Friday, 28 September 2012

The Old Knowledge by Rosalie Parker, The Swan River Press

A deceptive simplicity of language harbours the road to the unforeseeable twist in this reissue of Rosalie Parker's first collection, originally published by Swan River in 2010.  
  In 'The Rain,' we are with the seemingly innocent protaganist Geraldine all the way, as her city girl ways are frowned upon by rain-drenched, surly yokels of whom she asks assistance and gains little sympathy. Until an encroaching callousness on her part not only questions our allegiance to her but her own perception of what is real.
  In 'Spirit Solutions' ( a tale considered unique enough for immediate entry into Wordsworth Editions 'The Black Veil' anthology back in 2008) a daughter's journal records the last days at the family residence after the death of their father. Holed-up in their sold, snowbound home, with the food running out and computer sole link to the outside world, a website offers salvation from the poltergeist that's long plagued them. But is the true cause of its presence closer to home than any of them realise? Again, we have only the diarist's word as to the facts. This is an extraordinary tale, so ambiguous in protaganist motive that it bears several

  'In The Garden' begins as so innoucuous - a woman talking to someone of her love of gardening - that you doubt any eventual denouement at all, until the final paragraph reveals the very black object of her attention and intent. (Evoking those Amicus horror anthology films of the Seventies').
  Further intimations of madness arise by the end of 'Chanctonbury Ring' where a benign archeologist-cum-geologist has a ghostly encounter with one who reaches to him from the past, for a particular sanctuary he has little choice but provide.
  'The Supply Teacher' of the title has a dubious provenance, engaging her class - in her last lesson - in procuring what they know about the "circulatory system" and the life force that drives it. By class's end, we discover just who it is being supplied. A slight tale with a well-worn theme, but welcome for its wry humour for all that.
  The title tale returns us to the rural, folksy-type settings of 'The Rain' and 'Chanctonbury Ring' where a disturbance of the past (the levelling of a ceremonial burial mound in this case) is undermind by a protector with a particularly unforeseeable motive.
  'The Cook's Story' finds a young woman, (not unlike Geraldine of 'The Rain'), seeking solace after separation in a contrasting remote setting. In this case, a huge Tudor house run by a wealthy, slightly estranged, but kind married couple. An undercurrent of possible unconsumation is beautifully realised throughout with a last desparate action - intended or otherwise - that changes everything. A minor classic.
  Lastly, is 'The Picture'; a traditional-style horror, redolent of early Blackwood, Stoker et al, with a modern setting, as an antique collector buys a portrait of "a dark haired, curiously androgynous figure, half-draped in a voluminous white garment, gaz(ing) adoringly, imploringly, in profile at some unseen entity above." That the seller tells her he had sold it before, tells you he'll most likely be seeing it again as life threatens to imitate art.
  If not breaking new ground with every tale, what's striking in all eight is their perfect pitch. It is clear Parker already knows the rules of the uncanny (of what to hide, what to reveal, and when) and how, ideally, to express them. One of the sub-genre's hardest sleight-of-hands to achieve, but it is with these she reveals her strength.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Natural and Supernatural: A History of the Paranormal from the Earliest Times to 1914 by Brian Inglis, White Crow Books

We live in an era when combative atheist polemics by Richard Dawkins
('The God Delusion') and the late Christopher Hitchens ('The Portable
Atheist') finally managed to write what others of us long harboured
but only when safe amongst acquaintances had the nerve to express;
that there is no 'might' about it; there is no 'perhaps.'
Circumstantial evidence of a vision, ghostly appearance, or precognition,
based on hearsay or a holy book of unstated provenance, however
profuse in the former and strictly followed in the latter, does not and
cannot constitute proof as to the existence of 'a higher being.'
  Which begs the question; if evidence is no longer valid as a means to
justify a world view - any world view - then must we now consider
evidence in all other fields equally discredited as means of proof? -
sourceable evidence alone being no longer enough? If so, there are an
awfully large number of academic essays that'll require re-writing by
theorists who'll now need to reproduce, for the examiner, their own
experience in life. Think of it - criminologists becoming perpetrators;
students profiling the rise in neo-Nazism having to practice what
they preach.
  Of course, this is exaggerating and a possibly too literal approach even
for Professor Dawkins. At least, we are not there yet which is what
makes this reissue from 1978 by the late broadcaster and journalist
Brian Inglis all the more timely.
  Split into ten sub-headings, 'Natural and Supernatural' chronologically
charts the growth of paranormal belief and practice, its many
manifestations around the globe, and, its wide and various conflicts
with the Church's prescriptive teachings. From shamanism in the Old
Testament to Establishment attempts at more committed psychical
research just before the First World War, it remains a consistent and
level-headed account of claimed experience countering assumed belief.
  More sadly consistent, (and the book's cumulative effect writ large
throughout), is the unending, two-thousand year-long refusal of the
Church to come to terms with that which it cannot accept - whatever
is manifested before it. Especially hypocritical considering the
mircales and visions claimed amid the Bible's pages.
Alchemy and witchcraft perhaps deserved short shrift. But seeing
what we've since observed of precognition, hypnotism and the
elusive but undeniable sixth sense, public open-mindedness on such
topics hasn't travelled very far.
  From the outset, Inglis highlights his case by taking the line how a
significant quantity of evidence that supports an account of a
paranormal event occurring should lend that account real credence.
But I wonder. I can hear - and have heard - Dawkins refute such
thinking with the' once-Man-believed-the-world-was-flat' argument.
But Inglis's position is one with an open mind, and he is equal to
demolishing, rather than excusing, other less plausible contemporary
  A new biographical Foreword by Inglis's son Neil states how the
raison d'etre for the book was to act as a "counterpunch against the
emerging sceptical backlash." Perhaps that should read as 're-
emerging' since the paranormal's lack of acceptance before and since
has meant it has never really gone away. This is as good a place to
start as any to discover why.