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.

The Female Detective, by Andrew Forrester

The Female Detective was originally published in 1864 and was written by Andrew Forrester, the pseudonym of James Redding Ware.  It consists of two novellas plus five short stories which are recounted by Mrs Gladden (though we are told it is not her real name), apparently fiction’s first female detective.  Told after her retirement when she feels she can be candid, they are a mix of her own cases and others she relates second-hand.  She is not always successful in her efforts (a result less common in fiction than in real life), but she always retains her integrity.

At times she appears to be a member of the regular Metropolitan force working undercover, able to call on resources of her colleagues if necessary.  Generally, however, she depicts herself as a private detective who works in expectation of claiming reward money offered for a conviction, so more in the line of an enquiry agent or bounty hunter.  That it is not an entirely respectable profession for a woman is indicated by her secrecy about how she makes her living, although it also assists her covert methods.  She is not unique in her role, as in one story she is joined in an investigation by a female colleague.

Her status as a woman (something she never tires of reminding the reader) enables her to present herself as an ordinary individual, often employing her skill as a milliner.  This allows her to inveigle herself into households under false pretences in order to elicit confidences from unsuspecting residents in a manner that would be impossible for a man, thereby providing her with an advantage.  Her methods involve a great deal of intimate female chat over cups of tea, and she is particularly skilled at encouraging other women to open up to her.

She has a forensic mind allied to an understanding of human nature, and she is able to lay out the evidence in often fine detail in order to assess the probabilities of a case, though the reader may not always agree with the assumptions from which her deductions proceed (an assumption concerning the alleged proclivities of foreigners to engage in knife crime compared to the English, for example); in fact, so fine is the detail advanced in laying out the evidence that this is one of those books where, even by prolix mid-Victorian standards, one suspects the author is being paid by the line.

Allied to her intelligence, Mrs Gladden has a strong, perhaps rigid, sense of justice when the letter of the law clashes with fairness, albeit such complications tend to resolve themselves satisfactorily.  Such is the outcome when she discovers by chance in ‘A Tenant for Life’ that a thoroughly unpleasant fellow has been cheated – for the best of reasons – out of an estate in favour of a much worthier individual.  This was done by substituting a live baby for a dead heir through one of those complicated inheritance plots so beloved by Victorian novelists.  Despite her distaste for the man, Mrs Gladden tells him the situation, aware of the unhappiness it will cause others of much greater virtue, but he conveniently dies as result of his dissolute lifestyle, the child also dies, and the proper succession is restored.  Mrs Gladden might as well not have bothered to investigate.

While giving little of herself away, it is clear she lives alone and has no domestic ties.  Her strong-mindedness and desire to make her own way in the world puts her more in the company of women who populated the sensation fiction of the period (and the stories share some of the same themes) than the ideal of the angel in the house.  Yet her sense of independence is double-edged, demonstrating a way in which a woman at that time could earn a living while undermining the social acceptability she would have possessed had she conformed to social expectations.

The most interesting story, ‘A Child Found Dead: Murder or No Murder’, was inspired by the 1860 Road Hill House case (a note by the author tries to pretend they are dissimilar on the grounds that the solution in the story involves a visitor, whereas on the night of the murder of Francis Saville Kent there were no visitors in the house, a change that avoids a potential charge of libel).  The facts of the matter are probably familiar to modern readers because they were covered in detail by Bernard Taylor in Constance Kent and the Killing at Road Hill House and Kate Summerscale in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House.

It is not one of Mrs Gladden’s cases, rather she narrates the tale as told to her.  The hypothesis arrived at after an examination of the facts revolves around the death occurring while the perpetrator was sleepwalking, ‘sleeping monomania’ as it is called, raising issues of moral responsibility.  There are links here with the theft of the Moonstone while in trance in Wilkie Collins’ 1868 novel.  Unfortunately, ‘A Child Found Dead’ peters out before the solution can be established.  The final story, ‘The Mystery’, while short (and again not her own case) has its own interest as an early example of what would become the locked room mystery.

The 2012 British Library edition has a forward by Alexander McCall Smith discussing female detectives (of which he has some knowledge).  Mike Ashley’s introduction looks at The Female Detective in the context of Ware’s career and the evolution of women detectives in Victorian fiction.  He notes that a very similar version of ‘A Child Found Dead’ had appeared as a pamphlet in 1862 under Ware’s name.  It was titled The Road Murder, making the link between story and the Kent murder explicit, despite his later disavowal.

Real Ghost and Paranormal Stories from India, by Shalu Sharma

Shalu Sharma’s Real Ghost and Paranormal Stories from India (2013) is similar in tone, not to mention length, to Irina-Elena Asimine/Elena Lasina’s stories about her alleged paranormal experiences in Romania.  Both provide dramatic first-person accounts, with no way for the reader to verify them.  Nonetheless, as with Asimine’s book, Sharma offers insights into the way such events are processed culturally.

Sharma begins with a taxonomy of Indian ghosts, generally the spirits of the deceased with the odd mythological entity thrown in.  On the whole they are a hostile bunch to be crossed at one’s peril, and are not averse to placing a curse on the living.  Often they are unquiet because rituals have not been performed, or performed correctly, or because they have left earthly desires unfulfilled.

There follow eight paranormal accounts which affected her, her extended family, or friends.  They mostly deal with various types of ghost, including one who possessed a cow herder.  Another concerns a haunting where the ghost walked repeatedly into a particular area of a bedroom, and on investigation a body was found behind the wall, another was about a woman persecuted by an evil ghost who appeared to her in mirrors (a common trope in horror films).

A non-ghost story recounts a small child dangerously ill and his grandfather apparently making a pact with God to die in his place and getting his wish, though such a conjunction could of course have been chance.  Also included is a chapter describing a dramatic ability to travel astrally she possessed when young but which eventually deserted her, and is thus sadly not now amenable to scientific investigation.

Sharma is from Bihar, in eastern India* and there may be variations in ghost types across the populous country, but she provides a sense of the attitude towards them to be found in this particular rural state.  The extent to which her accounts are representative of those reported in the region generally, and whether the existence of ghosts is believed by many people there, is another matter.

This is a quick read, and while the sceptic will naturally dismiss the accounts as lacking any evidential support, it is a reminder that there are alternatives to western-style ghosts, and categories are not as clear-cut as we may assume.  It also provides a reminder, if any were needed, that it is not a sensible idea to site an earth closet overlooking a cemetery when one has to visit it in the dark if nature calls during the night.  It is clearly asking for trouble.

*As I was reading Sharma’s book, I came across a newspaper article about a fake police station in Bihar that had operated, just a few hundred yards from the real police station, for eight months (‘Indian gang run fake police station for months’, The Daily Telegraph, 19 August 2022, p. 14).  The scammers dressed up as police officers and demanded bribes when residents reported crimes or made complaints, which of course were not pursued.  The fact they were able to operate so long before they were caught (by chance) may say something about the credulity of the local population as well as the state of the local justice system.

Leni Riefenstahl’s Last Words, by Maximillien de Lafayette

Apparently Maximillien de Lafayette’s Leni Riefenstahl’s Last Words about Hitler, Goebbels, Nazis and the Jews (2014) is extracted from his book The Complete Story of the Planned Escape of Hitler: The Nazi-Spain-Argentina Coverup, the thesis being that Hitler did not die in the bunker on 30 April 1945 but was whisked away with Eva to end their days in Argentina.  Lafayette interviewed Leni Riefenstahl in December 1972 in Munich.  There are also brief interviews with Traudl Junge, about Hitler dictating his will and that shot, actor and singer Zarah Leander, and Simone Signoret.

Lafayette’s primary concern was to demonstrate the escape of top Nazis to South America, a notion to which Riefenstahl subscribed.  Leander also thought Hitler survived the war.  Other topics are covered, such as the secret Nazi aircraft able to fly 6,000 kilometres non-stop, the United States’ need for German scientists, Berlin’s cosy relationship with the Vatican, Goebbels’ knowledge of Hitler’s film favourites, and the use of doubles by wartime leaders, including the unfortunate ones standing in for Hitler and Eva Braun’s corpses which allowed them to escape.

Riefenstahl recounted stories that Hitler, Braun and Martin Bormann left either ‘aboard what the Americans call a UFO’, presumably what is elsewhere described as ‘a supersonic-anti gravity “Vrill” he [Hitler] built himself using a mind-bending “Metal-Alloy Technology” unknown to scientists,’ or more conventionally by U-boat from a secret base.  They were joined in exile by other Nazis.  Lafayette is sceptical of Riefenstahl’s claim that Bormann went with Hitler but buys the rest.  The Americans kept quiet about it because they were keen to acquire German technology, though one might have thought that putting Hitler on trial at Nuremberg would not have hampered the acquisition of intellectual property.

Riefenstahl’s interview contains the usual self-justifications.  She was innocent of any crimes, in fact some of her best friends were Jews, and Hitler had Jewish friends too.  Certainly she never knew what was going on so while horrible things happened to the Jews, they were nothing to do with her, she only cared about filmmaking.  What a ghastly man Goebbels was, what a publicity-seeking trollop Traudl Junge is because she was busy typing the other side of the bunker so how could she know about Hitler’s fate, but Riefenstahl knows all about it even though she wasn’t anywhere near the bunker.  ‘Hitler was not an angel’ but the Allies were just as bad with their carpet bombing.  What a terrible time she had at the hands of interrogators, and so on.

The problem with Riefenstahl is that it is difficult to believe anything she said in old age because she was hardly likely to incriminate herself.  In fact, the suspicion arises that she is making fun of a credulous Lafayette as she performs contortions to show she was one of the in-crowd hobnobbing with the Nazi elite, and therefore a significant individual in her own right, yet distanced enough not to be complicit in their crimes.  There is an intellectual dishonesty at work which renders her statements useless.  Lafayette’s theory about Hitler escaping to Argentina (or possibly a military base in Antarctica) has no direct evidence to support it but much against it, and it is hard to imagine how a successful escape could have been managed (science fiction craft aside).  The most interesting element of the book is the photographs.

Invisible Ink, by Christopher Fowler

Christopher Fowler’s Invisible Ink: How 100 Great Authors Disappeared (2012) – actually some collaborations are included so more than 100 are covered – is a compilation of columns from the Independent in which allegedly obscure authors are brought back from the literary netherworld into the light, to be appreciated once more.  There are a number of reasons for such an unfortunate situation to have arisen: an author may have produced only a small number of, albeit significant, books, or even just one, and vanished unnoticed through death or discouragement; marketing may not get behind a fine book and nobody hears about it; tastes change and a writer, perhaps a prolific one, falls out of favour; or is out of step with prevailing fashions, perhaps finding a small cult following later but not wider acclaim.  They may lack the physical attractiveness that often helps the tyro.

Where they do not deserve to have fallen into neglect, rehabilitating them is worthwhile.  However, while undeserved obscurity is certainly true of many of them, some of Fowler’s choices are surprisingly well known, and are present on the grounds that while they may be famous for certain books, they also produced work unread today.  So the bulk may be unfamiliar to even avid readers, but I doubt there will be many people who have not come across Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker and Robert Louis Stevenson.  Fowler argues that much of their oeuvre has been ignored, so they warrant inclusion.  True, but they are hardly in need of a plug, while there must be many worthy of inclusion who have, as the subtitle actually states, disappeared from contemporary consciousness.

Others, while perhaps only known to a few, are still in print and have their devotees.  Fowler notes that Margery Allingham has a society, as does Arthur Machen – hardly a mark of invisibility.  Georgette Heyer, and Victoria Holt/Jean Plaidy may not sell in the quantities they used to, but they are still read, as are writers like John Dickson Carr, Barbara Pym and Edmund Crispin.  It can though be difficult for those of an older generation to determine current trends, so perhaps it is easy to overestimate levels of popularity.  In my childhood Richmal Crompton was a staple, these days it is likely William is mostly recognised through Martin Jarvis’s adaptations.  It is sad to think Geoffrey Willans’ Molesworth stories do not hold the same appeal they did for the New Elizabethans, but they smell of a bygone era.

For most of the selection, neglect is an undeserved fate, for some it is understandable.  I was surprised to see an entry on T Lobsang Rampa (Cyril Hoskin), the mystical plumber from Plympton, as there is a good reason why he is more obscure than he used to be.  As an aside, finding myself in the Plympton area on holiday one year, I visited to see if they had commemorated their most prominent citizen (okay, it’s a small field), but alas found no trace.  Rampa was a prophet without honour in his own, sadly rather scruffy, town.  Why Richard Bach was included is a mystery.  Fowler suggests students eventually became too sophisticated to fall for Jonathan Livingstone Seagull‘s claptrap, though I read it at school shortly after it was published and thought it mediocre and obvious even then.

Fowler’s 100 has only scratched the surface.  If he had cast his net further he could have come up with large numbers of admirable authors unheard of by most readers today, apart from specialists.  Yet it is worth noting that writers are generally forgotten in time, whatever their merits.  Those bulky Victorian novels often had catalogues in the back listing the publisher’s other titles: probably 90% of the authors have vanished, and one would need to go to a deposit library to find copies of their books.  It is unsurprising the majority of Fowler’s 100 or so are slipping from view.  Are today’s bestsellers going to be much different in a hundred years’ time?

On the other hand, when Fowler was writing his columns, ebooks were taking off, and in the past decade the digital format, along with a number of specialist publishers, has helped to bring back previously disregarded authors.  Some of those he writes about have achieved a second wind, though others have still to find an audience, but having been included here increases the likelihood they will eventually be made more accessible, and readers will have a chance to judge for themselves.  While one wishes the entries were longer than the space afforded by a newspaper column, any effort that encourages readers to extend their range has to be a good thing.

I was amused to find a reference to the long-gone Popular Book Centres, repositories of scruffy paperbacks, and occasionally unusual finds.  I worked in the Balham one, a couple of doors away from the Devonshire pub, for eleven months in 1980-81; my employment was terminated just before the job security being there a year would have brought me.  The owner, the cadaverous Mr Groot, would pop in occasionally for an inspection, but mostly his sidekicks Mr Hawkins and Mr Fletcher, sounding more like Elizabethan characters than bag carriers, came to collect the day’s take.

At a Popular Book Centre one could buy a second-hand book or magazine then return it to the shop, receiving a credit for half of what one had paid for it.  It was a business model that was not going to make anyone rich considering the modest prices charged.  When I started, ‘glamour’, which accounted for the bulk of the shop’s profit, used to be kept on the counter by the till, so anyone who was paying was obliged to stand next to blokes leafing through soft core porn.  It was later put behind a screen as regulations were tightened.  I used to have to check the mucky mags before giving credit because customers would remove pages.

On my first day I was raided by the police, and they carefully went through all the magazines, including the ordinary ones pinned to the walls, because my predecessor had allegedly been selling paedophile material and they thought it might be secreted within more acceptable publications.  Fortunately, and unsurprisingly, he had taken his supply with him.  One day a prostitute came in and bought virtually my entire stock of ‘glamour’ to keep her clients amused while they waited for her services.  It was all as seedy as it sounds.

The Art of Photography at National Geographic, by Jane Livingston (ed.)

Unsurprisingly for an illustrated magazine with a long history intent on showing ‘the world and all that is in it,’ the National Geographic has a rich visual archive.  For The Art of Photography at National Geographic, first published in 1988, Jane Livingston, chief curator at the Corcoran gallery of Art in Washington D.C., drew together, from its hundred thousand images, nearly 300 that were representative of its history, accompanied by an informative introduction.  Over half had never previously been published.

The book was based on an exhibition, ODYSSEY, put together to celebrate the magazine’s hundredth birthday.  Photographs have long been key to the publication’s success, moulding its image in the popular imagination, and it has been highly influential in shaping how such subjects are represented.  Yet the strength of the National Geographic Society archive had been kept insulated from the wider currents of both the art photography world and journalism.  This was an opportunity to showcase the collection and bring it to a wider audience than before.

As Livingston notes in her introduction, the project allowed the photographs to be assessed on their own merits, away from the context of a magazine in which they were included as an accompaniment to a text rather than the focus (though in some circumstances one would like to know the story, and fuller captions would have been useful).  Livingston acknowledges that their aesthetic value has changed over the decades, taking on an aura that they may not have had when they were made, a process that was accelerating in the 1980s when photographs made for widely varying purposes came to be considered artistic objects.

The aim of the exhibition and book was to concentrate on less-well-known (at the time) images that specifically represented the magazine, rather than a representative sample of the archive, which includes well known pictures that have been collected haphazardly from a variety of sources.  As well as introducing treasures, the intention was to help publicise photographers whose work had often gone unheralded because it was confined to the magazine and had no wider exposure.

The book’s organisation is loosely thematic, with photographs from different decades juxtaposed – letting the reader compare and contrast – rather than chronological, so one cannot track the evolution of their use as described in the introduction.  It is also worth bearing in mind that the reproduction of photographs that originally appeared in the magazine is superior here, thanks to technological improvements in printing methods.

National Geographic brought the exotic and foreign into suburban homes, enabling the reader to roam the world before the advent of mass travel and the Internet, but from a western perspective, with US and European photographers more extensively used than those from within the cultures depicted.  These are by no means ideologically neutral views of the planet but have been taken and editorially selected to promote a particular perspective; they are not narratives told from the ‘inside’, however sincere the publisher’s intention.

It is a beautifully curated and printed book, and it was pioneering in highlighting the National Geographic Society’s holdings, albeit a tiny fraction of them.  However, in the third of a century since its publication the world of photography has changed enormously.  All issues of National Geographic can now be found online, but the magazine has to compete with a plurality of voices unimaginable in the 1980s.

Previous Older Entries Next Newer Entries