The English Ghost: Spectres Through Time - Peter Ackroyd Ordered this after getting Ackroyd's London book, but can't help but start this first as it's shorter. It's still a sort of Halloweenishly seasonal read. (Some of us wish the holiday were a lot longer.) Meanwhile I must find out who designed the cover - I love the old fashioned layout and artwork, especially on the back at the bottom where there's a procession of people wearing robes and carrying their decapitated heads. [Ah ha: Jacket illustrations - Mary Evans Picture Library, Design by Stephen Parker] I also have to add that I'm happy to have a used book as in the inside it has stamps for Hampton Hill Library and London Borough of Richmond upon Thames Libraries....And now it's later, and farther into the book. So this is a collection of accounts of people seeing/experiencing ghosts, taken from magazine articles, books, letters, etc., mostly. It reminds me of the glut of books in the 1970s that were all the rage with us kids - oooo, stories of real ghosts! Except that such stories read much more like collected oral folklore - it's not a narrative with fleshed out characters, with reasons for why people are haunted and who the ghosts are and how everyone feels about the experience. In fact if you read a lot of these accounts they are actually fairly dull, because the setup is mainly "X person is very respectable, X saw this ghost, ghost appearance looked like this, and there were these witnesses." There might, just might, be one sentence or two as to who the ghost is - but not always. Because the only thing of importance in these accounts is Something Was Seen - not what or who or why it matters or what it means. It you read collections of folklore scholarship this will feel very familiar. In the 1970s the True Ghost Stories were a lot less scholarly in that there was always a "this is who the ghost is and why it's haunting" (trying to make it all very factual and as though every fact was known and understood) - which actually seemed a lot less reality based than people admitting that they saw something but have no idea who/what it is. (Commenting on the logic there, not the reality of ghosts. I'm with the M. R. James school of "hmmm, I note that the guy who loudly proclaims there is no such thing meets up with nasty things in the nighttime, so perhaps I'll not make any sweeping statements." Hey, you never know when you'll end up a character in a ghost story, right?)Reading this particular segment has had me laughing a lot:p. 95, from a pamphlet published in 1683, "...At another time one of his shoestrings was observed (without assistance of any hand) to come of its own accord out of its shoe and fling itself to the other side of the room; the other was crawling after it, but a maid espying that, with her hand drew it out, and it strangely clasp'd and curl'd about her hand like a living eel or serpent; this is testified by a lady of considerable quality, too great for exception, who was an eyewitness....Many other strange and fantastical frieks (sic) have been done by the said daemon or spirit in the view of divers persons; a barrel of salt of considerable quantity hath been observed to march from room to room without any human assistance."Another quote:p. 111, from Katharine M. Briggs' The Folklore of the Cotswolds (1974) - "...In Crowborough, Sussex, there was Jarvis Brook Road; it was known, or believed, to harbour the presence of a 'spectral bag of soot' that would pursue the unwary."Which immediately reminded me of an essay in A Pleasing Terror, a collection of M. R. James's stories and essays about his work. It too mentioned "a road in Crowborough (Sussex) was haunted by a spectral bag of soot which chased people." And that's the sort of mental image that sticks with you (and honestly, makes me laugh quite a bit). [Note: both refer to the same book by Briggs.]Because of the way the citations are a bit fuzzy you'll come upon a paragraph/sentence like this:p. 188 "There has been no convincing explanation for the events here related."And from that you're not really clear on whether that's the statement of Reverend Higgs from the paragraph before, or whether this is the author. And it's possible that the author may be favoring the "no one knows what happened" frame over any other interpretation. I say this because of the chapter on Borley Rectory.I've been reading about Borley Rectory since those "true ghost story" books of the 70s - it's still listed in almost every book of the sort. Except what the story often leaves out is Harry Price, and Price's background and motivations and showmanship have a lot to do with what we hear about Borley today. (See chapter on Price in this book.) Here's the first paragraph of the chapter in this book:p. 153 "For many years Borley Rectory had the reputation of being 'the most haunted house in England.' It has been the subject of several books and of innumerable articles, none of which can be said to be conclusive. The general conclusion seems to be that the evidence is contrary and unreliable, and that some of the supposed events were the products of fraud or chicanery. It provides, at least, an interesting story."And that's really all you'll get here - just the story. There's nothing more about the chicanery or what was unreliable. I do note that some of the more fuzzy parts of the Borley legend that came from Price seem to be omitted here. But then isn't that part of the story now too? Also if we can take the older parts (pre-Price) of the Borley story as true why leave out the Price parts? We have just as little ability to say that the old stories are "real" and "what actually occurred."The problem with most older ghost stories is that they focus a great deal on the part that "thing X was seen by a reputable person who would never lie and thus thing X was real." This, as most of us know, is not really good logic. Perfectly nice, truthful people can see something and then make assumptions about it that later prove incorrect. Clergymen and ladies, for instance, do not always tell the truth. There have been a lot of seemingly reputable people who enjoy hoaxes or pranks. This is a problem with any and all ghost stories, really, if your main fixation is on proving that there's a ghost rather than just enjoying a spooky narrative.What I really miss in this book is the author's voice - giving more description about the sources of the accounts, how he researched and discovered the material, and why he chose the particular stories he did from among the large amount of such stories. There's a sentence or two here and there that gives a hint or a clue, but it's not enough. There's a bibliography, but it's not always clear which stories come from which source.This review uses the best term for what this feels like - a scrapbook. I'm just sad that it's a scrapbook where the author didn't comment more on the choices that were made. Seems like a wasted opportunity, especially since there's a good representation of stories from many periods of history.