A Natural History of Ghosts

Can something not made of matter matter to science? We are talking ghosts. People might believe in atoms, neurons, and black matter. People might believe in gods, demons, and eternal beings. But people also believe in ghosts. The first two groups are amply served by scientific research in several fields. Ghosts finally receive the recognition they deserve in a book dealing exclusively with them.

The science of ghosts isn't new or an invention of modern times. Eminent people have dabbled in it before. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes for instance posed this question in 1651: Why do ghosts wear clothes? He found no answer. This book takes things even further by following up on the general question about clothing: Do ghosts get cold? Where do the clothes come from? Does all clothing end up being used by ghosts? I picture heaven and hell as well as all the intermediary realms as huge wardrobes filled with discarded shoes, socks, shirts, frocks, and capes. Does it hold the answer to all the single socks disappearing from your washing machine?

Roger Clarke's A Natural History of Ghosts was published by Particular Books. The writer grew up and spent all his youth in ghost haunted buildings and is therefore to be considered an expert in the field. His first encounters happened in a 17th century rectory on the Isle of Wight. The rectory was regularly haunted by the ghost of a woman. When the family got bored with just one ghost, they moved to a Norman abbey in another part of the island. The ghost factor there was increased considerably. And the Isle of Wight has so many ghosts to show off,  you will find it hard not to run into any of them no matter how short your stay.

Collecting so many friends in higher places at a young age, it can't surprise that Roger Clarke became the youngest member of the Society of Psychical Research at the age of 14. While other boys might  dream of piloting a speedboat at the age of 16, he got an exclusive tour of the Tower of London after dark. I won't bore you with an interminable list of ghostly visitors there, it is mostly self-evident.

Ghosts have a limited imagination, and that limitation translates into this book. It is not Roger Clarke who is boring readers, instead, ghosts are shown up as great bores. It makes you wonder on the other hand if they are not bored to death with what they do, literally. Every ghost ever encountered is extremely limited in scope; it only covers a few feet of ground over a thousand years, and that again and again; it utters the same moan every day for 500 years in a row; it wears the same clothes (there we are again) from its first appearance onward; and it rattles the same rusty chains all the time (even though they must have been new at the start). The author can't is unable to quit that vicious cycle as long as he sticks to reported facts.

Do you know the story of the Angels of Mons? During the battle of Mons in 1914, ghostly bowmen of the battle of Agincourt fought in 1415 arose from their graves and went to the aid of the beleaguered British Army at Mons. Why they should have made the journey in the first place is a mystery. By mid 1915, half the British population would have sworn that the story was for real citing a friend of a friend as a source. But the story is a hoax. It was published on September 29, 1914, in the London Evening News. It was a short story marked as fiction written by the well-known Gothic writer Arthur Machen.

The book shows that the eminent psychic frauds and equally eminent and well-meaning investigators are much more interesting than ghosts. There is a reason to that, obviously. Ghosts are only a means to an end and should be grizzly enough by their mere existence. People on the other hand have ulterior financial motives and therefore must be news-worthy in their own right. I won't spoil the fun in giving away any details here, but you'll have a few good laughs on that count.

Further reading