignores the drugs but instead of turning the money in as a law-abiding citizen would, he decides to keep it.

As a result his life changes forever, though predictably not in a positive way.  One of the criminals is badly hurt but still alive, and Moss’s conscience propels him to return to the scene with water.  There he is seen by someone else who has an interest in the affair, and so a lengthy and bloody chase ensues.  In evading retribution all his survival experience is called upon, and he continues on his path even though he understands that not only is he unlikely to survive, he has put his wife in danger.  But he has acquired a sense of purpose civilian life cannot match, the process of more value to him than the likely ending.

The main jeopardy comes from psychopath Anton Chigurh, who is on the trail of the money.  He is an implacable fatalist, remorseless in his desire to retrieve the money as he follows Moss’s trail but with a philosophical bent that tends to leave others confused as much as frightened.  Following his own ethical path, he is obliged to keep his word, even if it means murdering an innocent person after the promise has become pointless because the person to whom it was made is dead.  Less a man than a force of nature, he has only one purpose in life: to achieve his goal.  Able to intimidate with a look, he dispatches some of his victims using a compressed-air bolt gun, a method that indicates his view of them.  He does sometimes let fate take a hand, determining an individual’s fate by means of a coin toss, but the taking of life means nothing to him as he pursues his quarry.

As Chigurh is seen to be out of control (a reasonable estimate), the criminal organisation hires the urbane Carson Wells to take care of Chigurh and retrieve the cash.  He sees dealing with Moss the easier option, and outlines the probable outcome, but Moss is stubborn and refuses to make a deal.   In an attempt to make him realise the gravity of the situation, he tells Moss that even if he were to give the money to Chigurh, Chigurh would still kill him, just because of the inconvenience Moss had caused him.  Moss would, Wells argues, be better off handing the cash back to him.  Unfortunately for Wells, his and Chigurh’s paths cross, and he ceases to take an interest in the matter.

Caught in the middle, and sharing much of the narrative through rambling internal dialogue (perhaps McCarthy thought Terrence Malick was going to direct the film version), is Second World War veteran Sheriff Bell, who is trying to help Moss and bring the mayhem to a conclusion as quickly as possible.  The novel’s moral centre, though nursing what he considers to be a shameful secret from the war (an act that seems perfectly reasonable), he is a jaded old-time lawman who feels himself out of joint with a country rapidly changing for the worse.  Exceedingly polite, he is a believer in the idealised qualities of self-reliant community spirit.  He wants to keep the residents of his county safe even though it is awash with guns and drugs, but finds himself in a degraded society possessing values he no longer recognises.  Aware of the hopelessness of holding back the tide of violence, he has become tired of trying, and reconsiders his future in law enforcement.

Told in fast-paced unadorned prose (apart from Bell’s languid musings), brisk dialogue given without quotation marks, the action plays out with the relentlessness of Greek tragedy.   The hard landscape is beautifully evoked, and one can almost hear a Ry Cooder soundtrack playing as one reads.  It is a brutal, unforgiving country, the apparent virtue of rugged individualism it nurtures prone to tip into something darker, of which Chigurh is the emblem.  It’s not merely not a country for old men, it doesn’t seem to be much of a country for anyone who aspires to live to a decent age.  Sheriff Bell may bemoan the passing of an era, but in reality it was always more in his head than in Texas.


Timeline, by Michael Crichton

In Michael Crichton’s Timeline (1999), Robert Doniger, a youngish, thrusting but amoral genius who controls ITC, a large American corporation, has a bold plan, as alpha types tend to have.  The organisation is conducting secret research while buying up large parts of the Dordogne where a group of academics led by Yale scholar Professor Edward Johnston are conducting an archaeological dig on the remains of an extensive mediaeval site, which includes two castles and a monastery, prior to building as accurate a reconstruction as possible.  The site burned down in 1357 after one of the castles was captured when a traitor revealed the location of a secret passage,

The work is progressing slowly, to Doniger’s frustration as the project is hugely expensive and he is keen for the reconstruction to proceed as quickly as possible to placate his investors.  Among Johnston’s team are his assistant hunky André Marek, a physically-fit expert on the period, to the extent that he absorbs himself in the world; David Stern, a physicist; and postgrads Chris Hughes and Kate Erickson.  The academics’ priority is scholarly rigour, and they won’t be hurried, but to their puzzlement find ITC is providing data the excavations have not yet revealed.

Suddenly there is a crisis: Johnston, who went to ITC HQ in the New Mexico desert to discuss the situation with Doniger, seems to have vanished, while his team uncover a message saying ‘help me’ written by him and apparently sent from 1357, alongside a lens from his spectacles.  The abovementioned team members are whisked off to HQ to help resolve the difficulty.  There they learn that Johnston is indeed in the fourteenth century.  It is not, though, our fourteenth century.  They are told that while time travel is not possible, the multiverse theory, in which an infinite number of universes exist, is true.

ITC has discovered a way to send people through a wormhole to a version of 1357 that to all intents and purposes is exactly like ours was; this is done by disassembling individuals and objects, and transporting their code to the other world, utilising the wonders of quantum foam, where they are reassembled.  As one of the ITC employees puts it succinctly: ‘What we have developed is a form of space travel.  To be precise, we use quantum technology to manipulate an orthogonal multiverse coordinate change.’  ITC have been sending ex-military personnel through for some time, with orders to observe but not interact, which is how it was able to supply archaeological data the team had not yet themselves ascertained.

Johnston has gone AWOL back (or rather over) there and ITC wants his associates to exfiltrate him.  They are told the rescue mission will last a couple of hours and they will be accompanied by a pair of trained military escorts (as 1357 is not going anywhere it is not clear what the rush is).  What they are not told is that there are safety issues with the technology; too many trips cause damage at a genetic level – ‘transcription errors’.  David twigs they are not being given full disclosure and elects to stay behind, which is fortunate as he proves to be more use in a crisis than the entire ITC organisation.

Naturally, the plan does not survive first contact with reality.  The group stranded, and the equipment at ITC badly damaged, their chances of returning home appear slim.  While trying to locate Johnston and work out how to get back, they find their assumptions about life during the period of the Hundred Years’ War were not always accurate.  Fortunately, they are able to bring their skills to bear on the constant predicaments inflicted on them (aided by a huge amount of luck) as they race against a deadline imposed in order to inject some tension and keep the pages turning.

Once again Crichton is warning about the dangers of scientific findings used in the wrong way, heedless of consequences, and the ease with which large corporations, unchecked by democratic processes, put profit before safety.  Despite Doniger’s relaxed approach to health and safety, the aim is eventually to monetise the site by making it a time-travel theme park, with others around the world to follow – a kind of Westworld, but going there instead of bringing it here.  In fiction, such hubris is bound to precede the enterprise getting out of hand.  Crichton points up the irony of Doniger claiming that in our inauthentic times the past is authentic, because it is not arranged for the purpose of making a profit, while simultaneously promising to turn it into a commodity.

Quite how ITC’s setup would work in real life is a mystery: considering how many people are involved in the operation, Doniger manages to maintain an admirable level of secrecy.  Any inquisitive journalist is given a bland tour of the facilities guaranteed to cause them to lose interest, when one might expect information to leak to the media and generate considerable buzz faster than one could say ‘Sliders’.  And how Donger thinks governments would allow his vision to be realised once his plans came to fruition, however much cash he splashed, is not addressed.  Officialdom is surprisingly incurious, and it takes an internal coup, with dramatic consequences for Doniger, to stop him.

Clearly Crichton did a lot of research into the period (providing a substantial bibliography to prove it), but the period does not come to life despite his attention to the facts.  The emphasis is on the complicated plot and less on characterisation.  The physics sound superficially plausible, but Crichton is obliged to have an ITC executive drop dollops of techtalk into the narrative, which slows the pace.  Otherwise, narrative progression is busy but jerky.  The book was turned into a not-very-successful film, and with the novel’s frequent, and annoying, cross-cutting of scenes the script was already half-written.

Technically this is not a time-travel novel because they are not going into the past of this world but to a particular period in another quantum universe which has evolved in a remarkably similar manner to our own.  A problem with parallel worlds stories is the assumption they will share an identical evolution to ours, at least until some key event.  This ignores the fact that splitting will have started from the Big Bang, so worlds that look even remotely recognisable will be exceedingly rare, and hard to find.  The technology necessary to send individuals repeatedly to the same period in the same world, one among squillions upon squillions, that is almost precisely like this one was at a specific period in history, then bring them back, would need to be more sophisticated than anything Crichton describes.

Leaving aside the practicalities, by having the action occur in a parallel 1357, Crichton avoids the time-travel grandfather paradox; there is no danger of our present being altered by changes in its past.  But it begs the question how Johnston’s note and spectacle lens ended up being excavated in this one; and how at the novel’s end the group is able to visit the tomb of André (who stayed behind when his colleagues returned) and his wife, when they were buried in the other one.  After the lengthy explanations of the science, and effort to present a credible alternative to hackneyed time-travel plots, it feels like either carelessness, or more probably an unflattering assumption that readers won’t notice.

The Wicked Boy, by Kate Summerscale

Kate Summerscale’s nonfiction The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer (2016) is a detailed examination of a case of matricide, and what happened to the perpetrator.  It opens in an oblique manner, in July 1895 with brothers 13-year-old Robert and 12-year-old Nathanial (known as Nattie) heading out from their terraced home in Plaistow, then in Essex, to watch the cricket at Lord’s.  At this point we do not know how it is they enjoy so much freedom at such a young age.  Only slowly does it become clear why they are seemingly exempt from parental supervision.

Their father, Robert Snr, was working as chief steward on a ship sailing to New York.  The boys told enquirers their mother Emily was visiting relatives in Liverpool as the family had come into a considerable amount of money.  To get ready cash they pawned valuables and went on trips to the seaside and the theatre.  Robert, who was intelligent and had reached a high grade in his education, had already left school but had quit his job at a shipyard after only a fortnight.  Nattie skipped classes as they mimicked the lifestyles of the well-off middle classes.

With funds low, Robert tried without success to obtain an advance from his father’s employer, and wrote a newspaper advertisement requesting a loan and offering generous interest.  They also persuaded a family friend, John Fox, to stay with them on the promise of pay when their mother returned, an adult in the house giving the appearance of normality two boys on their own would not have had.  They also involved him in pawning valuables.  The three slept in the back parlour, even though there were bedrooms upstairs.

The boys’ story began to unravel when relatives became suspicious and established that the boys’ mother was not in Liverpool.  A horrible smell from the house in the intense summer heat led to the discovery of her badly decomposed body lying in bed.  The rather slow Fox found himself caught up in the drama as he was arrested along with the boys.

Robert confessed, saying his mother, who was habitually ‘excitable’, had beat Nattie for stealing food.  The implication of this characterisation is that Emily suffered from mental illness, but financial stresses and the absence of her husband for long periods would also have been a factor, if indeed there had been unduly harsh punishments.   Robert had bought a knife for the purpose of killing her, indicating premeditation.

We follow the trio through the legal process, highlighting the way children were dealt with.  The case attracted widespread public interest, with speculations on Robert’s character and his motives.  This was considered such an unnatural crime that it was thought he might be an atavistic throwback to an earlier period and was a degenerate, tying with current concerns that western civilisation was in a process of degeneration.

His intelligence was not thought to be a counter to the degenerative process, rather his precocity was perhaps actually a symptom of it, plus he may had inherited his mother’s ‘excitability’.  He was also seen as a product of stresses and moral squalor that characterised urban living, and the lack of open-air stimulation afforded to rural children which could turn inwards for lack of a suitable outlet.  Robert stood in for middle-class distrust of the proletariat.

As in later moral panics where child crime was blamed on unsuitable reading and viewing matter, penny dreadfuls, which Robert read avidly, were deemed a deleterious influence.  True, these may have helped to shape his imagination and taste for adventure, but as with later panics, it is not possible to find a direct link between the stories and real-life violence.  They may though have helped to feed into a dissatisfaction with career prospects as a working-class boy that were well below his intellectual capacity.

Fox was cleared, while Nattie was released to his family and became a witness testifying against Robert.  Robert was found guilty but insane, meaning there was no need to delve too far into motives, and he was sent to Broadmoor.  Despite a story of Nattie giving a signal for Robert to commit the murder, the degree of Nattie’s complicity was unclear (I have to confess I was half-expecting a twist, Nattie killing Emily and big brother Robert covering for him).

Ignoring his tender years, there was a current of public opinion which felt Robert had been treated with unjustifiable lenience by not receiving a prison sentence.  The regime at Broadmoor was surprisingly relaxed, the emphasis on treatment, and rehabilitation where possible, achieved through kindness.  Robert worked in the tailoring shop and kept an allotment, but there were opportunities for creative expression.  He played chess and cricket, and his interest in music flourished, enabling him to become a multi-instrumentalist.

In 1912, after 17 years at Broadmoor and now aged 30, he was granted conditional release into the care of the Salvation Army which had a large settlement in Essex.  Here he worked as a tailor and gradually reintegrated into society.  In 1914 he emigrated to Australia, working as a clerk.  Saying farewell to England might have concluded the most interesting part of his life, but the First World War provided a second act.

He volunteered in 1914 and served with distinction.  Always keen on music, he played in the battalion band and was a stretcher bearer (an extremely hazardous role) at Gallipoli and later on the Western Front.  That he survived the entire conflict was remarkable, one of a small number to do so.  He was promoted to sergeant and awarded the Military Medal.  Nattie served as a ship’s stoker.

After the war, Robert returned to Australia and became a market gardener in New South Wales.  Nattie also settled in Australia.  Robert lived a quiet life, but took in a child who was badly treated by his stepfather (family connections which allowed Summerscale to trace details of Robert’s later life).   He died in 1949.

Utilising a wide range of archival sources, Summerscale expands the bare facts of the case to show much more than a sordid murder.  There are insights into Robert’s domestic life and social situation, the shipping industry, the English legal system, how those judged insane were treated, the Australian contribution to the war which forged its sense of nationhood, and the precarious life experienced by those who lived in Australia’s rural areas.

The one element missing is Robert’s own testimony, and we, like the jury, never discover what was going on in his head.  Whatever the reasons, or lack of them, for his crime and bizarre actions immediately afterwards, the verdict was a fortunate one.  In a sense Broadmoor made him.  It equipped him with the skills and character that stood him in good stead for the rest of his life; far more than time in prison would have done.  It was a remarkable journey for someone from the grimy streets of Plaistow.

Soviet Posters, by Maria Lafont and‎ Sergo Grigorian

Republished in the year of the Soviet Union’s centenary, the self-explanatory Soviet Posters (2014, reissued 2022) is a compilation of 22 examples, printed on good quality paper, which can be pulled out and framed.  They are drawn from the Sergo Grigorian Collection, billing itself as ‘the world’s largest publicly accessible private collection of the best Soviet political posters,’ and this is one of several spin-off books the archive has produced.  The short introduction and captions on the back of each poster were written by Moscow-born Maria Lafont.  Some of the posters are well-known (we begin with El Lissitzky’s ultra-virile Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge*), others, especially the later ones when there was a fall-off in graphic quality, less so.

The earliest date from 1919 and the latest from 1980.  However, chronological coverage is patchy, perhaps partly determined by the contents of Grigorian’s collection, with its focus on ‘the best’, or a certain romanticism attached to the pre-Stalin output, which accounts for a large proportion of the total.  There are only a handful produced after the Great Patriotic War, and the 1970s is entirely absent.  The weirdly-named Sacerdotalism is Hiding the Preparation of Intervention. Let’s Strengthen the Forces of the USSR is dated 1931 but it shows a caricature priest under long gun barrels bearing a swastika, illustrating two perceived threats to the regime, surely dating it to after 1933.

Despite the title, the emphasis is Russian, with few references to other Soviet republics.  The exception is Ukraine, and Russian bias is on display, as in the caption accompanying a 1930 poster.  It states, ‘The disruption caused by collectivisation would eventually lead to the Great Famine in Ukraine from 1932-1933,’ implying it was an unforeseen consequence of the implementation of socialist policies rather than the deliberate policy of genocide the Holodomor is now generally recognised (outside Russia) to have been.

Similarly, Metallurgy (1931) is ostensibly about Ukraine, but the focus again is on Russia.  Coloured in blue and yellow, the poster, produced as part of an effort to recruit workers, celebrates Ukraine’s acccelerating industrialisation during the first Five-Year Plan.  Sadly, names such as Zaporizhia and Mariupol, mentioned in the caption, have a different resonance now.  But Lafont goes on to say that production was important because Russia was in competition with the West.  This view of Ukraine as a resource to serve Russia’s needs is deeply embedded.

Lafont emphasises the key role of posters in a society that was largely illiterate in 1917, and their importance right up until perestroika in 1985 when, she says, their propaganda function became obsolete.  By then, one suspects, general cynicism had greatly undermined their powers of persuasion anyway.  Whatever one’s view of the society which produced them, there is no denying their ability to evoke their times, and depict the gradual destruction of the hopes of 1917.

*Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge has a nostalgic significance for me.  I once had a cheap single-sheet calendar, produced by the International Marxist Group in its Red Weekly days, with it as the top half.  When the year concluded I cut off the calendar part and kept the poster, pinned to the wall, for many years.

The Premonitions Bureau, by Sam Knight

Sam Knight’s short 2022 book The Premonitions Bureau: A True Account of Death Foretold is an expansion of an article he wrote for the New Yorker in 2019.  It is only partially about the Premonitions Bureau established by psychiatrist, and Society for Psychical Research, member John Barker and Evening Standard science editor Peter Fairley, much more about Barker and Fairley themselves.

The Bureau was set up following the Aberfan disaster (a tragedy movingly described by Knight) in October 1966, which a number of those affected apparently foresaw.  At the time, Barker was deputy superintendent at Shelton Hospital, a decaying asylum near Shrewsbury which he was trying to modernise with little success.

He had visited Aberfan in the immediate aftermath of the disaster as he was researching a book on being scared literally to death and had heard of a boy who had escaped the slide but later died of shock.  Barker had an interest in topics on the edge of mainstream psychiatric practice, such as Munchausen Syndrome.  Some of his ideas were very much of their time, believing infidelity could be ‘cured’ by aversion therapy using electric shocks, and performing a lobotomy on an intractable patient.

Barker got in touch with Fairley to ask him to print an appeal for anyone who had had a premonition of the Aberfan disaster to write in.  Premonitions could take the form of a dream, waking impression, telepathy or clairvoyance.  Initial results were encouraging so they decided to broaden the scope.  Using the Standard to publicise the project, members of the public were encouraged to send in general premonitions.  These were logged and assessed with a numerical score, using unusualness, accuracy and timing as criteria, to see if they were fulfilled.  Barker was not the only person intrigued by premonitions of Aberfan.  Celia Green’s Institute of Psychophysical Research also made a newspaper appeal, as did the News of the World.

The initial plan was to run the Bureau for a year, but this was later extended, the bulk of the administration being carried out by Fairley’s assistant Jennifer Preston, a remarkable person judging by the brief pen portrait Knight provides.  Both Barker and Fairley considered that some of their contributors had a high hit rate.  Particularly noteworthy were Alan Hencher, a Post Office switchboard operator, and Kathleen Middleton, who taught piano and dance.  Barker, though, proved to have a lower critical threshold than Fairley when it came to fitting premonitions to possible fulfilment, and was quicker to proclaim a hit.

So when Hencher issued a warning to Barker himself that he faced danger and should take care, Barker took him seriously enough to write a four-page memo he titled ‘Some Interesting Predictions and a Possible Death Sentence’ in which he recounted his alarm.  ‘Having recently written a book on people who were “scared to death,” I am perhaps beginning to feel what this would be like,’ he wrote.

Barker died in August 1968, aged 44, his death receiving a three-sentence notice in the SPR’s Journal.  Fairley moved on to other things, and while the Bureau was kept alive by Preston well into the 1970s, eventually it fizzled out.  Of the more than 3,000 submissions, only some 1,200 had been checked, and just over 3% were linked to an event: not a notable success rate for the effort expended.

Knight describes a number of disasters and shows how they fitted in with a prior warning.  Barker speculated that there might exist a ‘pre-disaster syndrome’, individuals who experienced bodily sensations in advance of significant events.  His hope was to establish an early warning system, the Bureau collating predictions using computers to detect patterns in a mass of data with sufficient specificity that alerts could be issued, and disasters averted or mitigated.

However, it proved impossible to determine precise outcomes in advance, and premonitions could only be fitted to a disaster retrospectively.  Significantly, nobody predicted a serious fire leading to loss of life at Shelton in February 1968.  Evaluating the submissions, any potential signal was obscured by the noise of the many which failed to predict anything.  That though did not stop exaggerated newspaper coverage of premonitions claiming the Bureau had produced hits.

Barker thought he was on the verge of a substantial scientific breakthrough that would alter our conception of time.  While noting precognition seems to contravene scientific principles, Knight concedes that curious events do happen which indicate a broader meaning to life.  While he delves into counter-explanations, he could have gone much further.  He notes the obvious paradox when assessing premonitions.  If a premonition occurs and as a result an intervention is made altering the occurrence to which the premonition referred, how is one to know the premonition was accurate?  There was also a toll on the seers, who could find them a burden, feeling obliged to share their foreknowledge yet fearing ridicule if they did.  Such abilities did not make Hencher and Middleton happy.

While maintaining a critical distance, Knight writes sympathetically about Barker, whose research often brought him into conflict with the hospital’s administration.  However, anyone actually wanting a history and analysis of the Premonitions Bureau is going to be disappointed by the misleading title because Knight interweaves it with biographical details, though he misses out Fairley’s work on the spin-offs of Arthur C Clarke’s television series Mysterious World (1980) and World of Strange Powers (1984), and Chronicles of the Strange and Mysterious (1987), all co-written with Simon Welfare, while including numerous tangents of dubious relevance (for example I learned that mediaeval death expert Philippe Ariès had spent his working life at a research institute specialising in tropical fruit, and a young Robin Gibb attributed his survival in a train crash to the fact he could afford to travel first class).

Knight spends a great deal of time describing conditions at Shelton and we learn about Fairley’s successful career as a science writer, focusing largely on the remarkable development of the space programme in the 1960s.  These details, with information on their personal lives, round out the characters of the two protagonists and may engage the general reader who might find a book solely about psychical research dry, but are of lesser interest to those who primarily want to know about the Premonitions Bureau.  There is so much more to be said about the Bureau and the reports it received, but that would have made it a different, and non-New Yorker, type of book.

Having spent some time describing the nocebo effect in relation to Scared to Death and the phenomenon of people thinking they are going to die seemingly as a result of their attitude, one wonders if Knight is hinting this might have been the cause of Barker’s own premature death.  Psychic News made the connection, though his wife pooh-poohed the idea.  But who knows; perhaps it was the Premonitions Bureau in general, and Alan Hencher in particular, that killed him.

By chance I came across a novel by John Barker, not the same one, though.  It is set in London in 1987 and is about dealing cocaine.  Its title is Futures, and the cover features a photograph of an aeroplane high in the sky, both aspects that would have fitted nicely with the Premonitions Bureau.

On a personal note, I remember the Aberfan disaster: it made a big impact on me because I was the same age as many of the victims and, living in leafy south London, I struggled to understand how this terrible thing could have happened to children doing what seemed the safe activity of going to school.  Perhaps the tragedy made me aware for the first time of my mortality.  While I already knew something about death, having watched the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill the year before, I became conscious, as I doubt I had been before, that life could be snuffed out in an instant, and death wasn’t something that only happened to old people.

Further reading:

Barker, J C. ‘Premonitions of the Aberfan Disaster’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 44, No. 734, December 1967, pp. 169-181.

Barker, J.C Scared to Death: An Examination of Fear, its Causes and Effects. London: Frederick Muller, 1968.

‘Doctor who Studied Premonitions Dies – A Year After Receiving Death Prediction’’, Psychic News, No. 1891, 31 August 1968, pp. 1,3.

Knight, Sam. ‘The Psychiatrist who Believed People Could Tell the Future’, The New Yorker, 25 February 2019.

Murdie, Alan. ‘Foreseeing a Disaster? Forgotten Dreams of Aberfan’, Fortean Times,Issue 350, February 2017, pp. 44-51.

Ghost Story, by Peter Straub

The title of Peter Straub’s 1979 novel Ghost Story is misleading because it is not about the spirits of those who have passed on but about the ghosts of youthful deeds haunting later life.  The protagonists are a group of elderly men – John Jaffrey, Sears James, Lewis Benedikt, Ricky Hawthorne and Edward Wanderley – living in the small town of Milburn, New York State, who have known each other since they were young. 

They form the Chowder Society, donning formal attire for their meetings during which they drink fine whisky and tell each other stories.  The standing rules are that one does not drink to excess and does not challenge the stories’ veracity.  As the narrative progresses, we discover what has bound them to each other, and how the past has suddenly intruded into the present.  While they tell each other tales, they avoid the key one, which is only revealed late in the novel.

Now they find they are being stalked, not in the service of justice but a more primal desire that destroys for pleasure.  Their numbers dwindling, they call reinforcements in the shape of Don Wanderley, Edward’s nephew, who had faced the danger himself.  As winter tightens its grip, the town closes in on itself and faces destruction.

Finally overcoming their dread and bad dreams, the group fights back.  The shapeshifting forces arrayed against them seem omnipotent, with abilities far beyond humans’, and a longevity conferring advantages of knowledge; yet the men discover these creatures have limitations, giving hope they might emerge victorious from the nightmare.

While beautifully plotted, the story unfolds slowly, very slowly, as Straub paints the portrait of the Chowder Society, the large secondary cast, the town and its surroundings, and of course the amoral entities menacing them all.  Milburn is shown as a pleasant small town built on a human scale, a cohesive community, which reinforces the horror of the coming disaster.

There are nods to other stories.  The group sitting round while one tells a story within the story evokes the frame in The Turn of the Screw, and there is a specific reference when one character holds a child, and realises the child is dead.  Epigraphs of a literary nature include ones by Edgar Allan Poe and Nathanial Hawthorne (plus Don has to lecture on the latter author), and of course Ricky Hawthorne is one of the Chowderites.  A giant spider trying to enter a room suggests The Haunting of Toby Jugg (actually the name Donald Wanderley is not too far from Dennis Wheatley).

The echoes of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (1975), acknowledged by Straub, have been frequently noted.  King links them in Danse Macabre (1981), both novels ‘working in the tradition of such “classical” ghost story writers as Henry James, M R James, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.’   King is on less firm ground with his contention that ‘We have met the monster, and, as Peter Straub points out in Ghost Story, he is us.’  Straub’s monsters are external, preying on human vulnerabilities.  The humans are victims, not monsters; at least not until they are dead and transformed.

My overriding thought reading the novel was how well cast the four Chowder Society members were in the 1981 film version, perhaps indicating a certain disengagement.  It is unusual to have such elderly protagonists, and tracking them over a period of fifty years provides a reminder, if one should be needed, that every old codger was once young, and the young version might as well have been a different person.

Decades in photographs, by various

The Hulton Getty Picture Collection: 1930s, by Nick Yapp
The Forties in Pictures, by James Lescott
The 50s, by Gareth Thomas
The Sixties in Pictures, by James Lescott
Remember the Seventies

A number of publishers have raided their picture libraries to compile volumes devoted to particular decades, bought mostly, one suspects, as presents for people born within that time-span.  They usually contain little text, with the focus very much on the pictures.  They are thus fairly quick and cheap to compile.  I’ve listed these in order of decade rather than year of publication.

The Hulton Getty Picture Collection: 1930s, by Nick Yapp

As the title page indicates, Nick Yapp’s 1930s: Decades of the 20th Century/Dekaden Des 20. Jahrhunderts/Décennies Du XXe Siècle (1998) has text in English, translated into German and French (although the publisher is German).  All images are drawn from the Hulton Getty Picture Collection.  Typically for this kind of book, the general and section introductions and captions are fairly brief.

Despite the international feel provided by the trilingual text, the bulk of the photographs were taken in England (apart from the cinema section, which concentrates largely on Hollywood).  The lack of emphasis on a global perspective may disappoint some non-British readers keen to see their own history represented.  What there is can tend to cliché: leisure for the Germans and Russians apparently meant doing things in mass formation.

Rather than go through the years in chronological order, photographs are loosely grouped in themes covering various aspects of daily life, such as fashion, leisure, transport, science, and of course politics and the build-up to war.  Dotting around loses a sense of the accelerating momentum from the Jazz Age to something much darker.

I spotted a couple of obvious errors.  The introduction to the catch-all section on the eccentric aspects of the period refers to a teenage girl on the Isle of Man managing to persuade her parents, the newspapers and the public that she owned a talking ferret.  It was of course Gef, who was a mongoose.  A couple of pages on is an oft-reproduced photograph of a séance, which is captioned ‘Dabbling with the spirit world at a seance in Berlin, 1930’.  It is actually a still from the first part of Fritz Lang’s film Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, released in 1922.

On the positive side, there are signs of the growing consumer society and the role of mass production, and also of an artistic flowering.  On the negative is the occasional glimpse of the threat posed by fascism, but there is minimal evidence of the Great Depression.  Although the introduction gives some idea of the stresses that would eventually rip the world order apart, unfortunately, for such a dark time the emphasis of the selection is on the quirky, downplaying its serious side until the final section, when war was inevitable.  It may make for an entertaining read, but the book mostly slides over the worst aspects of that low, dishonest decade.

(2 December 2022)

The Forties in Pictures, by James Lescott (2008)

Published by Parragon and drawing on the vast Getty archive, naturally conflict predominates, starting with Dunkirk.  The course of the war is charted, beginning with the victories of the German army rampaging across western Europe.  As well as the theatres of war, in Britain the home front is covered, showing the devastation of aerial bombing and the ‘Britain can take it’ attitude depicted by the government’s propaganda.

The focus shifts to the Pacific and the entry of the United States, the war in the Atlantic and North Africa, while Stalingrad is given a prominent spread.  The tide turns and the cameras follow the course of the war as the Germans and Japanese dreams of domination crumble and victory is assured in the east and the west, bringing a moment – all too brief – of joy to a weary continent.

Then it’s the aftermath.  The opening of the concentration camps, assessing the devastation, revenge on collaborators, the mass-movement of displaced people, reconstruction.  Israel emerges as a nation, India is partitioned, the Nazi leaders are judged.  Events take a relatively sedate turn with awful winter weather in London (POWs still in England in February 1947), but Gandhi is assassinated and communist regimes tighten their grip in eastern Europe.  Meanwhile in Asia empires crumble and China starts on its slow and very winding road to becoming a world power.

As well as politics, culture is touched on, notably art, sport, with the 1948 Olympic Games given a highlighted spread, fashion, theatre and the film industry, though in the last  of these politics intrude again in the shape of the House Un-American Affairs Committee.  Changing sexual attitudes are hinted at in the portrait of Alfred Kinsey and on the facing page a photograph of a shapely woman holding a mock-up of The Kinsey Report.  Prosperity in the west is indicated by its motor vehicles, international travel, and television sets.

The book concludes with location photographs from the filming of The Third Man in Vienna, rubble piled up in the foreground of an exterior scene.  It is a film coalescing the aftereffects of the Second World War and the developing Cold War, and interrogating issues of personal and collective responsibility, which would shape the continent for decades to come.  Flipping through the pages of this book the reader is acutely aware, if anyone needs reminding, just how scarred the 1940s were.

(15 October 2022)

The 50s, by Gareth Thomas (2003)

Published by Parragon, Gareth Thomas pulled a selection of 1950s photographs from the Daily Mail’s picture library.  Mostly concentrating on England, it tracks the change which took place, from a nation still recovering from the war to the beginnings of the consumer boom, with social mores vastly changed from those of a decade earlier, and the NHS promising an improved social contract.  The Queen’s coronation heralded a new era, but it was one heralding a gradual loss of influence abroad and deference at home, and a developing youth culture that would grow enormously in the decades ahead.

There is much here about leisure pursuits: socialising to music and dancing, watching sport, the Festival of Britain, the increasing number of cars on the roads and the early stages of a motorway network.  At the same time there was increasing comfort in the home, the ownership of television sets challenging the dominance of the cinema, despite which there was a continuing interest in the star system and celebrity culture, and radio was still important.

Domestic politics feature, but despite the source being the right-wing Mail it is fairly evenly balanced, though clearly it was very much a Conservative decade.  A policeman staring at an election poster showing a portrait of Anthony Eden and the slogan ‘Working for Peace’ sums up the orientation of the newspaper.  Protest politics, notably the Ban the Bomb movement, are included, and there is a hint of racial tension and a reference to race riots, but otherwise nothing on the black experience of Britain.

A poignant photograph of Ruth Ellis’s parents about to visit her in prison, Ruth’s mother holding a bunch of flowers, is a reminder that the death penalty was still in operation.  A minority of photographs were taken abroad, often depicting trouble spots, such as Korea, Algeria and Hungary.  The continuing fallout of the partition of India is included, as is the Suez crisis, but not Cuba.  Rather neatly, photographs of the Suez Crisis are juxtaposed with one of debutantes dancing at a ‘rock and roll ball’, suggesting an elite out of touch with the problems faced by post-war Britain.

A criticism of the compilation is that although the contents appear to be chronologically ordered, most of the photographs are not dated.  But it’s a quick read and gives a partial snapshot of the decade’s progress, an ‘impressionistic collage of life,’ as the brief introduction puts it, though one without any surprises.  My favourite photograph has to be Princess Margaret at the Ideal Home Exhibition quizzically watching a demonstration of a device for removing pips from citrus fruit.  The famously idle royal probably never handled a whole citrus fruit, although she must have consumed vast quantities of limes in her gin and tonics during the course of her privileged life.

(6 August 2022)

The Sixties in Pictures, by James Lescott (2007)

Drawn from the Getty archive, Parragon’s compilation covering the 1960s runs through the decade year by year, the contents page noting a few of the highlights, or in many cases lowlights: the Berlin Wall, the Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King assassinations, Beatlemania, the Swinging Sixties and Vietnam – the last frequently appearing as the liberation movement grew in confidence and the American response became increasingly desperate and brutal. 

The introduction notes that for many around the world, the decade was far from swinging, even in prosperous countries, and while the highs betokened wonderful progress and increases in the standard of living, the lows were very low indeed, full of division and violence – with notably India taking on both China and Pakistan to varying degrees, Israel emerging triumphant from the Six Day War, and Cold War hostility ever present.

It was a time when people were increasingly aware of oppression, and their right to self-determination.  Anti-imperialist movements became more confident, despite often brutal pushback from colonial powers, in countries like Algeria, South Africa, Vietnam and South America (symbolised by the murder of Che Guevara in Bolivia).  Race became a significant issue in the United States as the civil rights movement gained momentum.  Paris was tied up in knots in May 1968 while later the same year the Prague Spring was crushed.

Disaster, both natural and human-generated, is not overlooked, with coverage of a Moroccan earthquake, the Venice floods, Aberfan (unfortunately getting the death toll wrong), and the Torrey Canyon oil spill.  On the plus side, there was plenty to shout about in cultural terms, with notable sporting achievements and milestones in film and music, and general countercultural grooviness; the final image is Woodstock, not quite half a million strong but close enough.  Music and youth met the political establishment when Harold Wilson was photographed with the Beatles, a more positive contribution to the national discourse than either the Rolling Stones’ drugs bust or the Profumo scandal.

There is a picture of Concorde, but in general technology makes few direct appearances, though it underpins many of the advances, such as the space race, culminating in the Moon landings.  But that is not the only way in which selections like this, drawn from news archives, fail to represent a period adequately. It is a very partial look at the sixties, and based on these pictures one would think it far more riven than it was for most of the people on the planet, who were living quiet lives and striving to get by in one way or another.

(18 November 2022)

Remember the Seventies

Remember the Seventies: A Pictorial History of an Intriguing Decade is a different format to the others in Parragon’s ‘decade’ series.  It is hardback, larger in size, is not credited to a single compiler, having been compiled by Endeavour London Ltd., and comes with a 30-minute DVD featuring clips amplifying some of the photographs.  All the photographs are drawn from the Getty archive, and the emphasis is on the pictures, with only a short introduction and a small amount of explanatory text.  The title acknowledges that many of its readers will have had first-hand experience of the period.

The introduction suggests that compared to the ‘swinging sixties’ the 1970s lack a clear identity, other than it was a pessimistic decade compared to the previous one.  On this showing it does seem to have been a time particularly characterised by conflict and violence, but also with a strong cultural energy, particularly evident with innovations in film and music – the latter notable also for the number of premature deaths among its practitioners.  Fashion took a hit though.

The highlights are picked out: Vietnam, the Northern Ireland troubles, Watergate, punk, the Iraninan revolution (if only those celebrating could see what they would get to replace the Shah) and general terrorism and mayhem courtesy of the PLO, Black September, ETA, the IRA and INLA, and the Red Army Faction; hijackings, hostage-taking, assassinations and bombings.  Coups, brutal liberation movements and civil wars were prominent.  Dictators died, others came along.  China emerged onto the world stage after the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, Israel firmly showed it was not going to be driven into the sea.

The 1975 EEC referendum is represented by two photographs.  Margaret Thatcher sits under a banner declaring ‘Conservatives say YES to Europe.’  It is easy to forget that once upon a time the Tories were not under the thumb of the European Research (sic) Group.  Meanwhile, Labour minister (remember those?) Peter Shore sits under one saying ‘OUT and into the world.’  Baron Shore of Stepney died in 2001 so is not here to see how it went once his wish came true.

Space exploration did well, and there was much to enjoy in sporting achievements.  For those in the UK so inclined, the Royal Silver Jubilee was a chance to put out more flags, in some instances an excessive quantity.*  On the whole though the book paints a dreary picture, not helped by the fact that as these are press photographs they are mainly in black and white, when colour would have helped to project a more positive image.

The DVD clips are enjoyable, but short.  I hadn’t realised, usually hearing it rather than seeing it, that when Mrs Thatcher gave her speech on entering 10 Downing Street and famously quoted St Francis of Assisi, she glanced at a piece of paper with it written down.  It rather undermines the effect of spontaneity she was trying to convey.

*I remember the Silver Jubilee mainly because during it occurred the only time I have been thrown out of a pub.  I was sitting in one in Broadstairs with some friends, and I was wearing an ‘Abolish the Monarchy’ badge featuring a cartoon of Her Majesty.  The landlord came over, said ‘I don’t like the badge you’re wearing,’ and asked us all to leave.

(12 July 2022)

Poison Panic, by Helen Barrell

Poison Panic: Arsenic Deaths in 1840s Essex (2016), by Helen Barrell, recounts the moral panic surrounding a series of deaths, allegedly by arsenic, in Essex during the early Victorian period.  It focuses on three individuals – Sarah Chesham, Mary May and Hannah Southgate – who were all, in different ways and for different reasons, suspected of having committed murder by the administration of arsenic.  She details their backgrounds, characters and relationships, and how they found themselves in their predicament.  In the process she paints a picture of rural life, particularly the difficulties of women living hard lives, with no property rights and often in unsatisfactory marriages.

Arsenic was cheap and remarkably easy to obtain over the counter as it had an extensive number of uses, some of a domestic nature which made it available to women.  It was used as a fungicide, in sheep dip, in barns and at home to kill vermin, to make glass and lead shot, and in a green dye that had a variety of purposes, including for clothing and wallpaper.  Used externally it was considered to have medicinal properties, and was used in cosmetics.  The effects of arsenic poisoning were similar to gastric symptoms, so its ingestion was not automatically obvious.

Unfortunately, its ready availability went hand in hand with an insouciant attitude to storage where it could easily contaminate foodstuffs.  Intentional poisoning was far rarer than accidental ingestion, but it is surprising there were not more instances of the latter, and such carelessness made it difficult to distinguish accident from malign intent.  Poisoning was historically associated with women, so it was easy to assume death from it was the result of a deliberate act, potentially leading to miscarriages of justice.

Add some snobbery, unfriendly neighbours, and the growing influence of a press, largely unfettered by regulation, whipping up public disapprobation (suggesting for example that the three women had formed a criminal conspiracy), and it is easy to see how ambiguous circumstances could be transformed into a certainty of guilt in the public and judicial minds.  The social situation was important in the ‘hungry 40s’ too, with the presence of cholera, high mortality rates and simmering unrest at home and abroad contributing to a sense of unease that could easily find release in the search for scapegoats.

One may have assumed the social currents that drove the earlier witchcraft trials had been swept away by this time, but suspicion could still take on a reality that put women on the gallows.  Belonging to a burial club, seen as enabling a policyholder to turn a profit, the inconvenience of illegitimate offspring, and the impossibility of divorce for most people, provided motives.  The ease of acquiring arsenic and slipping it into a meal provided the means, the dark underside of a wife’s household duties.  At a time when life expectancy was short, infant mortality high, and determining a cause of death not always precise, it was easy for speculation to flourish.

In teasing out these issues, Barrell has plumbed the archives, and the timeline of the cases and their linkages are set out clearly.  She explores the class and gender issues the trials highlight, as well as the nascent disciplines of forensics and toxicology; the scientific approach is shown to be developing in this period, with tests used on bodies to detect arsenic, though these were not infallible.  Of the women who were charged, those who could not afford representation in court, were illiterate, and had no opportunity to prepare their defence while in custody, were at a disadvantage compared to those who came from higher up the social scale with the means to retain counsel.

Newspapers often wheeled out stories for a fresh audience years after the conclusion of a case, complete with old, and sometimes new, inaccuracies.  Outraging middle-class readers over the breakfast table, whatever the actual facts had been, was profitable.  Finally, prodded by the climate of opinion following the scandals of the 1840s, the government discussed ways to control the acquisition of poison, introducing the poisons register in 1851, though the system was far from foolproof because it still provided opportunities to purchase lethal substances, and they continued to cause deaths by accident, suicide and murder.

Coincidence or Destiny?, by Phil Cousineau

Phil Cousineau’s Coincidence or Destiny?: Stories of Synchronicity That Illuminate Our Lives (1997) is a compilation of almost 90 anecdotes in which individuals recount remarkable experiences they consider to have been synchronous.  Essays by Cousineau discussing the concept of synchronicity, and musing on the significance of the stories, top and tail the collection, and he provides brief introductions to each section.

The respondents are drawn from various walks of life, but there is an American Esalen-style vibe running through the book.  It is debatable if all of these reports can be characterised as synchronous, however that concept is defined.  What marks them as significant is the import they hold for the individual.

The slipperiness in pinning down synchronicity can be judged by Cousineau’s summation on the final page.  He explains that synchronicities are ‘more than chance, less than causality; more than magic, less than fantasy.  More an enigmatic pattern suddenly detected, than a solid link in a chain finally proved.’  One might then deduce that you know them, or rather feel them, when they happen, even if they can’t be explained.

Some of these are intriguing, others are the sorts of unusual things that happen from time to time.  Many could be attributed to psi processes.  More prosaically, there is no mention of the law of large numbers: it suggests that out of an enormous pool of interactions there are bound to be some which, viewed in isolation, appear to defy probability.

The sense of an underlying order to the apparently random may, then, be an imposed meaning generated by our pattern-making cognition, rather than an aspect of reality.  Even Cousineau concedes that extracting meaning from the connections requires a degree of faith.  It is up to the experiencer to deduce what is significant, and thus considered synchronous, and what is not, injecting a subjective element.

What one takes away from the book, if read with a generosity of spirit, is a feeling that there is a profundity to life if we could but see it.  If willing to be open to the interconnectedness of the Universe, there will be a greater likelihood of such events occurring, with beneficial consequences for mental and spiritual health, as well as the social good.

For the sceptic, it is not possible to define the supposed mechanism by which these conjunctions occur, and overinterpretation of chance seems the most likely explanation.  The event may have been compelling for the individual, but that does not mean it reflects an underlying reality, however much we might want there to be one.

The Paranormal Equation, by James D. Stein

Despite not having any kind of background in psychical research, mathematician James D. Stein in his The Paranormal Equation: A New Scientific Perspective on Remote Viewing, Clairvoyance, and Other Inexplicable Phenomena (2013) purports to cast new light on our understanding of a range of psychical phenomena.  Unfortunately, his painful lack of knowledge of the field, and the serious research being carried out in it, tells against him.

An immediate problem is that he uses the terms paranormal and supernatural interchangeably (usually together, as if they are synonyms) when they are completely different: what are considered paranormal phenomena may eventually be brought within a scientific framework, whereas the supernatural will remain outside science.  He also uses the term believer, to be fair a common problem, whereas for psychical researchers it is a question of evaluating evidence, as one would in any branch of science, not of belief.

Another problem is that he lumps together a range of disparate topics – reincarnation, telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, out-of-body experiences – as part of the paranormal (or supernatural of course) without delving much into the evidence for any of them.  He makes a division, relying on a point by Paul Kurtz (not the best arbiter if one wants to conduct a dispassionate enquiry) between paranormal phenomena and what he refers to as ‘weird stuff’, such as UFOs, alien abductions, spontaneous combustion and ghosts, among others (left unspecified).  He says he is not going to talk much about life after death, though that seems to be down to personal feeling rather than on any rigorous basis.  What he includes feels arbitrary, as if they simply came to mind when he was jotting down notes.

Assessing those bits he is interested in, he divides reality into three parts: the known; the unknown; and the unknowable.  He claims that, in an infinite Universe, there are rules which are true, but which we cannot deduce and which lie outside the power of science to analyse and explain.  The assumption allows a window for paranormal phenomena: if some aspects of reality are unknowable, why not those aspects we currently consider to fall within the paranormal?  As he puts it, in an infinite Universe, ‘there would be physical theories that we might guess or surmise, but never prove.’

However, Stein may consider them ‘inexplicable’, but there are many who have studied the field more extensively and would disagree.  Clearly, by eliding the supernatural (falling outside the scope of science) and the paranormal (which a sizeable literature argues does not), he is able to confer the characteristics of the former on the latter for the purposes of his pseudo-argument.  And of course, as he points out, ‘The supernatural falls into the category of the unknowable.  If we knew it, it wouldn’t be supernatural, would it?’

Stein’s approach feels pessimistic, but it is entirely possible the subject matter covered by psychical research, or at least some part of it, will eventually be explained and brought within a broader framework, whether or not the Universe is infinite.  To do so will require much more practical work, rather than listening to the efforts of armchair theorists, who think they have had a clever idea, telling those within the discipline that science may never be able to explain the phenomena they study.

As an indication of Stein’s superficial study, the bibliography is pathetic, containing five items dated 1980, 1981 (x2) and 2004 (x2).  He has not bothered to study the subject in any depth and few parapsychologists are cited (one of those he manages to misspell, Randall instead of Russell Targ; he also writes medium George Valiantine’s surname as Valentine), though as well as Kurtz there are references to Richard Wiseman, Martin Gardner and James Randi, indicating with which literature he is more familiar.  He is not averse to setting up a straw-man naive view of the paranormal he can then critique as ‘baloney’.  The general science content is accessible and informative for the general reader, but it is wasted here, and the book’s rambling structure, peppered with personal anecdotes, does not help the clarity of his thesis.

Rather than analyse what psychical research has found over the last 140 years, he has attempted to develop a theoretical approach from first principles.  It is nice to see someone from the outside with scientific credentials tackle what is often considered taboo, but the result will not sway either psychical researchers or mainstream scientists, both of whom are likely to consider the implications of an infinite Universe irrelevant to the here and now.  Until we have further evidence to support Stein’s position, if that ever becomes possible, it is better to ignore the inexplicable in his subtitle in favour of unexplained, and carry on as usual.

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