1.10.14

MYSTERIES ON FILE

David Clarke. Britain’s X-traordinary Files. Bloomsbury, 2014.

There is a perception among many members of the public that archives are rather dull, fusty places full of the property deeds of the rich, or long boring ledgers. David Clarke’s new book shows how wrong this can be. Hidden in the vaults of The National Archives at Kew, the British Library, the Imperial War Museum, and similar institutions are strange and spooky stories, stories that Clarke suggests we should call the uncanny.
 
As is appropriate this year the book starts with uncanny tales of war, such as the Angels of Mons and the disappearing Norfolks from the First World War. If these are well known, much less well known are the stories of death-ray machines which emerged in the inter-war years, promoted by inventors such as Harry Grindell-Matthews. These machines were supposed to use electricity to stop engines, though, of course, no working example was ever constructed. Later the tales influenced much ufolore, in which vehicles were halted in the presence of flying saucers by what were called 'electromagnetic effects', though no persistent evidence of such an effect was ever produced.
 
The death-ray lore was born out of the expectation that new technologies were always round the corner, this was the time of the mass development of radio, the beginnings of television, the spread of the telephone, vacuum cleaner, washing machine, fridge and the rapid spread of electrical house lighting. If there was a fear behind such ideas, there was also a hope, that some technological marvel would prevent the bombers getting through.
 
These technological marvels and modern tales of UFOs exist in the archives along with more traditional motifs, and one can here read of the phantom battle of Edgehill, the ghost ship of HMS Bacchante, the court appearances of ghosts and poltergeists, the prosecution of the 'last witch' Helen Duncan, the use of dowsing to detect corpses, and Britain’s very own remote viewing experiments.
 
The hunt for mystery animals such as the Loch Ness Monster and the mystery big-cats also generates official documents, as do tales of sea serpents. Clarke points out that one of the important things about the original archival sources is that they dispel the many legends and accretions that gather around these topics. A classic example is the loss of Captain Schaffner in a tragic air accident on 9 September 1970. Here official secrecy helped to spread rumours, and an accident on a training exercise became, in the hands of sensation mongering ufologists, a tale of abduction by aliens while chasing a flying saucer.
 
One of the most interesting pieces in this book is the section of the Phantom Helicopter of 1973/4, and here the official records show just how seriously officialdom took these stories, which they feared were evidence of illegal helicopters flown by members of the IRA, either preparing a terrorist act or for another spectacular helicopter-based prison breakout. Some idea of the sort of speculation going on at the time can be found in John Harney’s piece HERE.
 
The material here is likely to be only skimming the surface; there is no doubt much more hidden from view by the 30 year and 100 year rules. Intelligence reports on a number of people such as Aleister Crowley may well be of interest, and there will be the official reports on crop circles, more on the mystery cats, to say nothing of haunted nuclear bunkers (not likely to be released in our lifetime).
A book in the Magonian tradition that we can heartily recommend. - Peter Rogerson
 

26.9.14

FIRST READ: THE WARMINSTER MYSTERY


Arthur Shuttlewood. The Warminster Mystery: Astounding UFO Sightings. Neville Spearman, 1967.  Recalled by John Rimmer

Magonia readers may vaguely remember that quite some time ago I explained that I was working with Dave Simpson on a video project to record the memories of people who were active in ufology at Warminster during the 1960s and 1970s. It's been a major undertaking, and subject to several delays and a couple of false starts. However it is now reaching its conclusion. Over twenty people have been interviewed at length about what they saw, did and heard at Warminster, and we have recorded a long and moving account of Arthur Shuttlewood's life from his daughter.

A couple of weekends ago I revisited Warminster with Dave Simpson to record some introductory sequences and links for the final version of the documentary. Most of these were filmed on Cradle Hill around the entrance to the military area and at the barn in the notorious copse at the top of the Hill. The plethora of recording equipment, mikes, camera, monitors, etc., drew a lot of attention from local dog-walkers, and from one or two members of the military, whose eyes rapidly glazed over when they realised we were just UFO nuts rather than anything more sinister.

Everything went quite smoothly. There is just a final final wrap-up piece to record, then a lot of work editing the finished product. I will let Magonians know when the final version is available.

I took my copy of Arthur Shuttlewood's first book The Warminster Mystery along with me to read on Cradle Hill, perhaps seeking some sort of mystical communion with the original Warminster era. I first read Shuttlewood's book shortly after its original publication, and at about the time I started getting involved with the original remote ancestor of Magonia, the Merseyside UFO Bulletin.

Unlike most of the other titles which have been reviewed in 'First Read', The Warminster Mystery was not one of the books which originally aroused my interest in UFO. Those were probably the Keyhoe and Adamski books which I read in my early teen years, but it was one of the titles which refuelled my interest ten years later.

Shuttlewood [right] makes a great deal of his experience as a newspaper reporter, and this is obvious as you read the book: get names and addresses, tell us about the people, the cub reporter is instructed. I open the book at random: “Ted and Gwen Davies live in a thatched cottage at Crockerton They run separate shops in Warminster, she one for teenage fashions and he a fish saloon”; “Mrs Mildred Head, aged 63, is the wife of an ex-policeman and was once a seamstress at Warminster Hospital”; “self-employed Warminster woodworker Robert Payne and his hair stylist wife Wendy”. All in the finest tradition of the local reporter, and all helping to set their remarkable stories firmly in a down-to-earth reality. We even get “Geoffrey Mander, manager of the Palladium Cinema in West Derby Road, Anfield, Liverpool” - my old stamping ground!

But the problem of reporting a UFO flap in the style of a local paper is that no critical voice is allowed. In the Borchester Herald you don't challenge the judges at the local fête when they say that Mrs Grundy's apple chutney is the best in town, any more than you would point out that the local under-10's school football team all seem to have two left feet.

So when Arthur interviews “Major William Hill, of Silver Lane, Trowbridge, a hardened veteran of wartime campaigns [who] fought from 1939-1945 with a beach landing group attached to the Brigade of Guards, and was actively engaged in the Middle East and European theatres of war...” he does not question his account of being subjected to “the down-beating pressure of aerial vibrations .. a rolling motion beneath him as the whole bodywork swayed”. He accepts it in its entirety, after all Major Hill, in civvy street is “sales manager of a big motor garage and showrooms at Trowbridge”.

At least when he's doing this he is quoting people describing what they have experienced. The real problems arise later in the book, when he starts quoting the views of the bizarre gallimaufry of ufologists, 'psychics' and other hangers-on who began to cluster around the Westminster phenomenon. Every letter, every bizarre idea spouted at midnight at a cold skywatch on Cradle Hill is recorded and treated as the unquestionable truth. Characters like John Cleary-Baker and Gordon Creighton get their two-pennyworth relayed uncritically. The later chapters move into worlds of mystery telephone messages (one to the aforementioned Paramount Cinema, Anfield), disappearing phantom pedestrians and Shuttlewood's own mystery visitors from Aenstria. All are presented as a seamless part of one phenomenon.

So is The Warminster Mystery just a collection of uncritical anecdote and rumour? Well, probably, but it is an accurate record of uncritical anecdote and rumour. It tells us not so much what was happening in that small town, as what people thought was happening, and what they were telling others had happened. A few years later John Keel was using the same reportorial techniques, perhaps in a more consciously directed manner, when he described the goings-on in the small Ohio Valley towns that he visited before and during the Mothman scares. Keel had an understanding of the broader social and mythical framework of such phenomena and he was able to draw on a wider range of sources than Shuttlewood, who was trapped into the small-town reporter role, and this makes Keel's books perhaps a more entertaining read.

The Warminster Mystery stands as an almost unique casebook describing the birth of a UFO flap as a social phenomenon. Shuttlewoods subsequent books wander off into rarefied realms of fantasy; no report, no claim, no barmy idea is too extreme not to be included. I tried to review one of them, The Flying Saucerers I think, for the old MUFOB, but couldn't manage it, as it quite literally gave me a headache! But The Warminster Mystery is the ur-text; in Peter Rogerson's memorable phrase it constitutes part of the 'gutter-roots of ufology'. Read it, and read Steve Dewey's In Alien Heat (2006) for an understanding of what happened around this small Wiltshire town in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and what still haunts those clouded hills today.


25.9.14

INTELLIGENCE TEST

Nick Bostrom. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. Oxford University Press, 2014

The subject of artificial intelligence is of great interest these days, as a result of developments in semi-autonomous machines, such as cars which are capable of driving safely and efficiently to their destinations without any help from human drivers.

The book begins by giving a brief summary of the development of technology, eventually leading to the invention of computers in the 1940s. It was thought then that development of the computers would quickly lead to the production of intelligent machines. Of course, the technical difficulties were much greater than the computer pioneers had imagined.

Bostrom sees the further development of computers as eventually leading to superintelligence, which he tentatively defines as "any intellect that greatly exceeds the cognitive performance of humans in virtually all domains of interest". This means that superintelligence is a system having superior general intelligence rather than being highly specialised, like a chess-playing program.

Three different possible forms of superintelligence are identified: speed superintelligence, which can do all that human intellect can do but much faster; collective superintelligence, a system composed of a large number of smaller intellects, so that overall performance is much better than that of any other cognitive system; and quality superintelligence, a system at least as fast as the human mind and vastly smarter.

In chapter 4 we are introduced to the concept of an "intelligence explosion". The first phase begins when the system reaches the human baseline for individual intelligence. The second phase begins when it becomes capable of gaining more power from its own resources. Bostrom admits, though, that at present it is unclear how difficult this would be.

He develops his ideas to the point where he considers it possible for a "digital superintelligent agent" to take control of the world. It could become so powerful as to become a singleton, defined as "a superintelligent agent that faces no significant rivals or opposition". The outcome of the transition to a singleton could be very good or very bad. This is related to the control problem, finding the procedures to be used to prevent superintelligent agents from getting out of control and thus possibly endangering the continued existence of humanity.

One method of control suggested is to define a set of rules or values which will cause a superintelligent AI (artificial intelligence) to act safely and beneficially. The classic example of this is Isaac Asimov's "three laws of robotics", to prevent robots hurting humans but, as Bostrom points out, it fails in interesting ways, providing fertile plot complications for his stories.

The discussions in this book are philosophical rather than technical, so we are given no clear idea of how the control of the proliferation and increasing power of AI could be achieved in practice. There is some rather fragmentary discussion of the idea that AIs could become conscious, and thus be said to have moral status. Bostrom remarks that a society of intricate and intelligent AIs, none of them conscious "would be a society of economic miracles and technological awesomeness, with nobody there to benefit. A Disneyland without children".

This work is no doubt an important contribution to serious thought on the subject of the increase in automation and ever more powerful computers and ingenious programming techniques. It is not, however, a book for the casual reader. -- John Harney
 

20.9.14

GOOD LUCK AND TROUBLE

Stuart Vyse. Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. Oxford University Press, 2014.

This is a revised edition of a work originally published in 1997. Vyse begins by discussing Wade Boggs, a baseball player who set some records that have never been equalled. His “professional life was filled with superstition”. Believing that he hit better after eating chicken, he consumed it every day. He also had a long “pre-game ritual” (which I don’t quite understand, not being familiar with the terminology of baseball). Vyse might similarly have mentioned Norman Parkinson, who in the 1970s was the official portrait photographer of the Royal Family. He would never pick up a camera unless he was wearing a fumi, an embroidered skullcap popular in parts of the Middle East. He believed that it would be bad luck to try to work without this headgear. It is easy to jeer at men like Boggs and Parkinson, but they did reach the summits of their respective professions.

Superstitions are more common with people whose life is uncertain or risky, for example “gamblers, sailors, soldiers, miners, financial investors, and, somewhat surprisingly, college students.” I seem to recall that, decades after Donald Campbell drowned in Lake Coniston during an attempt to break the world waterspeed record, divers finally recovered his body, along with his lucky mascot, which evidently had not worked on that occasion.

As to students, whilst “conventional wisdom suggests that the highly educated should be more skeptical than their less learned peers”, there is clearly a strong element of chance with exams: you may get a question on a topic you happened to revise that morning, or you may get a question on your weakest subject. Another uncertain profession is acting. Most actors are unemployed for much of the time, and when they do have work there are plenty of things that can go wrong.

For convenience, psychology professors frequently do tests on their own students. One wonders about this, since psychology undergraduates are probably not entirely representative of the human race as a whole, and knowing what is going on, may deliberately try to skew the results.

Vyse states that children’s “rituals of avoidance of cracks in sidewalks . . . must have been passed from person to person”. I cannot agree: I developed this habit at age five or six, and I am fairly sure that no-one had told me to do it, so it must be somehow instinctive. It was only later that I read A. A. Milne’s poem ‘Lines and Squares’ (in When We Were Very Young, 1924), about a boy who believed that, if he “steps on a line” he would be eaten by bears. In my case I thought that a bomb would explode, although eventually I noticed that, when my thoughts were elsewhere, I had trodden on lines, but nothing untoward had ensued. Even in middle age I occasionally find myself treading carefully for this kind of reason.

A woman recently told me that, when a girl, she believed that, if she trod on a crack, the ground would open and the earth would swallow her up. If this kind of superstition were passed from person to person, one would expect that the anticipated disaster would always be the same. Nevertheless, superstitions are, as he says, likely to be acquired by membership of a social group, where, as has been shown by many psychological experiments, there is a tendency to go along with the others. (I would also query his assertion that dice rolling is “completely random”. Whole books have been written about cheating at dice.)

Some birth horoscopes contain statements that must be true of almost anyone – “Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic” – but people find them impressive. There are also some totally weird ideas, such as that “Dick Cheney was involved in the 9/11 attacks.” In short, I would suggest that these notions are believed in because they are emotionally appealing, rather than because they are supported by facts and reasoning. – Gareth J. Medway.


15.9.14

BIBLIOGRAPHICAL BIOGRAPHIES

Bernard McGinn. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae: A Biography. Princeton University Press, 2014.

David Gordon White. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: A Biography. Princeton University Press, 2014.

The excellent ‘Lives of Great Religious Books’ series is continuing: McGinn begins by observing that few people have ever read the whole of the Summa theologiae, which runs to a million and a half words. Personally, I have only read the sections on demonology. Even Bertrand Russell’s compendious History of Western Philosophy deals mainly with the shorter Summa Contra Gentiles.

From the age of five Aquinas (1225-1274, the author usually refers to him as Thomas) was brought up in a Benedictine monastery, but at sixteen he joined the Dominicans, a preaching order who had only recently been founded. Over the course of his life he wrote more than a hundred books, most of which he dictated to secretaries. About twenty-six of these were commissioned by his ecclesiastical superiors, but the rest were entirely his own inspiration.

His writings combined traditional Christian theology with the newly rediscovered Greek philosophy. I was under the impression that the versions of Aristotle that circulated in western Europe in the Middle Ages were all Latin translations of Arabic translations of the original Greek, but in fact another Dominican, William of Moerbeke, had spent time in Greece, learned the language, and produced ‘improved’ translations.

One attractive feature of scholastic theologians is that, when attacking rival opinions, they would normally state them in detail before attempting to refute them (unlike some modern authors). This was even true of the fanatic authors of the Malleus Maleficarum.

The Summa began by discussing the nature of God. Since Thomas accepted that God is essentially unknowable, this caused him some difficulties. Moreover, whilst he held that the existence of God could be demonstrated logically, there were other Catholic doctrines, such as the Trinity, that could only be known through divine revelation. Some of the issues are hard to follow nowadays, such as “the nature of separate subjects (i.e. angels), individuation by matter, and the operation of the intellect.”

‘Thomism’ went out of fashion after about 1700. But later it came back, to the extent that in 1914 Pope Pius X laid it down that scholasticism meant the teaching of Thomas Aquinas, and that “all teachers of philosophy and sacred theology should be warned that if they deviated so much as one iota from Aquinas, especially in metaphysics, they exposed themselves to grave risk.” He did not specify the nature of the risk.

White’s book has a novel feature: his text was rather longer than the standard size required by the publishers, so he abridged it, but put the excised sections up on the internet, their former presence being indicated by crucifixes in the margin.

Whilst the Summa theologiae is gargantuan, the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali is a brief work, consisting of 195 short one-line verses. This is unusual, given the vast corpus of Hindu scripture, Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads, Dharmasutras, Tantras and Puranas, enough to fill several bookcases. It is concerned with what may loosely be termed meditation, rather than getting into funny postures.

Nothing is known about Patanjali, not even when he lived. The British Orientalist Henry Colebrooke went so far as to describe him as ‘a mythological being’. All one can say for certain is that the Yoga Sutra was in existence by the fifth century. One theory is that it is a compilation of works by different authors. It has also been suggested that the fourth section was added later, since it was not included in the Arabic and Old Javanese translations. Another idea is that the commentary by Vyasa was written by Patanjali himself. (Not a ridiculous idea – Aleister Crowley wrote commentaries on some of his own works, such as The Book of Lies.)

Strangely, in 195 verses there are only four verbs. This is partly because, in Sanskrit, as in many languages (such as classical Greek and Hebrew) the verb ‘to be’ is usually omitted, unless the author wants it for emphasis (as in “Dr. Jekyll is Mr. Hyde”), The second verse reads: “yoga-citta-vritti-nirodha”, which might be literally rendered as “Yoga-mind-thought-cessation”. White lists twenty-two different translations, including “Yoga is the stilling of the modifications of the mind”, and “Disciplined meditation involves the cessation of the functioning of ordinary awareness.”

Whilst the existence of commentaries from the fifth to the twelfth centuries showed that the book was often read in these centuries, it came to be neglected thereafter. In the 1890s, however, it was incorporated into a book entitled Raja Yoga, by Swami Vivekenanda, which was widely distributed in the west – I have a copy whose title page describes it as Fifteenth Edition, 1955.

White refers to “such fraudulent self-proclaimed practitioners of Tantric Yoga as Alistair [sic] Crowley”. It is worth noting that Crowley (sorry to bring him into this twice) included both The Aphorisms of Patanjali and Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga (as if they were separate works) in a recommended reading list of mystical books that he published in 1909. They were omitted in an otherwise longer version that he published a few years later (perhaps from an oversight), but his Eight Lectures on Yoga, delivered in the 1930s, show a clear influence of Patanjali. – Gareth J. Medway


11.9.14

LOST AND FOUND

Michael Pye and Kirsten Dalley (Eds.) Lost Secrets of the Gods. New Page Books, 2014.

Lost Secrets of the Gods is one of the latest offerings from the prolific New Page Books. The publishers themselves are making quite an impression in the areas of Fortean and unconventional history, although, after having reviewed a few of their releases, the quality of their authors can be quite hit-and-miss. This latest tome is an anthology of essays covering a veritable chasm of time, some examining what has become known as alt-archaeology and others looking at issues in periods that qualify as recent history. Strange questions are posed and, some would say, answered in an even more strange fashion.
 
There are well-known names here along with some that are fresher to the counterculture. Those of Robert Schoch, whose statements concerning the age of the Sphinx galvanised both the fields of alternative Egyptology and more conventional scholarship in this area, the astonishingly prolific expatriate Nick Redfern, and Jim Marrs, whose book about the assassination of John F Kennedy, Crossfire, is still noteworthy, will be most familiar to regular readers or those steeped in Fortean lore. The subjects covered range from beast men created long past as the guardians of sacred places, the true location of the Trojan War, and indigenous peoples descended from various visitors from the stars. The types of topic also cover a vast sweep, from historical speculation to conspiratorial intrigue.
 
The variety of questions being asked are typical of those that interest me personally.  Were there giants in the Americas back in the mists of time? Did Atlantis (and it gets more than its fair share of coverage in these pages) really exist outside of the works of Plato?  Are we ourselves alien (this, again, is asked more than once) to this planet?  Were there ten-thousand-year-old secret societies whose knowledge is still preserved to this day?  Certainly it would enlighten and motivate us immeasurably as a species if we were to discover that we are directly descended from a race (or races) of beings who were not from this Earth, although, if this were to be proven, one would have to wonder if our forefathers intended to pop back and see how we were getting along, and if so, what form that would take.
 
The question is, though, do these inquiries get answered in this intriguing tome?  To be fair, one or two of them almost do. Micah Hanks, for example, tells us that, far from trying to cover up the existence of giants in the West, that there are catalogued bone samples and scholarly articles alluding to the possible reality of the existence of larger humanoids, although as to whether there is sufficient evidence to answer if there was a whole race of such beings is not mentioned. As to the rest, it is provocative stuff, particularly about whether the Trojan War took place on the Atlantic coast and featured, as posited by Steve Sora, the sea power that may have been - well, suffice it to say that it features the A-word again.
 
I wouldn’t like to say that everything here is convincing. Some of it is even downright confusing. I must say, however, that I take to these anthologies, provided there are some authors who make a reasonably convincing argument for their particular issue and that the subject of the writing is related. This is stretched here by including the Jim Marrs conspiracy piece and the Nick Redfern speculation on ancient spirit forms in with the general ancient alien and archaeology theme. I would say that, at least as a cross-section of some of the more radical thought going on in this area today, this is worth a look. Author biographies are included, along with an index and, depending on the piece, bibliographies at the end of most essays. -- Trevor Pyne
 

6.9.14

BLACK MAGIC AND BOGEYMEN

Richard Jenkins. Black Magic and Bogeymen: Fear, Rumour and Popular Belief in the North of Ireland 1972-1974. Cork University Press, 2014.

Northern Ireland forty years ago was in a very dark place indeed, with violence on a scale which dwarfs our current concerns with terrorism. It was a place of sectarian/ethic warfare waged by both 'Republican' and 'Loyalist' paramilitaries, neither showing any actual loyalty to the 'really existing' Irish Republic or United Kingdom respectively. The normal everyday assumption that if you went out in the morning there was an overwhelming probability that you would come home safely in the evening no longer applied. It was a time or fearful rumour and paranoid suspicion.
 
In the middle of this crisis, in August 1973, a local Sunday newspaper presented a lurid tale that on the beach of the main Copeland Islands, a picnic spot in Belfast Lough off the coast near Bangor, the remains of four slaughtered sheep had been found, along with 'occult symbols'. A 'leading authority' claimed that these were Satanic Rites, to coincide with either Beltane or St John’s Eve (neither of which were in August).

This story might have died the natural death of all such silly season stories had it not been for the horrific murder in September of a 10 year old boy, whose body had been burned and mutilated. This then became linked with tales of slaughtered dogs and a 'black magic' moral panic ensued on both sides of the sectarian divide. As with most of these things, fear of the occult ranged through a whole variety of beliefs and behaviours, in which, for example, playing with Ouija boards became conflated with sacrificing dogs and murdering children.
 
Occult and spiritualist beliefs and practices, were thus often confused, for example the belief that 'republicans' were engaging in occult rituals in order to contact the spirits of dead members of the IRA. On both sides of the sectarian divide heterodox forms of spirituality were seen as snares of the devil.
 
Jenkins places these fears within the context of the traditional lore of Ireland and of an “enchanted” worldview, in which ghosts, fairies, banshees, faith healing and the like were envisioned. Among these were such bogeys as the 'Black Man' or 'Big Man of Arden Street, a sinister figure that tapped on the windows of those about to die.
 
Much of this is pretty much the general popular lore that might have been encountered in any British town. What these other towns did not have to content with was the possible manipulation of this folklore by state agencies. The controversial whistle-blower Colin Wallace claimed to have been involved in spreading some of these stories; bogeymen being convenient devices for keeping youngsters off the streets at night, and perhaps to further unnerve the population.
 
Jenkins also traces the rise of the myth of Satanism in this period, based largely on the works of Dennis Wheatley. This was exploited by alleged 'survivors' and converts such as Doreen Irvine. This myth was in some ways an outcome of fantasies and conspiracy theories surrounding the Profumo scandal and much of it can be found in works such as Sellwood and Haining’s Devil Worship in Britain (1964), in which post Profumo paranoia was mixed with anti-immigrant paranoia.), and the infiltration into Northern Ireland of a largely American inspired apocalyptic tradition.
 
This is an important book in which there fears and fantasies of a very specific period, perhaps mainly lasting only a period of a few weeks, are placed in their specific historical and cultural contexts, in this case a society torn apart by violence, where the normal boundaries of human conduct were being steadily eroded. -- Peter Rogerson
 

3.9.14

BRITISH BLOODLINES

Paul Adams. Written in Blood: A Cultural History of the British Vampire. History Press, 2014.

Although the conventional belief is that the vampire's origin is the Carpathian Mountains or some other rugged area of Eastern Europe, this book demonstrates that the place where the Undead feels most at home is right here in England. From the moment the sinister count fetched up on the coast of the East Riding he found a comfortable niche waiting for him in English culture and literature.

Adams shows how the vampire theme developed from an earlier Gothic tradition of blood-drinking and life sapping revenants, like Gottfried Burger's Lenore, Goethe's The Bride of Corinth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Christabel. Given more specific form later in the century by writers like Polidori and Rymer (who also introduced us to that other great blood-soaked monster, Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street), the image of the blook-sucker rapidly metamorphosed from the decayed grave-escapee of European folklore, to the suave, sexually charged figure we know today. The format of the vampire story allowed Victorian writers to explore aspects of sexuality that would be unthinkable (or at least unpublishable) if dealt with in a more realistic format – Sheridan le Fanu's lesbian vampire Carmilla, for instance.

A chapter on possible historical English vampires in rumour and folklore looks at the 'Beast of Coglin Grange' an ambiguous collection of ghost stories where Adams can come to no firm conclusion but leads on to a consideration of a number of murder cases which had vampire-like features.

Stoker's Dracula is of course the defining vampire and has coloured nearly all subsequent fictional treatments of the figure. Adam's traces the development of the character of Dracula and other characters in the story, suggesting that the overpowering personality of the Count himself may have been inspired by the larger than life-sized figure of the actor Henry Irving, whom Stoker worked with for many years; and intriguingly that the whole story may have been inspired by a hypnogogic vision which Stoker experienced years before writing the book.

Adams describes Stoker as a 'benchmark', and clearly his characterisations have indelibly influenced nearly all subsequent literature, even that which consciously avoids the Stoker template. In the first decades of the twentieth century writers such as M R James, Algernon Blackwood and E F Benson – of the genteel Mapp and Lucia novels – all tackled the vampire theme. However he sees much of the credit (or blame) for the development of the particularly English vampire going to the enigmatic Montague Summers. Like much else of his literature and life, his 'history' of the vampire had only tangential connection with anything that might be described as 'the truth' and is best described by the inscription on his gravestone, just a mile from Magonia HQ, “Tell me strange things”.

Most of the rest of this book is devoted to what I think is Adams's first love, the vampire on film. He traces the development of the British vampire on screen back to a one-reeler produced in 1913, The Vampire, set in India and now totally lost. Friedrich Murnau's Nosferatu of 1921 presented a defining vampire image for a generation, and in England Dracula became linked in the public mind with the image of Jack the Ripper, both sinister figures looming through swirling mists in the mean streets of London's East End; and both, it would increasingly seem, equally mythical.

But the most English of vampires was that created by Hammer Films, and Adams narrates the rise and fall of this iconic studio with its stable of classic horror actors, and chronicles the eclectic group of people involved in the production of its string of culturally influential films over nearly three decades. But much like their coevals the Carry On films, they became victims of their own success, gradually falling into formulaic treatments, and being overtaken by more explicit and imaginative films from other studios, particularly following the loosening of film censorship in the nineteen-seventies.

Adams bravely tackles the Highgate Vampire story, and as an outsider I think it seems a pretty balanced account of a subject which raises sometime violent emotions on all sides. Echoing Basil Fawlty, Adams can probably say “I mentioned the Highgate Vampire but I think I got away with it”!

The final chapter looks at modern (post 1975) literature and how the vampire template has grown to allow writers to explore a wide range of psychological, psychosexual and parapsychological themes. I am pleased to see an old library colleague Ramsey Campbell getting due acknowledgement here, especially now that his name is inscribed in golden lettering along with other Liverpool literary greats on the wall of the newly-rebuilt city Central Library.

Although sometimes a little difficult to follow because of the sheer wealth of detail – which is mainly a result of the author's enthusiasm for the topic – this is an intriguing book which demonstrates just how very English the vampire phenomenon has become. – John Rimmer


MAGONIA RECOMMENDS