David Groome and Ron Roberts (editors). Parapsychology: The Science of Unusual Experiences. 2nd Edition, Routledge, 2016.

Let’s get one thing out of the way at the start, this book is mis-titled, parapsychology as such takes up only one chapter, so a more accurate title might be 'Critical Essays on the Paranormal' or 'The Psychology of the Paranormal'

The one chapter on academic parapsychology, by Caroline Watt deals with two topics; possible similarities between 'ESP' and subliminal perception and the debates over the Ganzfeld experiments.

In an essay on mediumship and survival, Chris Roe examines the role of cold reading and the Barnum effect on the production of allegedly paranormal information and the difficulties of separating out any genuinely paranormally gained information from these. People often grossly underestimate what information can be gleaned by appearance, clothing, age, posture, slight movements etc.

Perhaps a related topic is that of possession and exorcism, which is discussed by Chris French, who explores not just the roles of neurological disorders such as epilepsy and Tourette’s syndrome in leading to beliefs in possession, but perhaps more important social factors, which provide scripts for people to act out roles. At the conclusion of this chapter he warns of the harms that belief in possession and rituals of exorcism can cause, not least child abuse, though there is no discussion of the recent rise in beliefs in child witches and resultant massive abuse.

Chris French then discusses alien abductions, and notes, while there are other factors, the crucial roles of sleep paralysis experiences and hypnotic confabulation in the generation of such stories. The question as to whether fantasy proneness is a significant factor remains moot, not least because definitions of what constitutes fantasy made differ with different world views.

Chris Roe then discusses near death experiences and notes that similar experiences are reported both by minorities of people who have come clinically close to death and those who have just had a close shave as in accidents. He notes the problems in defining death and knowing exactly what physiological processes mediate subjective experience.

Chris French further discusses reincarnation claims, concentrating on his own studies among the Druze of Lebanon. Reincarnation is central to the Druze world view and they believe that people are reincarnated at the moment of death. French notes however that few of the past live stories he encountered fitted this pattern, a fact which is explained away by invoking forgotten intermediate lives as babies who died young. He remains unconvinced by the evidence and points out that the more dramatic cases reported by Stevenson are ones from years before allowing much time for contamination and false memory.

There are chapters on dreams by Ron Roberts, astrology by David Groome, religion, belief and science by Michael Eysenck, psychic fraud by Richard Wiseman, science and experience by Ron Roberts and cognition and belief by David Groome and Robin Law. An interesting outlier paper is on conspiracy theories by Robert Brotherton and Chris French, which looks at the psychological, social and cognitive factors behind such beliefs. Given the wide coverage it is surprising that there are no chapters on ghosts and hauntings and poltergeists.

This book is clearly aimed at a readership of undergraduate students of psychology rather than the lay reader, though the latter should find parts of this enlightening and interesting. It takes a clear but not aggressively sceptical position. Students should find of it of value but this book cannot function as stand-alone textbook on parapsychology. – Peter Rogerson.



Joshua Cutchin. The Brimstone Deceit: An In-Depth Examination of Supernatural Scents, Otherworldly Odors and Monstrous Miasmas. Anomalist Books, 2016.

This book might have been titled or subtitled “By your nose ye shall know them” and, while there have been numerous books on supernatural sights and sounds this is almost certainly the first on supernatural smells. Cutchin notes that strange odours are associated with a variety of anomalous experiences., and here he concentrates on tales of UFOs, ghosts and Bigfoot. While he documents a vast variety of pongs, they can fall into two categories, pleasant scenes such as perfume or flowers or perhaps even the smell of fish and chips, and fundamentally nasty smells, which often feature sulphur and its products, hydrogen sulphide and sulphur dioxide.

Ghosts may smell of death and decay, UFOs can be associated with smells of sulphur, ozone and various chemicals and Bigfoot has a tendency to just stink the place out.

Cutchin devotes much space to the chemistry behind such smells and what inorganic and organic processes might produce them. I don’t feel confident to discuss much of that. I am more interested in what these smells symbolise, they seem to be a sort of shorthand which tells you something about the nature of what you are supposed to be dealing with. Saints or their bodies may exude sweet smells as symbols of their sanctity, UFOs may exude chemical smells as symbols of their technology and Bigfoot's stinks are symbols of its animality.

Perhaps the unifying theme is that of sulphur, which Cutchin points out is both a poison, especially in its compound form, and essential for life and can be used in healing. He does not bring out something that I think is crucial here, sulphur is a product of vulcanism, even to today there are sulphur miners who risk their lives getting the stuff from fuming volcanic craters.

Volcanoes are examples of nature at its wildest and most untameable. They are massively destructive and yet, post eruption, they leave extremely fertile terrain, which is why humans have settled around them despite the danger. Humans must have noticed this from very early times and volcanoes may well have been the earliest objects of worship as raw forces of creation and destruction. Volcanic mountains tower up to the heavens and descend to the depths and therefore are places where the underworld, the middle earth and the upper world of the gods meet and are passages between them.

In Christian mythology volcanoes acquired a more demonic character, it is their boiling lakes of lava that give rise to the idea that hell is some place of intense and ceaseless heat. Sulphur, being associated with volcanoes, becomes the symbol of chthonic depths and of ceaseless transformation.

Ozone is associated with lightning, another example of nature at its wildest, a bringer of wild fires which again are agents of death and fertility and thus of transformation.

Bigfoot’s foul stench marks its animality and its antithesis to polite human society. It is a creature of the wilderness and wild nature. The smell of decay associated with some ghosts harks back to times when ghosts were envisaged not as the ethereal wraiths of today but as raw boned, very physical rotting corpses. Corruption and decay are means by which a human body leaves the world of habitat and culture and enters the wilderness of raw nature. It is another example of transformation.

The supernatural smells documented here might therefore be assigned to two categories, ghostly scents of perfume, cooking (another example of transformation) etc. are symbols of lingering memories of a previous 'homely' habitat. The bad smells are symbolic of something coming in from outside the human habitat.

These intruders may superficially look like something from the habitat, bigfoot walks like and vaguely looks like a human being, but its hirsuteness and animal smells say it is nothing of the sort, UFOs may look like the products of technology and culture (whether human or alien) but the strange smells like their elusive behaviour suggests that they are something quite else. I suspect that this might be what Cutchin is suggesting with his alchemical allusions in the final chapter, but that is not a topic I have enough expertise to discuss.

If course you might not want to be inspired to these kind of philosophical musings by this book and it can be equally read as a source of either extraordinary human experiences or of modern folklore. It certainly represents a huge effort in collating material and will no doubt be referred to by people with very different viewpoints. – Peter Rogerson.



Susan Fair. American Witches: A Broomstick Tour Through Four Centuries, Skyhorse Publishing. 2016.

First, I must declare something of a particular, personal interest in the whole Satan-y subject. A few years ago I was denounced on live (American) radio as an agent of the Devil – literally, apparently. To my Fundamentalist accuser, there was no doubt about it. I was one of his Satanic Majesty’s most brazen PRs. What had I done to deserve this? Dared to be objective enough to write a book that examined the myth of Lucifer and, sadly, the reality of those who have been condemned as his followers. Oh dear.

(If, however, I really had been Satan’s ghost-writer, you’d think he’d have arranged for me to taunt the righteous with blockbuster sales, now, wouldn’t you… Ah well. Interest duly declared.)

Back to this book, hoping that author Susan Fair doesn’t make the mistake of agreeing to do a phone interview for a radio station she hadn’t checked out first…

One of Ms. Fair’s favourite words is ‘quirky’, which seems perfectly apt, as this book most definitely is, and from the get-go is rather too self-consciously intent on being very quirky indeed. Sometimes facetiousness and/or heavy sarcasm works even in books, like this one, on profoundly serious subjects. Just ask that nice Mr Chas. Dickens. Here it’s much more hit and miss.

Examples of Fair’s perhaps trying-too-hard-to-be-‘accessible’ facetiousness include (punctuation sic): ‘There are, as we’ll see, many forms of witch revenge, ranging from the mundane (You know that bread you like to bake? Well, it’s totally not going to turn out very good.) to the terrible. (You didn’t really want all those kids anyway, did you?).’ Then again: ‘Apparently [a priest] displayed the same “well whaddya gonna do when the guys are determined to execute a little old lady?” attitude.’

Quite. But I would urge persistence, because, despite initial misgivings, not only is this a thoroughly well-researched and fascinating book, but – once she calms down – it’s perfectly well-written and even tremendously likeable. (And the author, the jacket photo reveals, has the kind of merry twinkly eyes that seem just right).

There is much, much more to the whole subject of American witches than the infamous Salem hysteria, although of course it is duly examined here – but oddly turns out to be one of the less interesting episodes recounted.

Even, Fair relates, the first immigrant ships saw poor and/or mad old women being hanged for ‘causing’ the usual sorts of tribulations inescapably involved in sailing long distances in appalling conditions. We read how one woman was summarily hanged, while the captain hid in his cabin, only to emerge eventually, declaring ‘in a high voice’ that he had no idea what had been going on. Susan Fair is excellent at painting the picture. Stay with her.

Sometimes the humour arises naturally out of the grim scenarios described. We are told, for example, how two accused ‘witches’ - actually female Quaker missionaries - were forcibly strip-searched by a gang of ‘midwives’, though ‘one of the “midwives”… appeared to be a man in women’s clothing.’

Having related horrors suffered by – usually lone – female travellers on the high seas, Fair darkly lays the foundation for the rest of the book: ‘Before becoming a melting pot, America was a witch’s cauldron of religious literalism, ignorance, dangerous superstition, and grim misfortune.’ (Some might uncharitably suggest that little has changed…)

At first, witches – usually thought of as female – were not a big deal. Why? ‘Early on there were few enough ladies in the colonies: if they started winnowing out everyone who might be a witch – well, winter nights were cold enough as it was.’ Or maybe, she suggests, it was because the Puritans hadn’t yet become a force to be reckoned with. It was only after they were established with ‘their tough stance on all things Satan’ in the mid-1600s that ‘The hangman was about to catch up with America’s witches’.

The sorry litany of quirky folk arraigned on charges of fraternising with the Devil includes a serving maid who, discontented with her lot – emptying chamber pots being the least of her chores – was said to have struck a rather unimaginative Satanic deal. Sadly, apart from causing pigs to run amok, to her great mirth, this brought her no relief from drudgery, and hardly proved the golden ticket out of near-slavery – unless one counts death by hanging as the perfect escape. However, ‘… she died in a frame extremely to the satisfaction of them that were spectators of it.’ Oh good. That’s all all right, then.

There was a whole group of people suspected of witchcraft – and, indeed, often enough suffering for it – i.e. the native Americans, who were routinely referred to as ‘devils’. This was not merely a turn of phrase. They were so different, so ‘savage’, that they had to be in league with the Big Man himself. However, many of the tribes came to return the compliment: the Jesuits in particular were seen as spreading bad magic. And, it must be said, the warring rival tribes tended to see each other as witches.

But as Fair points out: ‘These Indian-on-Indian witch hunts occurred in the early nineteenth century – a little over a century after the 1692 witch hunts of Salem. The Christians… were quick to deride the Indians for something they too had done.’

Personally, I find the second half of the book – the post-Salem, more recent era – most captivating, when Susan Fair’s self-conscious quirkiness has settled down and her genuine fascination and depth of investigation is allowed to shine through.

I had only a vague idea that someone often accused of ‘witchcraft’ was none other than Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science cult. A strange, anorexic hysteric as a girl and one-time Spiritualist medium, she followed in the footsteps of Mesmerist ‘Dr’ Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, godfather of both Christian Science and many a modern New Age cult that emphasises the power of the mind in healing. But Quimby actually welcomed the witchcraft analogy, writing: ‘Now [post-Salem] the witches are in the people in the form of disease’, describing one sickly young woman as standing ‘like the innocent girl of Salem…’

The girl in question, her parents asserted, had consumption. Quimby said it was merely a nervous cough. ‘But if the girl’s doctor and her parents told her that she had consumption and she believed it, the girl would surely languish and die from the disease…’ Somehow one suspects that she had cause to believe it only too much.

The Quimby Method set the scene for the emergence of ‘witch’ Mary Baker Eddy, with her insistence that all physical ills were due to spiritual ‘error’ and wrong thinking. Mary herself was much given to strange collapses, which she never hesitated to blame on the ‘Malicious Animal Magnetism [known as ‘M.A.M.’] ’ – basically, targeted ill-wishing – of her (many) enemies, whom she termed ‘demonologists’. At least some of her dramatic collapses were probably due to morphine, to which she was addicted. All the M.A.M. nonsense – which hit the headlines, as you can imagine – was quickly labelled ‘the New Witchcraft’, and the inevitable court cases became ‘the Second Salem’.

Mary did two things against her principle enemy, one Daniel Spofford. She ‘took out a psychic hit’ on him – her very own M.A.M. – and just to make sure, she followed that up with hiring an actual hitman. As he double-crossed the Christian Scientists and appeared to be curiously inept anyway, the whole venture fell through, and the charges against Mary et al were eventually withdrawn.

Today her cult still attracts great devotion and generous donations, but there is little doubt that her belief in, and even encouragement of, Malicious Animal Magnetism was part of ‘the primeval pulse of witchcraft … still beating beneath the shiny veneer of the new century’.

Perhaps, though, the best comes last. Fair’s Epilogue: 'The Reign of the Blair Witch: How a Made-Up Witch Took on a Life of Her Own and Terrorised a Town', is a joy, though not without an implicit cautionary tale.

The tiny, rural – and to many, profoundly creepy – hamlet of Burkittsville, Maryland, where the Blair Witch Project movie was set, is still awash with fans, many of whom are in permanent denial. To them, no matter how many times they are told by the locals, and even by the actual film-maker, that there was never a real Blair Witch, there they still are in great numbers, even cropping up inside people’s houses, poking around and causing mayhem.

One man, found by the local mayor wandering around in her own living room, said: ‘It almost looks as if someone lives here’. When told – perhaps rather sharply under the circumstances – ‘people live in all the houses here’, he replied ‘I guess that explains why so many of the doors are locked.’

Sometimes, tired of being seen as an extra in a long-gone movie, Debbie the Mayor tells people that she’s the witch. It amuses her. But occasionally the madness gets too weird. One very well-dressed woman berated Debbie for bringing up her daughter in Burkittsville, shouting at her: ‘Don’t you even care that children are being murdered? Don’t you care about your daughter?’ 

There really was only one answer to that. Looking down at her little girl, Debbie replied: ‘This isn’t my daughter. This is my lunch.’

But be very careful, Debbie. And be equally wary, Susan Fair. There are those who would not only take your jokes literally, but even take your interest in this subject as evidence of real Satanic dealings. People are that stupid. People are that keen to be religious literalists. Believe me, I know. – Lynn Picknett, Author of The Secret History of Lucifer



J. Douglas Kenyon. (ed) Lost Powers - Reclaiming our Inner Connection. Atlantis Rising, 2016.

Most of us have been duped at one time or another. Whether it is a belief that we once cherished, only to become disillusioned as we grew in wisdom and experience, or the amazement of sleight-of-hand magic, there are many ways to be deceived. Some are useful and amusingly impressive, others may be embarrassing, painful or seriously damaging.

Lost Powers is a book of 32 essays on those fascinating subjects about latent human potential and occult or future science in which personal beliefs vary wildly from total credulity to cynical scepticism. As the sub-title makes clear, the overall premise is that we humans have seemingly lost our inner connection to a higher reality and there is now a growing movement to reclaim that vital link. The articles are all taken from issues of Atlantis Rising magazine, published and edited by J. Douglas Kenyon. As the blurb says: "Atlantis Rising provides some of the most astounding reading to be found anywhere".

If this sounds a bit too 'New Age' for some tastes, actually there is nothing woolly or idealistic in these articles, except for one of them. They are all well written and thoroughly researched. Even the most complex theories and subjects are presented in a reasoned and balanced way, so readers can make their own mind up about what is true, and what is not. As Kenyon adds to the cover notes, "there is a deeper process at work, something coming from our innate ability to discern greater truth. Within us all, this subconscious truth-detector is at work, providing us - if we care to access it - a connection to universal themes and archetypes. Every soul has an unconscious knowledge of the ultimate truth of things, a premise long taught by all great spiritual teachers, East and West, regularly experienced by those who follow the spiritual path."

Now that final statement sounds noble and laudable, as indeed it is, but those who have been on the 'spiritual path' long enough know it is not as simple as that. A case study that comes immediately to mind is that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, covered in Essay 8: 'Crimes, Clairvoyance and A. Conan Doyle - Why Was the Creator of Sherlock Holmes so Interested in the Invisible World?'

Doyle undoubtedly had a brilliant brain. The world-famous fictional detective he created was a reflection of his own formidable intellect. He was a great believer in 'deductive reasoning', which he thought could be applied not only to practical problems, but also to the great religious questions. In one story, 'The Naval Treaty', Holmes says: "There is nothing in which deductive reasoning is so necessary as in religion. It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner." Brought up as a Catholic, Doyle lapsed from the faith even in his school days. At the Jesuit school to which he was sent, Doyle reported that when "Father Murphy, a great fierce Irish priest, declared that there was sure damnation for everyone outside the Church, I looked upon him with horror".

With his inquiring mind, Doyle spent many years investigating psychic phenomena and attending seances. From a position of curiosity and doubt he eventually, after many years, became totally convinced of the conscious survival of the spirit after death. He became a fervent evangelist for the cause of Spiritualism, giving talks to packed-out halls all over the world to audiences eager to hear his thoughts on discarnate life and 'soul wanderings'. For all of this he was ridiculed by members of the establishment, and even his biographers tend to regard his spiritualism as unfortunate and embarrassing. The fact is, despite his great intellect and medical training he was duped on several occasions. His most famous mistake was in publicly supporting 'the Cottingley fairies', which were photographs of little winged woodland creatures, promoted through the Theosophical Society in Bradford. They later turned out to be fakes. Near the end of his life, Doyle bemoaned the 'almost thankless quest' of psychical research. It is indeed a tricky subject.

Talking of tricks, the great magician and escape artist Harry Houdini features in this book, in Essay 13: 'The Curious Death of Harry Houdini'. Doyle and Houdini became friends, and on one occasion Houdini performed a trick at his house in New York that so astounded Doyle he was convinced it was supernatural. Houdini insisted that everything he did was an illusion and had a practical explanation, although naturally as a professional magician he did not reveal his methods. The interesting thing here is that Houdini had made it his mission to debunk fraudulent mediums and psychics, frequently attending their demonstrations and then revealing the techniques they had used.

The chapter on Houdini particularly focuses on his sudden and unexpected death at the age of 52 and the resultant controversy over a purported communication from him 'on the other side'. As the essay's author, John Chambers, observes: "To some extent, this death stemmed from Houdini's hubris or overreaching pride - the same flaw that killed Oedipus and Achilles." He had challenged anyone in the world to test his claim that his abdominal muscles were so powerfully developed they could take any punch without his being injured. As Houdini sat relaxing in his dressing room on 22 October 1926,after performing for a packed house at Princess Theatre, Montreal, Canada, a strong 22-year old student delivered a volley of blows to his stomach, almost without warning. Houdini was already in great pain, but managed to struggle on to do another performance the next night. Perhaps it was his hubris itself that kept him going. Even so, that night he was rushed into hospital for an emergency operation, then severe peritonitis set in, causing his death just over a week later. Despite a fierce struggle: "the great escape artist had failed to escape the jaws of death".

Although a dogged debunker of mediumship, Houdini had sworn to his wife Bess that he would somehow get a coded message to her from the other side. She offered $10,000 to any medium who could deliver the message. More than two years after Houdini's death, and at the end of many sittings, the celebrated psychic Arthur Ford transmitted the decoded words "ROSABELLE BELIEVE" to an exultant Bess. She vowed that this was the agreed-upon message. Those were the words inscribed on the inside of her wedding ring, known only to herself. All around the world the media trumpeted the news and for a while Houdini was as famous dead as he had been alive. Then, inevitably, scepticism and doubt began to emerge, with confusing and contradictory effects. You will have to read the book for the details of this and other fascinating examples of what happens when 'experts' start arguing about their pet theories. It gets complicated, but suffice it to say that a piece of evidence came to light which might explain the source of the message. 

An essay that I found particularly memorable and moving was No 29: 'The Paranormal Travels of Mark Twain', also by John Chambers. It starts with the details of a terrifying precognitive dream experienced by Twain when he was just 22 years old and still known by his original name of Samuel Clemens. In the dream he saw the dead body of his younger brother Henry laid in a metallic burial case in vivid detail. It was so realistic that, on awakening, his heart was filled with dread and he was certain that Henry's coffin lay in the next room. The two brothers were about to embark on a steamboat journey down the Mississippi.

What is so gripping and tragic about this story is that the dream came true in appalling detail. The brothers became separated on the journey after Sam got into a fight with the steamboat's pilot and was put off at the next port of call, New Orleans. He was able to get a berth on another steamboat two days later. After another two days on the river, Sam heard the shocking news that a boiler had exploded on the steamship carrying Henry, killing one hundred and fifty people. Like many of the other passengers, Henry barely survived but died a few days later from severe injuries and scalding. Some Memphis ladies provided a metal casket for his body, and it turned out that the terrifying dream was fulfilled in all the other details that young Sam had seen a few days before.

Mark Twain had many brushes with the supernatural during his life, but none as spectacular as this, and none so horrible in its outcome. In 1897 he wrote that we have a "spiritualized self which can detach itself and go off upon affairs of its own. . . it and I are one, because we have common memories". It seems he was even able to have some sexual affairs using his astral body. He often experienced telepathic communication with others. Yet despite these powers, or abilities, he experienced a series of personal catastrophes in later life that took away his peace of mind and nearly destroyed him. Sudden bankruptcy of his publishing firm, and the loss of his fortune invested in a new typesetting machine that failed, plus the discovery that his youngest daughter was epileptic, all combined to ruin his health. In defiance of all these setbacks he set out on a worldwide lecturing tour, with his wife and middle daughter, with the intention of paying back all of his creditors. He nearly succeeded. "But, as he arrived in London at the end of the tour, the greatest horror of all awaited him: his eldest daughter, Suzy, had died at the age of 24 from meningitis after two weeks of terrible suffering.

One can hardly imagine the effects such appalling catastrophes must have had upon him. His creative faculties were broken, and even his spiritual self seemed to have fled. The small amount of writing that he managed afterwards were bleak, portraying humanity no longer with the warmth of Huckleberry Finn and his friends on the great river, but as icebound passengers in an endless Arctic sea. He saw humans at the mercy of "monstrous, capricious, unseen forces - in a state that would go on for all eternity". The despair of his final years should in no way detract from the great joy and laughter he brought to millions of people, even to this day. But the question one is left with, again, is whether such despair in adversity is inevitable over time, or whether a spiritual connection can maintain joy and purpose in life through all circumstances.

Lost Powers is a most interesting and stimulating exploration of questions such as these. I found much food for thought and wisdom in the three essays I have reviewed above. There is something for everyone in this book. For those interested in healing and human potential, there are essays on the wisdom of plants and nature, the human aura, alchemy, longevity and yogic powers. I came across a useful phrase for the latter subject: 'self-directed evolution'. In that case it is intentional, rather than incidental as part of the natural process of living and learning.

Chapter 7 on Kundalini is a commendably clear and thorough explanation of what this energy in the human body actually is, and how it can be used to raise consciousness and vitality. For most humans, orgasms are extremely pleasurable and desirable, giving release and relief. The experience of ecstasy by sexual means is in fact a taste of union. As the author, John White describes it: "the states of consciousness experienced by lovers in union and mystics in God-intoxication are states in which the usual sense of self as a separate, isolated, lonely individual is dissolved. The individuals are no longer locked in the prison of ego, no longer in conflict with the world because of a socially-conditioned image of who they are. It has a sacred quality to it, as if they had contacted something greater than themselves, something at the wellspring of life itself...". This is, in a certain way, a big clue as to what it is all about.

No book of this kind would be complete without essays on secret technologies such as anti-gravity devices, practical designs for saucer-shaped flying craft, and the strange phenomenon of levitation. Chapter 15: "Did our Ancestors Know How to Fly?" looks at ancient writings and illustrations from India, China and Sumer and the author answers that question with a definite yes.

Perhaps the most amazing 'information' is presented in Chapter 18: 'The Superhero Factor - What is the Meaning of the Superpower Myth?' This concerns the persistent myth, so popular with Hollywood films like Superman and so on, that humans can develop super-powers such as walking through walls and direct bodily levitation. David Copperfield has produced some stunning illusions such as going through the Great Wall of China and levitating over the Grand Canyon, all on live TV.
Perhaps the most 'amazing' information is presented in Chapter 18: The Superhero Factor - What is the Meaning of the Superpower Myth?" This concerns the persistent myth, so popular with Hollywood films like 'Superman' and so on, that humans can develop super-powers such as walking through walls and direct bodily levitation.

David Copperfield has produced some stunning illusions such as going through the Great Wall of China and levitating over the Grand Canyon, all on live TV. The latest superstar illusionist to emerge onto the public stage is Criss Angel. I am surprised I had never heard of him before, given what he is described as doing here: "In a scene videotaped from all angles, in broad daylight, while his fans shout and scream from below, Angel effortlessly floats from rooftop to rooftop standing with arms extended, covering a distance of about 200 feet. And then in what may be the greatest feat ever accomplished by an illusionist, Angel, invoking Jesus and giving guttural shouts, floats high up into the air from the pinnacle of the Luxor Hotel Pyramid in Las Vegas at night and hangs in mid-air for about 10 minutes waving his arms, while floodlights from the hotel apex illuminate the scene......But, in what many believe to be his supreme achievement ... Angel walks across a swimming pool in Las Vegas, while swimmers surround him and watch him closely, and a woman swims beneath his feet as he walks. Taking each step carefully, Angel kicks off his shoes in mid-pool and the camera shows them floating to the bottom as he continues his walk barefoot to the other side."

And so it goes on. You can see many of his stunts on YouTube. If you do, make sure to read the comments below the video. People are not so easily impressed these days. They will tell you how it's done. You will have to excuse the rude comments. And you will clearly see that the observers of these stunts are not at all convincing. It's acting. But the author of this essay, sadly, has let the side down and had a bad case of the 'Conan Doyles', believing that this illusionist has really developed yogic powers. They're great illusions, and he certainly has a head for heights. And that's about it.

This world is full of amazing facts and possibilities, and so is this book. I recommend it for further exploration. You never know what you will find. – Kevin Murphy



Annette Imhausen, Mathematics in Ancient Egypt: A Contextual History, Princeton University Press, 2016.

Here’s a book that does exactly what it says on the cover. Annette Imhausen, professor of the history of science at Frankfurt’s Goethe University, sets out what specialists such as herself know about the mathematical systems and techniques used in Ancient Egypt, traced through that civilisation’s long history. As it presents the most up-to-date academic understanding of the subject, from a Magonian perspective it has some relevance when it comes to the theories advanced by the ‘alternative Egyptology’ camp, which is what I’ll concentrate on in this review. (Well, that’s my excuse for ducking a critique of the mathematical parts.)

In the nineteenth century and for most of the twentieth the prevailing view among Egyptologists was that the Ancient Egyptians’ grasp of mathematics was hopelessly unsophisticated compared to that of other ancient civilisations, Greece especially – lacking, for example, an understanding of concepts such as pi, or an equivalent of algebra. It was therefore written off as a mathematically, and therefore scientifically, primitive culture.

The obvious mismatch between that image and the in-your-face achievements such as the Giza pyramids, which clearly required a mastery of all kinds of mathematical and geometric skills in their planning, project management and construction, is partly what fuelled, and continues to fuel, ‘fringe’ theories about the civilisation’s origins; perhaps those dunderhead Egyptians didn’t really build these things at all, but merely inherited them from an older, lost civilisation. It’s therefore instructive to see what the latest scholarly estimation is of their mathematical skills.

In her introduction, Imhausen reviews past studies – which began in 1877 with the publication of the Rhind mathematical papyrus, still the major source on the subject – and the progress that has been made since, not just in Egyptology but mathematical history generally. She concludes that, ‘Due to developments in the history of mathematics of the last 40 years, it has now become obvious that many “statements” about Egyptian mathematics that were made a long time ago and that have since been accepted as “truths” need to be reassessed.’


That reassessment forms the backbone of the book. Imhausen presents a straightforward chronological account, devoting a section to each of the major periods of Ancient Egyptian history – Prehistoric/Early Dynastic, Old, Middle and New Kingdoms, and Greco-Roman. She begins each with an overview of the period’s history for context, before detailing what’s known about the maths employed during it, ending with a useful summary of the essential points.

Imhausen writes clearly and concisely, if with academic dryness. Although she assumes familiarity with some technical mathematical terms, it’s only when she sets the ancient and modern methods of working through a problem side by side, in order to illustrate the conceptual differences between them, that the going gets hard for a non-mathematician like myself. Fortunately, those parts can be skipped over without losing her argument.

One feature of the Ancient Egyptians’ mathematics that was singled out for derision, and to which Imhausen frequently returns, was their way of handling fractions, which appears childishly clunky to today’s eyes. She shows that this misconception arose from a failure, born of the smug belief that modern Western ways of doing things are always the best, to appreciate that there are alternative, equally valid, approaches to doing maths: ‘The Egyptian concept of fractions… was fundamentally different from our modern understanding. This difference is so elementary that it has often led to a distorted analysis of Egyptian fraction reckoning, viewed solely through the eyes of modern mathematicians, who marveled at the Egyptian inability to understand fractions like we do.’

The same goes for their lack of a ‘number’ for zero, another source of modern condescension. As for pi, the Rhind papyrus shows that the Ancient Egyptians could calculate the area of a circle perfectly well, they just did it another way, without using, or needing, that ratio.

In short, the Ancient Egyptians conceptualised numbers in a very different manner to our culture. What comes across from Imhausen’s analysis is the intensely practical nature of their maths - its use for accounting, surveying, building, calendar reckoning and so on. Their system, unlike ours, didn’t use number symbols as abstractions, divorced from the things they represent. Where we would use an equation to find a value, they followed a series of practical, logical steps to get the answer.

The old view of Ancient Egyptian primitiveness is wrong, then. So what do we now know about how far their mathematical understanding extended?

The answer is: precious little. The sources are extraordinarily scarce. A mere 25 mathematical texts – nearly all incomplete – have been found from the whole of Ancient Egypt’s three-millennia-plus history. About half are from the Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 BC) and the rest from the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods, a void of some 1500 years – and nothing at all from the Old Kingdom’s pyramid age. That’s it. And even that meagre collection isn’t entirely revealing to the modern researcher: as Imhausen remarks wryly, these texts ‘are very explicit and detailed (and still they sometimes puzzle us!)’.

Those few specifically mathematical texts, setting out principles and techniques, are, fortunately, supplemented by other sources – administrative documents, wall-paintings and the ‘autobiographies’ inscribed in the tombs of officials, particularly scribes (who had to be proficient in mathematics as well as literate) – which show the maths being applied, allowing some deductions about the underlying concepts and methods. But even so, there’s not much to go on. Small wonder Imhausen admits that, although her book is the fruit of ten years’ research, its findings are ‘temporary at best’ because so much about the subject remains to be discovered.

There’s nothing in the surviving texts that suggests the Egyptians had a concept of pure mathematics, or a Pythagorean-style metaphysics based on number, as many of the alternative theories assume – but with so little to go on it’s impossible to say for sure that they didn’t. I got the impression – although Imhausen doesn’t say it in so many words – that while the Ancient Egyptian’s mathematical and scientific mindset is now appreciated as being different it’s still not really understood.

The big gap in the record is in the Old Kingdom, which is particularly frustrating when it comes to the alternative theories as that’s where the real mystery lies. As Imhausen summarises, ‘Unfortunately, the surviving written evidence is extremely scarce. No mathematical texts are extant, and we do not have any documentation of a building project except for construction marks on the actual site.’ Ultimately, ‘How mathematical techniques to administer quantities of grain, to plan building projects, and others developed or what they were exactly at this time, we cannot say.’ The lack of evidence makes it impossible to track the evolution of Ancient Egyptian maths, either from its beginnings to the Old Kingdom or from that period on.

So, on the one hand, Imhausen shows that the old view of the Ancient Egyptians’ mathematical incompetence is out of date, removing one of the apparent anomalies that stimulated alternative theorists. On the other, however, the negligible amount of available information throws them a lifeline, as it’s impossible to say anything with certainty about the scope of the pyramid-builders’ mathematical and scientific knowledge, or how they came by it.

Imhausen doesn’t address the alternative theories – it’s not part of her remit - beyond lamenting ‘the publication of unfounded speculation about Egyptian mathematics (or even Egyptian science in general), which also had a recent boom with the Internet as a platform.’ However, while dismissive of such speculation, she is candid in her summing up of the current academic position:
‘The scarce source material has not been, and presumably never will be, able to answer every question asked in modern times. This has encouraged rather speculative theories founded on practically no evidence; in fact, it is exactly the lack of evidence that has enabled speculations of this kind. Classic examples are the methods that were used to align and build the pyramids as well as the way Egyptian mathematical knowledge was discovered. The honest and academically responsible answer to most of these questions (at least at the present moment) would simply be that we don’t know.’
Imhausen says, rather optimistically, that one of her book’s aims ‘is to encourage its readers to judge speculations about Egyptian mathematics with a critical and informed eye.’ However, with so little to inform the eye, any attempt – academic or fringe - to address such questions as the mathematical abilities of the pyramid builders is inevitably ‘founded on practically no evidence’.

In the end, Mathematics in Ancient Egypt is a book about how little we know about mathematics in Ancient Egypt. Good news for alternative Egyptologists, as at the very least the assumptions on which their theories are based can’t be proven wrong… -- Clive Prince



UFO Imagery in John Wyndham's 'Worlds to Barter'

The psychosocial view of ufology argues that the UFO experience is essentially an internal, psychological event, whose imagery and content is shaped by contemporary events and culture. Much of this has its origins in occultism, popular science and astronomy, and Science Fiction. Magonia's long time contributor, Martin Kottmeyer, showed in his series of articles, 'Varicose Brains', how the aliens with large brains typical of many UFO encounters ultimately had its origin in Victorian evolutionary theory and speculation about the eventual form humanity would take in the far future. [1] This then entered Science Fiction, where it formed the basis of the diminutive, intellectually decadent Eloi in H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, and the Martians in The War of the Worlds.

John Wyndham is best known for his novels The Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos, which was filmed as Village of the Damned, The Chrysalids, The Kraken Wakes and The Trouble with Lichen. Of these, The Midwich Cuckoos and The Kraken Wakes express and fear of space as the source of hostile aliens threatening to conquer Earth and exterminate humanity common to much of the SF at the time, and the general paranoia following the emergence of the Iron Curtain and the expansion of Communism. 

But Wyndham was also an author of SF short stories in the pulp magazines before the Second World War. One of these, 'Worlds to Barter', first published in 1931, and later anthologised in the collection Sleepers of Mars, published by Coronet in 1973, contains much UFO imagery from the form of the hostile invaders and their immense mental powers to the shapes of their aircraft.

Two scientists, Professor Lestrange and the narrator, Harry Wright, are working in the laboratory on the Professor's latest invention, when they are interrupted by the sudden appearance of Jon Lestrange, a time traveller from the 22nd Century. This new Lestrange is a refugee from an invasions of humans from half a million years in the future. Their world is dying, and to prevent the final extinction of humanity, this future race has travelled back to the far past with the intention of swapping places with their distant ancestors. The people of the 22nd century are to be forcibly transported to their time, while the people of the future take their places. 

Although dying, with the Mediterranean Sea now dried up to form a deep basin, Earth is not yet dead. The people of the 22nd century will enjoy all the benefits and machinery of the civilisation of the humans of the far future. There will even be enough time for them to give rise to a further three or four generations before the final end. The future humans, however, believe that coming back to the 22nd century will give them the necessary time for them to evolve into purely discarnate intelligences that can survive the final death of the Earth and sun.

The future people first warn the people of the 22nd century of their intentions and demands through a series of broadcasts heard simultaneously around the world, which are at first believed to be caused by them interrupting radio broadcasts. When these are ignored, They order the world's government to assemble a committee of ordinary people, who will be transported by the future humans to their secret city. Jon Lestrange, an ordinary citizen, was a member of this international party, who were taken to the future people's secret base in the Sahara desert south of Algiers. There the future race finally show themselves to them, and images of the Earth and its city, Cyp, of their own time. The delegates are, however, unable to convince their governments that the threat is genuine. In order to make their power and intentions clear, the people of the future cut off the electricity supply around the world, causing death and disaster as major services break down, including aircraft falling out of the sky. 

This then begins a war between the people of the 22nd Century and the humans of the far future, a war which the people of the distant future are winning. The future race also set up a series of sites in different countries across the world, where they will take the people of the 22nd century forward to their time. The landing site in Britain is Salisbury Plain. Jon Lestrange and his wife, Mary, make their way there, where they find one large time machine used to transport the crowds of refugees, and two smaller time machines used to transport the pilots from the future. 

Jon Lestrange is able to overcome the two future men, and he and Mary both take control of the smaller machines. Mary accidentally knocks one of the dials setting the machine's destination, and she and Jon become separated. Jon tells the Professor and Wright that he is afraid he has lost his wife forever in time. All ends happily for him as she then reappears after he has told his tale. She had only knocked the dial a little, so that she arrived a few hours after he did. The story ends there, with the couple safe, but the people of the 22nd century being conquered and supplanted by their far future descendants.

The people of the far future very much follow the established conventions of what Victorian evolutionary biologists and SF writers expected them to be like. They are short, with large brains and atrophied bodies. Before the future race finally make themselves known, two of them are killed in accidents, such as when one materialises in front of a train. The bodies are discovered, and forensically examined. Jon Lestrange gives his ancestors the following description of them.
There could be no doubt that the corpse was human, though to us, whose standards were still those of ancient Greece, the thing appeared a travesty. In height, it must have stood about five feet. The head had twice the volume of others, though the enlargement was mainly frontal. The neck was thickened to support the weight, until the shoulders barely projected. Puny arms ended in small hands, of which no finger carried a nail and none was longer than two inches. Each foot was just a pad showing no articulation of the toes.
'When the dissectors got to work on the body, they noticed many other curious malformations, such as abbreviated intestines, an atrophied aural system and absence of teeth.... (p. 67).
Various explanations for the body are suggested, including a hoax, the product of a vivisection experiment, and that the creature is an interplanetary visitor.

This is very much like the descriptions of various UFO occupants, like the notorious Greys, who are also short, with large brains, no ears and a severely simplified digestive system. Wyndham's people of the far future are physically weak, but they are able to affect their environment, including knocking over one of the party of 22nd century people, who is trying to interfere with one of the time machines, though sheer will power. (p.76) The creatures themselves communicate by mental projection. This is proved when the people of 22nd century London attempt to record one of the dwarfs' radio messages, only to find that nothing has been mechanically recorded. (pp. 78-9) 

This, again, is very much like the accounts of aliens, including Greys, communicating by telepathy. There are also several accounts of extraterrestrial contactees attempting to record UFO aliens supposedly speaking via radio transmission, such as those of Byron Goodman, George Hunt Williamson, John Otto, the South African contactee 'Edwin', Bob Renaud, Dr. Edward W. Goldstein, and the notorious Uri Geller. [2]. 

John Otto's case is somewhat similar to Wyndham's short story, as in 1954 he was on WGN, a Chicago radio station, and requested any extraterrestrials then visiting Earth to break into the station's transmission. Most people did not hear anything, though four listeners stated that they had heard sounds and another person recorded what sounded like a short-wave teletype transmission. [3] It is also quite different from Wyndham, in that it is the humans, who are attempting to communicate by radio, only a tiny minority of whom are able to pick up the reply, which, unlike that of Wyndham's dwarfs, could be recorded.

The aircraft the dwarfs use for flight, taking the international delegation to their desert base is described as a silver cylinder. Jon Lestrange goes on to describe it as
... about equal to one of our larger airships. Built of silvery metal, it tapered at each end, and along the sides were rows of windows. Nothing more was to be seen; it gave no clue to the manner of the propulsion. (p. 70).
This is again similar to the accounts of the cigar- and spindle-shaped UFOs also reported by UFO witnesses, such the pilots Clarence S. Chiles and John B. Whitted in July 1948, and the astronomer Professor Clyde Tombaugh in August 1949. [4] It also anticipates the theory that UFO aliens are visitors from the far future rather than extraterrestrials.

Wyndham did not invent the image of future humanity as small beings with large heads. The French astronomer Camille Flammarion did that in his Omega: The Last Days of the World [5] ( followed by Wells' The Time Machine a couple of years later, and the image had become a staple Science Fiction motif by the time Wyndham was writing, as were telepathy and psychic powers. Apart from entertaining his readers, Wyndham's story nevertheless served to keep the motif alive and disseminate it further. It provides further evidence to show that the persistent figure of UFO aliens as small, large brained creatures, like the Greys, has its origin in the SF and evolutionary speculation of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

  1. See, for example','Varicose Brains: Part One: Entering a Grey Area', in Magonia 62, and 'Heading Towards the Future: Varicose Brains Part Two', Magonia 68, pp.10.
  2. Janet and Collin Bord: Life Beyond Earth, pp. 116-21, 122-8.
  3. J. and C. Bord, op. cit., p. 121.
  4. John and Anne Spencer, Fifty Years of UFOs, pp. 25-6.
  5. Kottmeyer, op. cit., p. 3.



Ruth Heholt and Niamh Downing (Eds.). Haunted Landscapes: Super-Nature and the Environment. Rowman and Littlefield, 2016

Haunted Landscapes: Super-Nature and the Environment is a collection of essays concerning the interaction between what we think about ghosts and what we mean by a ghostly location or landscape. It consists of twelve essays ranging from Heidegger to W.G.Sebald and the Whitechapel London of Jack the Ripper to the shadowy landscape of Anglo-Scots borders. The introduction contains a vivid description of ghostliness written by Vernon Lee in 1898.

“Ghosts and ghostly things are things of the imagination, born there, sprung from the strange confused heaps, half-rubbish, half-treasure, which lie in our fancy, heaps of half-faded recollections of fragmentary vivid impressions, litter of multi-coloured tatters, and faded herbs and flowers, whence arises that odour (we all know it), musty and damp, but penetratingly sweet and intoxicatingly heady, which hangs in the air when a ghost has swept through the unopened door, and the flickering flames of candle and fire start up once more after waning.”

Lee’s Victorian prose is a little over-wrought but engaging as she draws us in to explore a ghostly terrain. Unfortunately two thirds of the twenty first century academics gathered here, never write with such colour. Too often their style, and therefore sense, falls into grey high dense jargon.

My title for this review is “What is a chronotape? That question is partly answered in the essay “Gothic Chronotapes and Bloodied Cobblestones: The uncanny psycho-geography of London’s Whitechapel Ward” by HollyGale Millette. She is referring to Mikhail Bakhtin in his The Dialogic Imagination (1982) who defines chronotape as “a place wherein time and space collapse”. That sounds wonderfully spooky in a black hole sort of way. But unfortunately Millett then quotes other writers to develop this concept. We are given “historical-geographical materialism” and a “spatio-temporal turn.” Soon the chronotape becomes “the gateway to a diatonic approach to narrative truth-telling about the landscape.” The landscape in question is the infamous Whitechapel slum district of 1888 where Jack the Ripper murdered prostitutes. Now I’d have loved this essay if it had been an exploration of the evil atmosphere and festering ghosts of a once feared spot. No such enjoyably florid Vernon Lee prose, alas: only Millet’s hard theorising that throws up impenetrable sentences.

“Space too is a discursive material as well as a material engaged in reproducing heteropatriarchal imperatives. The death of the women of Whitechapel produced a materiality of victimhood, which conveniently reconstituted the matrilocal space as male and allowed predatory male voyeurs free reign over a hitherto feminised space.”

To be fair to Millett she does reveal many interesting facts about the Whitechapel of the 1880’s. Just steer very carefully round her language.

Thankfully not every contributor is so tortuously dense. About one third of Haunted Landscapes is very compelling. Particularly section 3 called “Borderlands and Outlands.” Here we discover Scotland’s haunted geography, a consideration of the writings of the brilliant W.G.Sebald and Bram Stoker’s depictions of nature. This section of the book proves the most interesting. Alongside of which I would place the intriguing opening essay about the hut used by the great German philosopher Heidegger to do his writing. “Place as Palimpsest” is a discussion of the cultural overlays and antecedents where Heidegger worked and linked to a probing poem by Paul Celan concerning Heidegger’s links to Nazism. A very suggestive essay, indeed.

Daniel Weston’s subject is W. G. Sebald. And in his essay “W.G.Sebald’s Afterlives” he quotes writer John Wylie on Sebald’s Rings of Saturn as a work that “has come to stand as something of a model of contemporary cultural geographies of landscape.” I wouldn’t disagree with that. For me the book is also part novel, part travel book, part work of philosophy, cultural history and walker’s journal. Weston is very good on describing what’s going on in Sebald’s mind. So much so that he made me want to re-read this brilliantly original writer. It’s so sad that Sebald died in 2001 aged only fifty seven. He would have been a great (greater) contributor to this book. Here is the Sebald extract from his The Rings of Saturn.
“In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set of to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work. And in fact my hope was realized, up to a point; for I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then, walking for hours in the day through the thinly populated countryside, which stretches inland from the coast. I wonder now, however there might be something in the old superstition that certain ailments of the spirit and of the body are particularly likely to beset us under the sign of the Dog Star. At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident in that remote place.”
That’s a beautifully written passage expressing intense apprehension and containing a melancholy as suggestive as Vernon Lee’s paragraph on the ghostly presence. Weston talks of a Sebaldian traffic always from “the cues in place towards histories now absent from this place or any other” he then argues that the affect of this is to something that “carries the corollary that there is a constant slippage of attention away from the experience of place. History overburdens the moment of engagement.” This is engaged and perceptive writing that sensitively probes, free of psycho-geography jargon, an original writer’s sensibility. Sebald would have definitely approved.

Haunted Landscapes: Super-Nature and the Environment has taken the concept of ghosts, visitations, cultural memory, psychology and landscape and produced a work that’s both maddeningly blocked by its hermetic language, whilst also illuminating in the cracks in its author’s academic styles. When the significance of ghostly presence, supernatural or other, does come through, I was fascinated by this uneven, yet rewarding and original book. Its cluster of ideas still managed to haunt me, even when their analysis of texts often stumbled through a lack of clarity. – Alan Price




Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix. Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets. Pantheon Books, New York, 2016

Most scientific speculation about the possibility of establishing settlements on other planets usually involves the consideration of Mars as the most likely, but the authors have examined these ideas and have concluded that the proposed methods of making Mars habitable are not practicable and remark: "These are fun ideas to think about, but the time and cost are too colossal to take seriously."

Chapter 2 is particularly interesting, as it deals with some of NASA's problems with the way in which it was organised, and its tendency to concentrate on the inner solar system, rather than any possibilities offered by the outer planets, in particular the result of taking a short-term approach, where colonies would have to be reliant on constant assistance and supplies from Earth.

The most spectacular and tragic result of bad management in NASA was the crash of the Space Shuttle Challenger on 28 January 1986, killing its seven occupants. The Shuttle was launched despite the fact that five engineers had warned their superiors that the weather at the launch site was too cold and that this would probably cause the rubber O-rings on the boosters to fail, which is what happened.

Most of the book is devoted to considering the possibility of establishing a permanent self-maintaining colony on Titan. The authors remark, optimistically perhaps: "There's plenty we don't currently know about Titan. But we do know that, if you could get there, we could live there."

Although it at first seems an unpromising place to establish a colony, many scientists have imagined what it would be like to live there. It would be possible to survive without space suits and walk around in warm clothing and oxygen masks, even though the temperature is about -180 C. The atmospheric pressure is about 50% greater than on Earth, and the air is four times denser, and gravity is only 14% of the gravity on Earth.This would make it possible to fly by flapping wings attached to one's arms or by using an electrically powered propeller.

There are plenty of interesting ideas on the possible organisation of colonies on Titan,which are developed by imagining what might happen in the near or distant future. Many readers will probably try to imagine what it would be like to live in colonies on Titan but they must be aware that it will not be possible for them to return to Earth, having become accustomed to low gravity.

Not content with devising ingenious methods for colonising Titan, the authors finally turn their attention to what perhaps might be the possibility of going further. "Beyond our solar system's outermost planets, the next stop is a long way off ." Indeed it is. This would be accomplished by a version of the space warp, familiar to readers of science fiction. Few scientists will consider it possible, but at least some readers will find it interesting, and many readers will at least be entertained by the more credible ideas discussed. The authors have succeeded in presenting their arguments without lapsing into crankiness. Recommended. -- John Harney