Friday, February 28, 2014

"Ghost hunting : true stories of unexplained phenomena from the Atlantic Paranormal Society," Jason Hawes

This is a 2007 book by the people behind the SyFy "Ghost Hunters" show, which I have never watched and which this book did not in the least increase my desire to watch. It's incoherent, frequently thoughtless, consists of a long series of short (2 to 4 page) anecdotes about individual "investigations," and occasionally veers over the line into what I would consider outright shocking behavior from the author and his team. It is interesting, though, as the best example I've seen lately of the practice of cargo-cult science. Mr Hawes is obviously very proud of his team's "scientific" approach to ghost-hunting, which appears to involve making some attempt to verify experiences, rule out natural causes of mysterious sounds or visions, and collect evidence of unusual phenomena on recordings. Unfortunately, he never seems to be clear himself on whether his purpose is to collect his evidence or to provide solutions and comfort to the people who are distressed by apparent hauntings in their homes. This leads to that incoherent approach -- he approaches the question of whether a home is haunted by placing video cameras everywhere and staking it out for a night, but once he's caught something fuzzy on tape or seen an object move in a way he can't explain, he begins to recommend remedies like exorcism, listening to white noise to try and confabulate words and determine the ghost's wishes, and so on. Furthermore, he appears to buy general assumptions of the ghost-hunting community hook, line and sinker, without any attempt to test them or collect systematic information about them. "Ghosts draw on energy to appear," for example, is an excuse repeated several times to explain suspiciously convenient equipment failure that lasted only long enough to make it impossible for events he claims to have witnessed to be recorded. Do they really? Are power failures consistently associated with paranormal phenomena? How is that consistent with their equally authoritative insistence that all the lights need to be out to increase ghostly shenanigans, even if that requires disconnecting the power to the area they intend to investigate? Maybe Mr Hawes and his team are in fact a shining light in the darkness of paranormal research, and his claim that "other" teams simply tell everyone who calls them in that they have a haunting without any attempt to check for other causes is true. If so, this is not exactly an endorsement of Mr Hawes; rather, it is a denigration of the field as a whole. The worst story of the bunch -- and it came early on, unfortunately biasing me against the authors right off the bat -- was one in which unusual behavior (screaming, fits, throwing things, a change in vocal timbre and verbal aggression and threats) from a young girl was proclaimed an obvious case of demonic possession, and Mr Hawes, deciding that something must have "caused" the "possession," first prescribed an exorcism and then questioned family members until discovering that the girl's older sister had done something he considered to be playing around with black magic with her friends. He promptly told the family that the older sister had opened the doors and given a demon permission to possess her younger sister, even if she didn't know that's what she was doing, because older family members hold spiritual dominion over younger ones. The book was very nearly a wall-banger at that moment. It's bad enough to respond to distress in a child by calling in paranormal investigators and priests instead of pediatricians and/or pediatric psychiatrists: what is this, the Dark Ages? It's worse to not only conclude that the distress is due to demonic possession, but to explicitly, in front of other family members, blame the possession on the older sibling trafficking with dark powers. I'm working my way through an older book on witch-hunts in the colonial United States as well (interesting information, seasoned with too much Freud) and the echoes were distressing. Overall I wouldn't recommend this book except as something to make you angry; the attempt to be "scientific" ruins any good ghost stories it might contain, and the author's massive biases and blind spots ruin any value it might have had as a discussion of the evidence for paranormal phenomena. As someone who likes a good ghost story and would love a good scientific discussion of the evidence for paranormal phenomena, I was disappointed on two fronts at once. Deborah Blum's "Ghost Hunters" is on my to-read list, and I'm hoping it gives me a reading list of better quality along those lines.

Monday, February 24, 2014

A Place of Confinement, Anna Dean

Here on Amazon -- To be honest, I grabbed this book off the new arrivals shelf at the library as a result of the historical fiction kick I've been on lately, and have not read any of the earlier books in the series, but I think I may have to return to the earlier ones now! (A side note: since I'm so bad at remembering to blog, I'll be making myself briefly review the books I read, as that sort of commitment comes with a built-in blogging timer. Finished a book? Write something about it! And so on. We'll see if this works any better than the last blogging commitment I made... the one in 2011.) The protagonist, Miss Dido Kent, is an unmarried woman in her mid-30s; the year is 1807, and Dido has therefore been compelled to act as chaperone/companion to her aging, wealthy, widowed aunt in hopes of cozening the lady to leave most of her fortune to Dido's part of the family. She finds the motive mercenary and the aunt intolerable, but the strange disappearance of a young heiress from the home where they are staying catches her interest -- especially when the wastrel son of the man she loves is implicated in the disappearance and a following murder.... The period details are charming, but decidedly secondary to the murder mystery; I was soundly convinced by a few red herrings that I knew what was going on, only to be proven completely wrong in the end. The plot is quite tight, with a wealth of interesting supporting characters, a dark family secret or two, and a dash of 1800s vintage feminism adding color and detail. One scene involving Dido, her aunt, and Mary Wollstonecraft's On the Education of Women in a false binding took on a new and funnier light after the ending. Overall, recommended! It's not a novel to change anyone's life, but it's much better than I was expecting of a random snowy-day read.