Sunday, 14 February 2010

However Improbable Vol 2 Issue 3

The following items were found in a file with the title 'However Improbable 2:3', but as far as I am aware this issue never appeared, so this is the first time they have been published. The magazine was clearly in trouble as we were getting little feedback from members and it did not seem worth the effort - mainly Andy's - to produce it any more. We delayed the issue date (which was to have been Easter 1998) in the hope of obtaining more contributions, before abandoning the magazine. As a result, we switched from trying to be a mass-membership group, which was unwieldy and time-consuming, to a concentration on a core group of us conducting investigations of spontaneous cases.


Welcome to the latest However Improbable. We’re sorry for the delay - we hoped that this issue would appear at Easter, but time pressure and lack of contributions pushed it back.

The last issue of the magazine contained a long article by Vincent O’Neil (adopted son of Marianne Foyster) on Borley Rectory. We had been hoping to run further articles by Vincent, but he has informed us that he does not want any more to be used as he has been able to interest a publisher in his work. Good news for Vincent, but bad news for us. He asked us to mention his Web Site devoted to the Borley case, and his e-mail address. The Web Site I can thoroughly recommend, particularly for its annotated bibliography on Borley which is a model of its kind. If you want to see it, it can be found at Should you wish to e-mail Vincent, his address is

Instead of Vincent’s anticipated contribution we have reinstated the competition, but need more people to have a go to make it worthwhile. We are also including the second part of the horror film survival guide, the first part of which was in HI1:4 (and if you haven’t got that issue, it and its fellows are available for 40p each). We hope that you find this and the rest of the magazine interesting. Finally, the standing plea, remember we need readers to keep their eyes and ears open for possible cases for the group to investigate. Good (ghost) hunting!

From the Archives: No. 2

A handbill dated 24 October 1826 contains the story of one Mr. Hartt of Orford Hill, Norwich, who was persecuted by a literally “Hungry Ghost” for a fortnight. He did not see the spirit, but it made its presence known by making a din, exhorting the not surprisingly nervous gentleman to “Beware! Leave off your wicked life, Hartt! Read your Bible.” His neighbours, obviously brave souls, volunteered to sit up with him. This they did for several nights until the voice was heard again telling the blameless Hartt to read his Bible and abjure his allegedly wicked ways. Things then took an even odder turn. The neighbours proceeded to search the house but although they could not see anything, the voice seemed to follow them from room to room, this time demanding “Bread and butter - Ham, and bread and butter - Blow my guts, I am so hungry”. The origin of the ghostly voice could not be pinpointed, sometimes seeming to come from the walls, at other times the ceiling or floor.

Eventually the Mayor became involved, and he sent several policeman to conduct a more professional search, with instructions not to stop until they had uncovered the cause. Unfortunately they were stymied as well. Next a clergyman was called in, but he could not lay the ghost either, which despite its earlier piety now told the cleric to “go home, and not to come there praying”. A tailor decided that the voice came from someone hiding in the walls, so he marched in to do battle armed with a poker and proceeded to search the house, all the while being informed by the entity that his efforts were useless and that he should go home. When a box was thrown at him, his courage seems to have vanished and he heeded the advice.

Unfortunately this rattling yarn comes to a somewhat abrupt anticlimax, cleared up in the last three lines: “The author of the trick was at length discovered [How? When?] to be the servant girl, who possessed an extraordinary power of ventriloquism. She has since been taken into custody [On what charge - impersonating a ghost?], and no further noise has been heard by poor Mr Hartt.” It would be nice to know how this turned out, and if any explanation by the servant was recorded. Perhaps Mr Hartt was not quite as blameless as the handbill makes out, and she was getting revenge. Whatever the reason, she must have indeed been a first-rate ventriloquist to have fooled so many people - which makes one wonder how she could have done it. Why did nobody notice that the voice was only heard when she was present, and what business would she have had following the various investigators around the house anyway? There must be more to this than the author tells us. Perhaps she crept unseen into adjacent rooms and shouted through holes in the walls, a far-fetched scenario itself, or perhaps she was the fall-guy for a real spirit, who perpetrated a practical joke and got it blamed on the one person nobody would listen to...

Source: R.C. Finucane. Appearances of the Dead: A Cultural History of Ghosts. London, Junction, 1982, plate 5.

The True History of Pepper’s Ghost: A reprint of the 1890 edition of A True History of The Ghost and All About Metempsychosis. John Henry Pepper. The Projection Box, Facsimile series No. 2, 1996. £5.95. (Contact 66 Culverden road, London, SW12 9LS)

‘Professor’ Pepper (1821-1900) was part showman, part educationalist. He was a lecturer at and later director of the Royal Polytechnic Institution in London, which was a major influence in disseminating scientific ideas in Victorian Britain. He also gave his name to an optical illusion, Pepper’s Ghost, dating from 1862. This is based on the effect which occurs when looking through a window at dimly lit scenery: One can see what is beyond the window, but also what is being reflected on it from behind the viewer. Pepper’s idea for theatrical presentation was to place a hidden stage below the level of the audience where a light source would throw an image of an actor dressed as the ghost up to an angled sheet of glass at the front of the main stage. The audience would see the reflection of the ‘ghost’ as well as the actors behind the glass, by careful stage direction appearing to interact.

The germ of the idea came from a Henry Dircks, whose formulation was not really practical - despite needing a purpose-built theatre the illusion would still only have been visible to a small number of patrons. The two joined forces to improve the idea, but they fell out and Dircks proceeded to snipe at his erstwhile collaborator, claiming that Pepper had cheated him. Pepper also had to contend with patent infringements, and his absorption in dealing with the legal aspects of the invention can be judged by the fulsome dedication of his book to his solicitor, Walter Hughes (incidentally, the copy owned by the famous psychical researcher Harry Price was the very one given by Pepper to Hughes).

By 1890 Pepper’s Ghost was old hat as a theatrical device (children, knowing that the sheet of glass was there, even if they could not see it, would throw wads of moistened paper which would stick to it), but ghost shows based on the idea continued as fairground attractions, which themselves provide a link with the first itinerant film exhibitions later in the decade. Pepper’s book is a full exposition of the trick and its subsequent history, quoting the original patent, correspondence and newspaper articles at length, along with a description of another illusion called Metempsychosis.

Mervyn Heard has added an introduction to this reprint, giving the background to ghost projection and outlining some of the additions to the basic technique made by others. He has included a useful bibliography for those interested in examining further this fascinating area. Pepper’s text is a faithful reproduction of the original except in one respect. For some reason the diagram on the frontispiece in the 1890 edition, pasted onto the cover in the new edition, has been redrawn. It is larger than the original, and arguably clearer, but the change is not explained in the introduction, and it could be argued that what is presented does not strictly speaking qualify as a facsimile.

It is still an interesting document, though, and well worth the money. A valuable companion piece would be Dircks’s wonderfully titled “The Ghost! As Produced in the Spectre Drama: Popularly Illustrating the Marvellous Optical Illusions Obtained by the Apparatus Called the Dircksian Phantasmagoria” of 1863, to which Pepper’s book is partly a belated riposte. Perhaps The Projection Box would consider a reprint of that, especially as Dircks is more approachable than Pepper’s rather pompous style.

Cinematic Hauntings. Gary J. And Susan Svehla (eds.). Midnight Marquee Press, Baltimore, MD., 1996. $20. Distributed in U.K. by Worldwide Media (£14.99).

If media representations of the paranormal and the accounts people give of their own experiences interact, then we have to take seriously paranormal cinema and television - especially as there is so much of the latter about. And, let’s face it, watching and reading about ghost films is fun. Surprisingly, however, the literature outside small circulation fan magazines is fairly sparse, ghost films usually subsumed under other genres such as romance, and of course horror. For that reason this well-illustrated book is very welcome, showing as it does how varied the cinematic afterlife can be.

Sixteen films are covered by a variety of American writers, and on the whole the quality of the contributions is high. It would be invidious to pick out individuals, so here goes. Probably the best chapters are those on Carnival of Souls, High Plains Drifter, Night of the Demon and The Haunting, the latter including interviews with some of those involved with the film. That on Outward Bound is good on its production history (though the later version, Between Two Worlds, is dismissed briefly) as is that on Portrait of Jennie. Ones not quite in the first rank include that on Blithe Spirit which rambles a little, and those on The Changeling, The Innocents, and The Legend of Hell House which lean heavily on descriptions of the plot. Lady in White’s examination is workmanlike but skims over this overrated film’s incoherences.

Criticisms are minor. An introduction would have been useful, setting the films chosen in context, though co-editor Gary J.Svehla broadens out his discussion of The Uninvited slightly to reflect on the function of ghost films. The chapters are in alphabetical rather than date order, so that a straight read through does not given any sense of the progression of the ghost film (and as credits are printed at the end of chapters it is necessary to flick through to find out the details of each film). One cannot complain about the U.S. bias I suppose, but it can cause niggles: Night of the Demon is listed under its US title Curse of the Demon. Dead of Night (alas only referred to in passing) is not a Hollywood film. Gary Don Rhodes, writing about the British censorship problems of Outward Bound, spells Surrey “Surray” (that’s just how its inhabitants pronounce it), and I am not convinced he knows what the initials L.C.C. stand for.

Inevitably one can quibble about the choices, which probably reflect the interests of the contributors. The writer on Night of the Demon apologises for including it in a book on cinematic ghosts, with reason, as it is not a ghost film. It is nice to see the inclusion of obscurer vintage material, such as Outward Bound and Supernatural (even if the author writing on the latter seems to spend much of his time showing what limited filmmakers the Halperins were and digresses into an examination of the later careers of the film’s participants), but some of the other films have a massive literature devoted to them, notably The Innocents and, especially, The Shining. These could have been dropped to make room for less well-explored films.

It would have been nice to see personal favourites like Truly Madly Deeply, The Ghost Goes West, Ghost Story (the 1982 one) and Ghost included, or the massive influence of the Ghostbusters films discussed. And Hong Kong has a strong tradition of ghost films which do not get the exposure they deserve in the West - indeed, it would have been good to see something on foreign-language as well as silent films. But given the inevitable trade-off between space limitations and the desire to deal with particular films in depth, the editors have put together a valuable contribution to the subject. Midnight Marquee Press, who publish extensively on horror films, are to be congratulated on a useful effort. Considering the number of worthy films which did not make the final cut, perhaps this will be the first of a series to concentrate on the cinematic medium.

The Mind of Edmund Gurney. Gordon Epperson. London, Associated University Presses, 1997. £26.50.

Although only 41 when he died in 1888, Edmund Gurney had already made a reputation for himself as a musicologist, philosopher (particularly in the areas of aesthetics and ethics) and psychical researcher. It is in the last of these fields that he is best known today, particularly his labours on behalf of The Society for Psychical Research, chiefly as its Joint Hon. Secretary and as co-author of the seminal Phantasms of the Living (1886), the significance of which cannot be underestimated. He also conducted experiments in hypnosis and investigated mediums.

Gordon Epperson, a musicologist himself, has written a short but concentrated intellectual biography of Gurney in an attempt to rehabilitate his somewhat faded reputation. Gurney’s achievements are explored in chapters devoted to each of his spheres of interest: His early life and studies in medicine and law, his musical researches culminating in his book The Power of Sound, work on hypnosis, philosophy and poetry, his friendship with William James, and of course his psychical research. A section deals with Trevor Hall’s snide innuendoes in his book The Strange Case of Edmund Gurney, convincingly dismissing Hall’s claim that Gurney committed suicide after discovering that his assistant, G. A. Smith, had cheated in telepathy experiments.

Due to its shortness, Epperson has had to skim over Gurney’s work, merely giving us a taster of his impressively various activities. He is good on rendering Gurney’s philosophical ideas into clear English, and outlining the intellectual milieu in which he moved, and the musical discussion is of course first-rate. There are weaknesses, however, probably due to Epperson’s lack of familiarity with psychical research. For example, there is little on Gurney’s activities in the field prior to the SPR’s foundation in 1882 - he was involved in scrutinising Spiritualism as early as 1874 - and there is no mention of the Creery and Guthrie cases, with which he was involved. To give a more rounded picture of Gurney’s labours, this book should be read in conjunction with Alan Gauld’s The Founders of Psychical Research.

Epperson’s main problem as a biographer is that Gurney was incredibly reticent about his personal life, and what we know about him as an individual comes almost entirely from the memoirs of others; the concentration on his mind as indicated in the title is more through necessity than choice. Despite this handicap, Epperson manages to bring him to life, to the extent that the main reaction upon finishing the book is to mourn the waste of a talent which had so much to offer.

Hamlyn History: Supernatural. Karen Farrington, London, Hamlyn, 1997, £18.99.

The dust jacket confidently asserts that “The truth lies within the pages of this book”, but the results do not fulfil the expectations raised that one is holding a scientific breakthrough in one’s hands. Beautifully illustrated though it is, the text has a jerky quality and reads rather like a Magic, Mysteries and Miracles television script (and is about as profound), presumably because it had to be pruned to fit the space around the pictures.

The book covers a considerable number of topics in its 192 large-format pages, including conventional psychical research, the Occult, earth mysteries, New Age and Fortean subjects. The author is not a specialist but does make a reasonable stab at the material, although it should be treated with care. She is sound on crop circles and psychic surgery, for example, but she can be too quick to take certain psychic practitioners’ claims at face value, despite a huge amount of contrary evidence in the literature. The definition of a poltergeist as “a boisterous, mischievous ghost” betrays the author’s lack of credentials, and I can’t let a couple of wrong dates go: Tutankhamun’s tomb was uncovered in 1922, not 1923, and Blavatsky formed the Theosophical Society in 1875, not 1951 - she died in 1891.

Perhaps it would be churlish to be too critical because the book never pretends to be a scholarly exposition (except perhaps on the dust jacket), though that doesn’t excuse sloppy research. I can’t work out who the target audience is because for the casual browser the price would be prohibitive. A subscription to Fortean Times would be better value for money.