Ghost Hunters is wonderfully strange piece of writing, even by the standards of books on the paranormal.
The book recalls a series of psychical investigations conducted by Ed and Lorraine Warren. The Warrens were a pair of American ghost-hunters who first shot to fame in the 1970s based on their involvement in the infamous Amityville haunting. Their lives and exploits then went on to form the basis for the interlocking Conjuring and Annabel series of horror movies. Ghost Hunters is actually the second in a series of six books, all of which were published in the 80’s and 90’s, after the couple’s star had begun to fall.
The first intriguing thing about this series of books is the weirdness of the format. Books about the paranormal are in and of themselves an interesting edge-case when it comes to categorisation: Are they fiction? Are they non-fiction? Are they memoir? Depending upon the rhetorical style adopted by the author, there’s actually a good deal of variation in how information is presented and, by extension, which literary genre the books most closely resemble.
This book presents as a series of case files from the Warrens’ archives that are basically self-contained short stories. Despite supposedly being co-written by the Warrens, different stories contain either extended quotes attributed to the Warrens or weird little vignettes where someone is asking them questions. Once you move beyond the Warrens’ own words (more on which later), the book is not just well-written but written with a good deal of literary panache. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that Ghost Hunters works better as an accessible horror short-fiction collection than it does as a book about paranormal investigation.
For Real is an occasional series about scary, horrific, and unsettling stuff that presents itself as non-fiction. This might include the paranormal as well as true crime and odd occurrences. The rest of the series can be found here.
Early in 2021, the BBC launched a series of podcasts written and presented by someone called Danny Robins. At that point, Robins was already a playwright and he had helmed a series of episodic podcasts called Haunted. Though well-produced and centred on the UK, Haunted was not all that different to any of the hundreds of paranormal podcasts that remain scattered across the internet: You had an attempt at re-creation, you had interviews with people who may or may not be disturbed, and you have the familiar paranormal framing device of pretending the whole thing is some kind of open-minded scientific investigation whereas in fact it’s just an excuse to tell ghost stories. Haunted was not a huge success but Robins’ connections and the series production values were enough to turn some heads at the BBC and so Radio 4 commissioned what would wind up becoming a bit of a break-through hit in so far as lots of the people who listened to The Battersea Poltergeist would not otherwise listen to a podcast with paranormal themes.
In hindsight, it is pretty obvious why The Battersea Poltergeist became a global success: The production values were superb, the dramatizations included serious acting talent, and Robins himself was an engaging active host who pushed the series relentlessly on social media. However, over and above the formal successes of The Battersea Poltergeist, I think the series real success lays in the way that it reached beyond the merely paranormal to the psychological forces at work within the family. To this day, I frequently think of the way that the girl who was once at the centre of the hauntings seemed to just ‘grow out’ of ghosts and went on to live a normal life while the professional ghost-hunter spent years returning and returning to the house in the hope of re-establishing contact with what was manifestly nothing more than a pre-teen girl’s need for attention. I actually wrote something about The Battersea Poltergeist last year and my feelings about the series have only grown warmer with the passage of time.
Robins launched another podcast named Uncanny for Halloween 2021. It returned to the episodic structure of Haunted and failed to re-capture that broader audience. To be honest, I listened to the first few episodes and rapidly lost interest as the format of dramatic re-creation, interviews, discussion, and frequent online calls to action seemed to overwhelm the content and served to compress each story down to the point where everything felt really insubstantial and rushed. I also found the constant musical stings and Robins’ attempts to drive audience engagement quite irritating.
For Halloween 2022, Robins has ditched the stand-alone episode format of Haunted and Uncanny in favour of the more sustained examination of a single case that worked so well on The Battersea Poltergeist. However, despite again boasting some real acting talent and showing signs of evolving the formula, I don’t think that Robins’ The Witch Farm is anywhere near as fun or as thought-provoking as The Battersea Poltergeist. It all feels a bit too… well… glib for my liking.
Having immersed myself to the point of diminishing returns in the story of Gary Gygax and TSR, I have recently been enjoying thinking about the differences between US and UK RPG culture and how Britain reacted to the invention of RPGs.
My first attempt to investigate the question was somewhat frustrating as Livingstone and Jackson’s Dice Men turned out to be a desperately mundane business memoir by a very nice man who made some money selling table-top games only to then go on and make a whole lot more money making and selling video games. I don’t regret reading Dice Men, it was interesting in its own way but I realise if I am going to make any inroads into the history of the British RPG scene, I really need to look at histories written by obsessive nerds and those are precisely the words that spring to mind when I think of Mark Barrowcliffe’s rather charming memoir The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons, and Growing up Strange.
In May 2000, Lucie Blackman and Louise Philips left the UK for Japan. Friends since childhood, the pair had been working as flight attendants and when that career path didn’t work out, they decided to take some time and travel around Asia. Their first port of call was Tokyo where they secured work as hostesses in a bar where Japanese men would pay to get drunk in the company of beautiful Western women. Two months after taking the job in the Roppongi district of Tokyo, Lucie Blackman left for a meeting with a client. That evening, Lucie called home to inform her flat-mate that she was visiting the sea-side with a client. She was never seen again.
A few days after Lucie’s disappearance, Louise was contacted by a man who claimed to be a member of a cult that Lucie had recently joined. According to this man, Lucie had embarked on a new stage of her life and wished to have no further contact with her old friends and family. Seven months later, Lucie’s dismembered body was found in a cave 200 yards from the home of Joji Obara, a once-phenomenally successful property tycoon whose phone Lucie used to call home the evening of her disappearance. When the police searched Obara’s home, they found detailed records of Obara’s sexual history including references to somewhere between 150 and 400 women who had all been befriended, drugged and raped as part of Obara’s fondness for what he referred to as ‘conquest play’.
Written by the Times’ Asian editor Richard Lloyd Parry, People Who Eat Darkness is the story of Lucie’s abduction, her family’s search for justice, and the weird Japanese demi-monde that first put Lucie in contact with Obara.
Games Workshop occupies a bit of a weird space in my relationship to gaming history: On the one hand, I have always really loved the art design of Games Workshop products and I remember loving the idea of Warhammer 40K and Space Marines long before I ever became aware of RPGs or even miniature-based games. Having grown up in Britain in the 1990s, it was not possible to be interested in this kind of stuff without encountering the vibes and visuals that radiated off of Games Workshop’s products. On the other hand, I became aware of RPGs a little too late to remember the days when Games Workshop were a presence in the RPG landscape and so, as far as I am concerned, Games Workshop is just that place on the high street that sells really well-designed but horrifically overpriced miniatures used in a series of really rather dull and uninteresting war-games.
Because of this slightly weird relationship with Games Workshop, I did not buy Dice Men: The Origin Story of Games Workshop out of a sense of nostalgia but rather out of a desire to learn a little bit more about the early days of the British RPG scene. It turns out that this was a bit of a mistake as while Livingstone does mention RPGs, it is merely as part of a list of products produced by a company that Livingstone happened to set up. Those expecting insights into the RPG industry or even social history are doomed to be disappointed as Dice Men reads less like a personal slice of geek history and more like a polite and really rather mundane business memoir written by a man who entered and exited the world of table-top games without much in the way of emotional attachment one way or the other. While this is a bit of a disappointment, it is also a refreshing change from the high-pitched melodrama that tends to echo through the pages of every published history of Dungeons & Dragons. This being said, the book is not without its own brand of quiet revelations.
To paraphrase Homer Simpson: We’ve all thought about writing a history of Dungeons & Dragons at one time or another, but what about the victims? Hardworking historians like Jon Peterson, Michael Witwer or David M. Ewalt. These are people who saw an overcrowded market and said ‘Me too!’
Now… obviously there is some degree of truth to this gag. Dungeons and Dragons has been around for nearly fifty years and for most of that time the closest you could get to a book about gaming was Shannon Appelcline’s industrial histories, some stuff written from the point of view of theatre studies, and a sociological study that says a lot more about male-dominated social clubs at mid-western universities in the 1970s than it does about RPGs themselves. Then, after literally decades, the dam broke and it feels like we’re getting a new history of D&D published every six months or so.
While this is all technically true, it kind of fails to acknowledge that not all of those histories are particularly good and those that are good are quite often attempting to do subtly different things with subtly different results. Thankfully, Ben Riggs’ Slaying the Dragon is attempting something that is not only quite precise and well-executed but also a welcome addition to the field.
The original vision for this blog was a place for me to write about ‘hauntings’ in the most expansive sense of the word. What I mean by that is that while I definitely wanted to write about ghosts and ghost-stories, I also wanted to write about memory, trauma, and all the ways in which the past imposes itself upon the present and helps to shape the future. While this original vision may have never come fully to pass, I remain deeply fascinated by this more expansive conception of the haunting. Evidently I am not alone in this fascination as Ghosts of the Tsunami is a book about just such a form of haunting written by the Asia editor of the London Times.
Depending upon who you ask and where you look, the Mothman was first spotted either by a crew of grave-diggers or a bunch of teenagers hanging out near the dis-used munitions storage facilities on the outskirts of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Both sets of sightings describe a large man-sized creature with glowing red eyes and huge bat-like wings. The first sighting of the Mothman was in November 1966 and dozens of near-identical sightings would follow before dropping off almost completely in December 1967.
Over the years, various attempts have been made to account for these sightings; Wild-life experts have claimed that when the residents of Point Pleasant claimed to have seen a man-sized bat-winged creature with glowing red eyes, they were actually seeing either large barn owls or a type of crane with distinctive red plumage on its head. Psychologists have claimed that regardless of what it was that the original witnesses saw, many of the dozens of subsequent reports were results of either hoaxing or a kind of mass-hysteria wherein everyone decided that they too wanted to be part of something that was garnering national attention. The debate still rages at a level sufficient to have established the Mothman as a solid second-tier cryptid: Sure he’s no Bigfoot or Nessie, but he’s easily bigger than the Skunk Apes of Florida or the Ogopogo lake monster.
The thing is that while Mothman is a cool creature and the weird mass-hysteria following the initial sightings is interesting enough to sustain the occasional fresh book or documentary series, the Mothman himself is really only the tip of a much larger and weirder iceberg.
As someone who has been writing quite a bit about Lovecraft of late, it occurred to me that I should probably try and familiarise myself with some of the scholarly discourse surrounding his work and its legacy.
Aside from Lovecraft’s racism, the most obvious point of entry seemed to be the question of whether Lovecraft’s stories merely overlap or whether the referencing, shared names, and recurring settings amount to anything akin to an extended literary universe or ‘mythos’.
As a Lovecraft reader, my assumption has always been that while Lovecraft had this list of Named Entities that he would return to in story after story, said Named Entities were never deployed in a particularly coherent or consistent fashion.
I assumed that whenever Lovecraft needed one of his characters to read from some mind-shredding book of forbidden lore, he’d drop a reference to the Necronomicon because having the Necronomicon feature in a load of different stories strengthened its symbolic power as a representation of ‘forbidden lore that will melt your shit’. I did not occur to me that Lovecraft might have had a clear idea as to what the Necronomicon actually contained.
Similarly, when Lovecraft made repeated references to Arkham or Kingsport, I assumed it was because he wanted to set the action in either a coastal town or a mid-sized city and rather than using real-world places that he could ‘get wrong’ he used made-up places which, though inspired by the real world, could be bent and twisted to suit the needs of a given story. It did not occur to me that Lovecraft might have had these fictional towns all planned out in his head like Tolkien drawing maps of the Shire. In other words, I assumed that, for Lovecraft, a commitment to coherent world-building was much less of a priority than producing stories that ‘worked’ and hit specific thematic and affective beats.
The first inkling that maybe people were not reading Lovecraft in the same way I was came when I started encountering Joshi’s repeated angry references to the so-called ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ and while I had always assumed that the term was just a means of referring to the content of Lovecraft’s stories, it is a term that has actually been subject to a surprising amount of discourse. This somewhat frustrating book purports to describe the rise and fall of one very specific vision of that mythos, but it does so using entirely the wrong set of critical tools.
Back in the 1950s, thinkers such as Timothy Leary argued that human relationships tended to stabilise around four different dynamics or life-scripts. Over time, this idea collided with a similar suite of ideas coming out of mid-Century psychoanalysis and went on to inspire works such as Eric Berne’s Games People Play and Thomas Anthony Harris’ I’m Okay, You’re Okay.
Loosely inspired by these ideas, Robert Anton Wilson commented in one of his books that the Hippie Movement corresponded to the dynamic known as friendly weakness or ‘I’m not okay, you’re okay’. Building on this idea, Iain Spence argued in 1995 that all movements in popular culture could be understood in terms of particular life-scripts and that popular culture evolved by processing through different dynamics before settling on one of the four major life scripts. Unfortunately Spence’s so-called Sekhmet hypothesis faced two major problems: The first was his insistence that popular culture followed an eleven-year cycle that corresponded to cycles in solar energy, and the second was that aside from the Friendly Weakness of the Hippies and the Hostile Weakness of Punks, nobody can agree on what constitutes a phase of popular culture. Since first articulating the Sekhmet hypothesis, Spence has backed away from the astrological elements of the original idea.
While I don’t necessarily buy into the idea of there being a tonal cycle to popular culture, I do think it’s interesting to look at trends in popular culture in terms of their being either a departure from or a reaction to that which came before. I mention this as I am old enough to remember the 1990s when both conspiracy theories and the paranormal were part of the mainstream. It would appear that, thirty years later, these ideas are now cycling back into fashion.
Based on a long article published in the New Yorker in 2019, Sam Knight’s The Premonitions Bureau is the kind of book that would simply not have been published ten years ago. In fact, as recently as five years ago I suspect this book would have crept to market through a small-press publisher rather than on a wave of newspaper-supported hype coupled with prominent positioning at the front of every brick-and-mortar book shop you happen to venture into. Regardless of what you think about this book – and, to be blunt, I am disappointed – there is significance to the fact that it was published amidst a wave of hype in May of 2022. Things out there are getting spooky and The Premonitions Bureau is a book about an earlier time when the mainstream started to take an interest in the paranormal.