The English Ghost: Spectres Through Time – Peter Ackroyd
Peter Ackroyd is so annoying because he’s so prolific. That is the only bad thing I can say about his work (I’ve only ever read his nonfiction). This was an extremely enjoyable book which got the tone just right: with the English being, as history has demonstrated, a haunted nation, the book gives a wide range of experiences without trying to scientifically debunk them (though suggestions for explanations are occasionally given) and without trying to scare the bejesus out of the readers. A good tack, and one which makes reading the book endlessly entertaining.
Having read similar, although less ambitious, books in the past, I was surprised at the wide variety of experiences and noted less than a handful of stories I had read elsewhere (and with the 1814 story in the Tower of London being one of them, you can hardly blame Ackroyd for repeating that old chestnut). There are a sprinkling of excellent hand-picked gems from before the 17th century as well as an impressively wide-ranging selection from the 17th century itself. Many examples, as you might expect, come from the 19th and 20th centuries (none, that I can tell, from the 21st century, which is probably intentional).
Ackroyd’s introduction and siting of English ghosts in a historical continuum is very interesting, to start off with. Unsurprisingly given the tone, there are few hair-raisingly terrifying accounts, many being strange, quizzical, poignant, and some even rather amusing. Benevolent, or inoffensive, spirits occur, such as the 19th century story of a smiling gentleman who appeared next to an old press in a bedroom. “Oh,” said the hostess, “it is only James Bair, my uncle: he does not like anyone but myself to examine his ancient clothes or interfere with the press. He frequently joins me in the house, and some of the other members of the family also, but they don’t like him. With me he often converses” (43). One phantom from the A38 near Wellington who appeared to motorists in the 1970s and 1990s seems to have a very good reason (if only he would communicate it) for lingering in a certain stretch of road. A middle-aged man in a mackintosh, he is always seen “shining a torch into the road itself” (105).
Interesting though I find the theory of moments of emotional potency or rote routine “inscribing” actions on time like making grooves on a record, that can’t account for playful spirits who appear in different ways to different people. One very annoying spirit from Devon in 1682 really had it in for a certain young man, throwing him off his horse, strangling him with cravats and handkerchiefs, destroying his periwigs, and tearing up his gloves in his pockets! This female “daemon” was also responsible for throwing the young man into the air and causing him to land in a swamp where he was found in a tree in a trance. A church in south Colchester, St Mary’s, suffered all kinds of strange phenomena for two decades beginning in the late 1930s. The vicar, Rev. Ernest Merryweather, kept a record. Slamming doors, strange sounds, a voice saying he was “a cruel man,” the apparition of a woman with a scarf, phantom singing, disappearing candles, and vile smells were just some of the things Rev. Merryweather documented. Interestingly, the church fell into disuse after Merryweather’s retirement in 1959 and was demolished three years later. What did the entities have to haunt then, and why had they decided on St Mary’s in the first place?
The often dramatic stories from the 17th and 18th centuries (such as the one above) have been carefully selected and plainly told, and yet irrationally there is some desire on my part to be more sceptical about these stories than the more recent ones. Contrary to expectations, witnesses and investigators of the 17th century seem to have been no more credulous than at later times. A haunting by a dead neighbour, Mother Leakey, in Minehead in 1634 went to a special commission of judges who examined the witnesses. They determined it was “an Imposture devised and framed for some endes but what they were wee know not,” nor can I think of any credible reason for fraud in this case (53). Thomas Wilkins, a curate of Warblington at the very end of the 17th century, seems to have been a remarkably stony individual, standing up to what seemed to be the spectre of a former rector of the area. He claims to have had “very little” fear when thrusting his hand through the ghost but could neither banish it nor come up with any good explanation for it (59). Reverend Ruddle of Cornwall in 1665 was more successful with the recurrent spirit of a woman in a field, in an incident that I think must have inspired Andrew Taylor’s The Anatomy of Ghosts. A poltergeist in a house in Wiltshire in 1661 caused a drummer to be arraigned for witchcraft but he was acquitted for lack of evidence.
What I enjoy is how many of the hauntings are sounds only rather than sights (only because of my proclivity for audio drama). For example, a 19th century account by Mr T. Westwood of a house in Enfield Chase. Westwood was unnerved by “a sort of shuddering sound in the room, as of suppressed dread” (44). As is shown to be a common thread, sometimes terrible noises occur and when the living go to investigate them, they find nothing disturbed. For example, James Wayland of Bath described an 1831 incident where, among other things, a scream and “as if twenty or thirty chattering workmen were removing the tiles [from the roof], and flinging them down as fast as possible into the garden below.” Though Wayland’s father suspected “thieves, or a body of lunatics, or Chartist rioters” (!), upon investigation, “none of the tiles had been removed” (74). The scream heard by PC Tom Langley of Digbeth, Warwickshire, some time in the first half of the 20th century has the ring of urban legend to it: he was convinced to ask his uncle, retired from the force, who had heard it several times. His uncle told him to forget about it. Apparently the scream had been heard since the 1850s.
There is a section of the book just for poltergeists, a very strange phenomenon and one Ackroyd at least seems to think has to do with the mental energy of teenaged girls rather than strict phantoms (a theory I have heard before). There are also doppelgangers and “fetches” or harbingers, a strange spectacle that I don’t necessarily think qualifies as ghosts. Several of these cases involve pairs of people who have decided that, when one dies, he or she will come back to the other to prove the existence of an afterlife.
The most poignant story (and a bit too perfect to be accepted wholeheartedly) is of a dachshund named Robert who in 1909 disappeared. He then appeared to his erstwhile owner (and another, unrelated witness) and led the ladies on separate occasions to number 90 on a certain street. “He still wore the bright yellow collar I had bought him shortly before his disappearance, so that had there been any doubt about his identity that would have removed it instantly” (the other woman called the collar “gaudy”) (166). Robert gazed at his owner “in the most beseeching manner . . . I do not know for how long we stood there looking at one another; it may have been minutes, or hours, or again, but a few paltry seconds.” He subsequently disappeared. The owner found out later, allegedly, that the owner of the house was a vivisectionist.