The Realm of Ghosts, by Eric Maple

The Realm of Ghosts cvr

The preface to Eric Maple’s 1964 nonfiction book begins with a striking claim: ‘The best authenticated phenomenon of history is the ghost’.  That is because, he continues, there have been so many reports over such a long period of time, seen by people from all walks of life, that ‘purely on statistical grounds alone the case for its existence has been securely established’.  Therefore Maple’s aim is to ‘understand the character and role of the vast army of phantoms in our midst, and to attempt to discover the reason for their existence’.

His approach is a chronological one, from ancient times to the recent past (including his own investigations).  The back cover has a quote taken from a review in the Daily Herald which calls the book ‘a scholarly and exciting account of ghosts and their hauntings through the ages’.  The Herald ceased publication in 1964, and though it is unlikely the two events were connected one wonders about the paper’s journalistic standards, because scholarly is one thing The Realm of Ghosts is not.  There is a decent index, in the days when popular books included them as routine, and a two-and-a-half page bibliography, but that is as close to scholarship as we get.  It is rather a romp through entertaining folkloric ghost yarns, some turning out not to be about ghosts at all, with personal opinions thrown in.

Also on the back cover, undermining the Herald’s claim, is a list of some of the more sensational topics covered: ‘Uncanny revelations… Animals – diabolical and spectral; Child ghosts; Charnel houses; Funeral rites; Marshland ghosts and devils; Necromancy; Poltergeists; Sexual demons; Sin eaters; Witchcraft; and [in red for extra emphasis] The cult of the dead’.  There is a distinctly ’60s occult revival feel to that list, and Maple was also responsible for writing The Dark World of Witches and Superstition and the Superstitious.

The last of these was reviewed by Renée Haynes in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, the only book by him to be covered at all by the SPR.  That perhaps says something for The Realm of Ghosts’ scholarly credentials (though Maple was an SPR member for a while and The Realm of Ghosts was added to the Society’s library on first publication so unless it was a donation there must have been agreement that it had some merit).  Significantly perhaps the Pan edition was issued in that key year of 1967, and one can imagine it nestling on its first owner’s bookshelf next to a paperback featuring naked witches on the cover.

I’m not sure Maple’s book was well received by the public.  My copy (illustrated above) was remaindered in pre-decimal times, as the cover price was 5/- and there is a sticker reducing the price to two bob.  That’s a shame because it is entertaining, but its fatal weakness is that while the anecdotes come thick and fast, there are no references for them whatsoever, and he rarely mentions sources.  This renders it useless for serious research.  He does have some interesting ideas, but their presentation is often obscured by poor structure and looseness of terminology.

So, does Maple fulfil his aim as stated in the preface of discovering the reason for ghosts’ existence?  He notes that ‘Throughout history, many scholars and thoughtful laymen have attempted to find the solution to the great ghost mystery with varying degrees of failure’, so it isn’t likely that Maple will succeed when they hadn’t.  Where he himself stands on the existence of ghosts is unclear.  At times he talks about them as real independent entities and some of the stories he provides present ghosts as having an objective existence, particularly when posing a threat to the living.  At other points he is sceptical, and they are more like a Freudian id, atavistic survivals of our prehistoric past; projections of the human imagination’s fundamental horror of death, made strange in the process: ‘if one had never heard of ghosts their fantastic behaviour is what one might expect of a race of creatures from another planet’.  Poltergeists though are firmly expressions of an ‘intangible spirit’, and never an expression of psychokinetic forces generated by a living agent.

Whatever their status, he seems to argue, we cannot grasp ghosts’ essence as they are always moving beyond explanation.  He is scathing about the efforts of psychical researchers in understanding ghosts, and even more so about Spiritualism, a faith he characterises as one more manifestation of the Cult of the Dead that he sees as a constant in human history.  He perceives deep historical continuities in the presence of ghosts, despite superficial differences caused by changing social circumstances (for example there are not many ghosts returning to point out where they hid their gold in an age when most people keep their money in the bank).

His conclusion is that ghosts preserve folk memories, or superstitions, and we will believe in them until such times as we are able to face death without fear.  Yet at the same time he is convinced that the march of modernity with all its distractions, leading to the loss of continuity in our association with the ghostly realm, has severed the connection, causing them to vanish from our lives.  It’s a verdict that history has not confirmed, bearing in mind how lively the ghost community is these days.  Television in particular, cited by Maple as helping to disrupt our link to ghosts, has actually become a significant means for its transmission.

To sum up, the book is dated, with a lack of coherent analysis and a tendency to superficiality caused by attempting to cram hundreds of years into 200 pages.  While dismissing the efforts of psychical researchers, he fails to consider the theoretical contributions to be found in their academic papers that might have deepened his insights.  Despite those limitations, it is a pleasure to read, though one can see why it is has not been cited by later writers, and it has been superseded by lengthier and more rigorous treatments, most recently Roger Clarke’s A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof.  By contrast The Realm of Ghosts is really one for specialists interested in the historiography of the subject.

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