Apr 11 2009

Supernatural Nonfiction

Devin McKinney


Borley Rectory


Submitted for your approval, a list (in reverse chronological order) of exemplary books that treat the otherworldly—ghosts, monsters, other fantastic phenomena—as truth. That last word needs qualifying: Most of these writers belie their documentary pretenses by embellishing reality or simply by presenting legend as fact. So to enjoy books like these, you must want to believe in the improbable—and that can be perilous as well as liberating (e.g., it can lead to a vote for Bush or a vote for Obama). Supernatural nonfiction offers the reader a uniquely pleasurable mental space somewhere between skepticism and surrender. You follow fairy tale’s beckoning finger, clutching your valuables and your credulity, remembering that near-truths and tall tales are also products of our world—acknowledgements of our fears, revelations of truth in disguise.

Poltergeist! A Study in Destructive Haunting by Colin Wilson

Flouting the highbrow stature he earned two decades earlier with his 1961 existentialist mind melt The Outsider, Wilson logs tales of possessions and fairies, dead monks and black magicians. Straight-faced and science-minded but charged with a primal tingle: Note the exclamation point in the title.

The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson

A suburban Long Island manse, the site of a mass murder, becomes a hell house for an unsuspecting family, with hooded figures, slime-dripping walls, and a demon pig. Long since discredited yet an irreducible fright to those of impressionable age when 112 Ocean Avenue was the most baleful address on the American map.

Invisible Horizons: True Mysteries of the Sea by Vincent Gaddis

The man who coined the term “Bermuda Triangle” collects scary stories of the sea—pirate curses, ghost ships, vanishing islands. In Invisible Horizons (1965), outlandish lore is sprinkled among verifiable facts and styled in earnest journalistic prose. “The Pequod sinks with all its souls,” D. H. Lawrence writes in Studies in Classic American Literature, “but their bodies rise again to man innumerable tramp steamers and ocean-crossing liners. Corpses.” Gaddis knew what Lawrence meant by that metaphor. But for him, it was no metaphor.

The Most Haunted House in England: Ten Years Investigation of Borley Rectory by Harry Price

Price was a world-famous ghost hunter, and the Borley Rectory, in the Essex countryside, was his showplace: mysterious cold spots, strange voices, ghostly wall scribblings, and a spirit nun. In describing the goings-on, Price (who published this tome in 1940) affects the objective language and laboratory method of the scientist—assigned observation points, notes of time and weather, etc. You almost forget the place is supposed to be haunted. Then a gnarled black arm creeps around the doorjamb.

The Complete Books of Charles Fort

An early-’70s omnibus comprising four volumes published between 1919 and 1932, each a collection of weird events once reported in now-defunct newspapers: unaccountable disappearances, burning people, showers of stones, werewolf attacks. Fort was a great eccentric and a friend of Dreiser; like that great enemy of orthodoxy, he exhibits biases (particularly against science) that are merely dogma in another form. But his sentences are as tart and cutting as Waugh’s, and his feel for deadpan hallucination as deft as Félix Fénéon’s in Novels in Three Lines. This is an essential American volume, a Mississippi River of the deliciously improbable; the four books themselves may be interchangeable, but where does the Mississippi truly begin or end? Or, as Fort would ask, where do you start to measure a circle?

"The Uncanny" by Sigmund Freud

In a blend of literary criticism and personal anecdote, the great psychoanalytic adventurer tours the haunted house of the mind, pausing to examine the etymology of unheimlich and the meanings of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “The Sand-Man,” to meditate on the doppelgänger and the primitive lure of the revenant—while never losing his fascination with how deeply our waking world is subverted by the dreams of our dark hours.

Mysteries; Or, Glimpses of the Supernatural by Charles Wyllys Elliott

In this 1852 volume, a debunking rationalist offers spiky, witty accounts of, among other things, the Salem witch trials (a realization, we’re told, of “the ancient Manichee speculations”); the table-tapping Fox sisters of Rochester, New York; and the sensational Cock-Lane Ghost of London, an apparition given to scratching beneath children’s beds at night, and which in 1762 numbered Horace Walpole and Samuel Johnson among its investigators. (Hoax, both said; they were right.) The tone is bemused but not scornful; wary but appreciative of otherworldly possibilities: “Nature works and walks in her old beaten tracks in Cock-Lane, in Rochester, in the past, and in the present.” Like Fort’s, this is really a book about nature, human and earthly—the oddity of the world and how we interpret it.

It is also, like all the books on this list, less for the starry-eyed adherent of “crossing over” than for “the excited hunter who is eager for quite another prey, for one which is real, for a shade which is not altogether a shade, for one which, like that of Hamlet’s father, shall ‘speak to him,’ no matter how ‘questionable’ the shape—and prove that spirit after all is.”

Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (Harvard University Press, 2003) and is at work on a biography of Henry Fonda. He blogs on music at popwithashotgun.blogspot.com.

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