Our Ghosts: A History Drawn by Roger Clarke

As you might have guessed by now, I am a huge fan of anything ghost-related. I love ghost stories and scary movies, I have a deep curiosity for old buildings and family histories. But I often find myself disappointed by both books and cinema on the subject. Other than the classics —M.R. James, Shirley Jackson, Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft— I no longer read ghost stories. I have instead turned to accounts of “real” hauntings and sightings of ghosts, and that is how I came to buy myself Ghosts: A Natural History by Roger Clarke.

I adored this book not only because it’s honest and well paced, but also because it succeeded in sending chills down my spine. It had been a while since I had felt that need to look behind me or that strange gut feeling while reading a book.

Clarke begins explaining his obsession with ghosts and tells us a story with which many of us are familiar, the family ghost, an eerie spot in an old house where you get the chills. He later recounts his reading on the subject and his initiation as a “ghost hunter” and the Society for Physical Research.

“In a basic sense, ghosts exist because people constantly report that they see them. This is not a book about whether ghosts exist or not. This is a book about what we see when we see a ghost, and the stories that we tell each other about them.”

As the title says, this book is better described as a natural history of ghosts though. Clarke tries to approach not ghosts but ghosts sightings across Britain as a scientist would approach any phenomenon. And doing so reveals many interesting facts about ghosts and societies: how ghosts have changed, how specters and poltergeists have appeared in ages of moral and political turmoil, even how ghosts have changed their “clothing” depending on the epoch.

To illustrate this natural history, Clarke divides the book into various famous ghost stories from different times, such as the ghost of Hinton Ampner, the Enfield Poltergeist, the spectres of the Tower of London, some renowned spiritist, and so on. Thus, the book is full of the charming mystery that surrounds old fashioned ghost stories.

Illustration by Edward Gorey

All in all, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in ghosts, believers and non-believers, or anyone interested in history, for this book is as much about ghosts as about the people that has claimed to see them and the societies that shaped these people.

I am currently reading another ghostly and ghastly tale, The Hunt for the Skinwalker, about which I’ll be writing soon. What are you guys reading?

What I’ve Been Reading

The past weeks have been nothing but chaotic. Fortunately I have found time to read, perhaps the sole activity keeping me grounded. It’s not much, but I thought I’d share with you what I’ve read lately.

Ghosts: A Natural History by Roger Clarke

I love anything related to ghosts and I absolutely loved this book. Roger Clarke, once a ghost hunter, shares some very interesting ideas and anecdotes about ghosts and why we are so obsessed with them. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, this natural history of sightings will make you wonder about the tight bond between Western societies and ghosts. This is a very entertaining read that offers both anecdotes and theories, as well as a classification of ghosts.

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

A bizarre novel that follows the adventures of John and Owen, two kids from New England. Owen Meany is a very small boy with an eerie voice, he is John’s best friend but also the reason why his mother is dead. The novel revolves around many theological and religious issues as John begins to believe Owen is some kind of instrument of God, if not a new Messiah. I must say I did not love this book, it is quite dire and long, but I thought some parts were absolutely marvelous.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

I declare myself an Ishiguro fan! This book a perfect novel. We follow Stevens, a very oldfashioned british butler on a road trip that will disentangle some of his memories from when he served an English aristocrat whose connection with the Nazies is suspicious. As always, Ishiguro’s writing is poignant and nostalgic, a reflection on memory and duty in the words of an endearing and reticent character. A must read!

The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende

I have had this book for years and finally read it a couple of weeks ago. I generally don’t enjoy “magic realism”, but I loved this book. The House of Spirits is the story of three generations of women, Clara, Blanca and Alba in a Southamerican country in which racism, clasism, poverty and politicians are terrible. Although the book explores many themes and its a family saga, I could say it is a story of womanhood, of love and an interesting critique of the military dictatorship that happened in Chile in the 80’s. A lovely book that I will not forget.

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

As a fan of Steinbeck, it pains me to say I did not like this book. This short novel focuses on a family in Baja California Sur. The father, Kino, is a pearl hunter and is searching for a pearl big enough to pay a doctor for treating his baby son. And he finds one. The biggest pearl ever. And things just get worse. Steinbeck describes the systemic injustices that plague the poor, native people of Baja, a system in which they just can’t prevail and in which everybody else is constantly abusing them. Although Steinbeck’s intentions were surely good, I find the book lacks tact in approaching the subject without glorifying poverty.

I am also just beginning with The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. It’s too soon for me to say anything about it. Have you guys read it or any of these books? What are you reading?

Edinburgh: A literature lover’s paradise

“And yet [Edinburgh] establishes an interest in people’s hearts; go where they will, they find no city of the same distinction.”
–Robert Louis Stevenson

If I had to choose a place where it rains more than half of the year to live in, it would be Edinburgh. The clouds there seem to be heavier, immune to the strong winds, forever set upon every turret and tower in the city.  Edinburgh’s Old Town just be one of the most mysterious and enigmatic places in the world. Great part of the city is built on mass graves and ancient graveyards, so it is no wonder that the city is still the centre of many urban legends and the “most haunted place in Europe”. However, it is also an astoundingly beautiful city, and it’s no surprise many writers have found inspiration while living there. I have been in Edinburgh two times now, during winter and Spring, and have visited some places that I’m sure any fellow book lover would love to hear about, so here we go:

The Elephant House

This is a big, comfortable café in which J.K. Rowling spent many hours writing and imagining the world of Harry Potter. There’s usually a queue to order and have a table, but if you’re a fellow potterhead, you just can’t miss it. Coffee and food are okay (the macchiato is really good), but it’s the vibe that is amazing. There are some locals there getting coffee or reading the table, but mostly there are HP fans looking around. The walls are covered in fan art (and elephants, hence the name) and the toilets are completely covered in quotes and messages from the fans. If you have some time to spare, it is a good idea to wait for a table, have coffee or breakfast and take a look around.


Greyfriars Kirk

This graveyard is both creepy and amazing. It is amazing because of all the centuries of history buried there and because its connection with Harry Potter. J. K. Rowling took some of the names for her characters from some graves here. You can actually see Thomas Riddell’s stone and the place from where Sirius Black’s one was stolen (presumably by a fan). To go during the day I recommend taking a free walking tour of the city offered by Kick Ass Hostels, that’s the one I took and it was amazing (and staying there is a good idea if you’re on a budget). There are many legends about the graveyard, my favourites include (and read at your own risk) grave-robbing and the Mackenzie poltergeist.

And if you’re a bit more daring, Greyfriars Kirk is also open for midnight tours. When I was there I took a tour with City of the Dead tours, which also included a night visit to the South Bridge Vaults. Needless to say, I was scared out of my wits. But hey, it’s fun if you don’t have a heart condition.


Bookshops

Edinburgh is swarming with bookshops. Whether they’re second-hand or not, most of them are really pretty and have a wide variety of titles. These are some of my favourites: The Edinburgh Bookshop, Elvis Shakespeare, Armchair Books, Transreal Fiction and Golden Hare Books.


Edinburgh Castle

The most famous landmark of the city. A 12th century castle built on top of an extinct volcano, Castle Rock.

The view you get from Castle Rock is pretty amazing too, so it’s worth the walk.


The Royal Mile, Victoria Street, the Grassmarket

These are the most picturesque and chic streets of Edinburgh. Rowling is said to have been inspired by the colorful and cramped houses and shops of Victoria Street to create Diagon Alley. Also, Princes Street has beautiful gardens and some of the finest architecture of the city, including Sir Walter Scott’s Monument.


Pubs, restaurants and cafés

Brew Lab Coffee and Edinburgh Larder are really cool for a morning cup. For pubs, I recommend The Last Drop and the Port O’Leith, both very traditional and picturesque. And to eat, The Witchery by the Castle for a fancy meal at this gothic hotel. and Tempting Tattie or The Haven for a cheaper, traditional meal. You can try Word of Mouth Cafe for breakfast too!

All in all, Edinburgh is an amazing city, a vibrant mix of the old and the new (see, for example, The Frankenstein, an old church converted into a nightclub). It is also city with a huge literary history and you can visit the birthplaces of Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle, or recognize some of the iconic places from Welsh’s Trainspotting.

What else would you recommend doing in the city?

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