Manual of monsters from cinema and culture – Book Review

monstro-coverI found an advertisement somewhere online for Rue Morgue Magazine’s Monstro Bizarro collection, “An Essential Manual of Mysterious Monsters”.  Maybe it was via the editor, Lyle Blackburn. I pay attention to Lyle’s books because I’ve liked them all so far but I’m not a Rue Morgue reader. This collection of columns looked interesting so I ordered it directly from Rue Morgue. (Later, I saw it on the shelf at BAM bookstore.)

At only 130 pages, I would quibble with the “manual of monsters” moniker but I enjoyed this book. I found that at the end of a stressful day, I was eager to get back to it.Read More »

An inconsistent history of paranormal in America (Book Review)

Supernatural America: A Cultural History by L.R. Samuel (2011)

sn-americaSupernatural America is one of a few books that aim to take the reader on a tour of the country’s paranormal history to end up where we are today. I’ve not read many good ones. (Paranormal Nation by Fitch was possible the WORST. Steer clear of that stinker!) I compare such a project to Brian Inglis’ two volumes (that are not focused on America but on the history of supernatural and paranormal thought) that some think are too pro-paranormal but certainly far more thorough.

Supernatural America immediately conflates supernatural with paranormal and, to me, this dooms the entire book to being a mish-mash of unclear concepts. Because the author discusses the progress of scientific efforts in investigating “the supernatural”, and the efforts to prove the supernatural through science, we immediately spot the complication that this creates. Though he uses the definition of supernatural as “phenomenon that cannot be explained by natural laws or understood by science,” he does not grasp that by that definition the supernatural is excluded from science. Science relies on natural laws. Supernatural causes are beyond nature and can not be studied. There are no rules. So, right from the introduction, I was put off by this fundamental muddling of ideas. The second major issue was the lack of editing and nearly unreadable portions of chapters 1 and 2 which included excessive use of passive tense, missing words, and inelegant grammar, making these portions very difficult to follow. I trudged through them. Slowly. It got better but it was odd that these portions sounded like unproofed drafts when the rest was more readable.

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The Bigfoot Book: Speculation and supernatural but no skepticism

bfbookNick Redfern’s latest, The Bigfoot Book, has a sound premise and great potential. It’s all about stuff you may never have heard about or saw relating to the Bigfoot phenomena. This is a collection of small articles on topics related to the Bigfoot phenomenon – an “encyclopedia” (though not comprehensive by any means) written in an easy reading style. The sometimes arbitrary titles – such as “Exeter Watchman Publishes First Newspaper Article on Bigfoot” to describe what appears to be the first account of a Bigfoot-like creature in print in the US – are too often not helpfully descriptive. And entries are arranged in annoying alphabetical order making this a book you need to read cover to cover or you will miss the interesting stories buried in it. The collection includes articles on movies, books, scientific reports and documents, historical references, press releases, and more from all over the world. The entries include many from the UK courtesy of Jon Downes and the CFZ. US readers will find many new things in here and summaries of subjects that have not been previously discussed in book form such as Melba Ketchum’s DNA study results and recently released movies like Willow Creek.

It falls short, however, because of a fatal flaw. Serious researchers of cryptozoology will be disappointed as the sources for the content draw heavily from unreliable Internet sites or are copied quotes from other sources.

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Book review: Margery and Houdini story reveals gaps, not answers

the-witch-of-lime-street-book-coverA review of The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher

This is a story of Spiritualism in America in the early 1920s. The darling of the psychic scene was Margery (a faux name) intended to hide the identity of Mina Stinson Crandon, a young, outgoing wife of surgeon Dr. Le Roi Crandon, called “Roy” in the book. The title is a reach that comes from Margery’s claim that she would have been called a witch 150 years ago. Instead, they sent scientific committees to examine her.

Witch has a few things going for it:

  • Good research sources directly from the time period that reveal how popular this phenomenon was.
  • A number of positive blurbs to promote it.
  • Several impressive insights into the characters and institutions of the time.
  • A snazzy glow-in-the-dark cover that represents the glowing paint used on mediums to judge whether they were moving their extremities.

But I was not too impressed overall and would only give a rank of 2.5 out of 5. Read More »

Dreaming of DNA: Review of Sykes’ Bigfoot, Yeti and the last Neanderthal

bigfoot sykesOriginally published in the UK as The Nature of the Beast, Oxford geneticist Bryan Sykes’ Bigfoot, Yeti and the Last Neanderthal: A geneticist’s search for modern apemen is highly enjoyable and reveals a bunch of interesting tidbits as well as showing us some rather personal insights and new facts from the professor who attempted to bring credibility to the study of hairy hominids.

First, I’d say, all Bigfoot enthusiasts should read this book. I’m fairly certain the title was changed for the US distribution to add the word “Bigfoot” in order to appeal to the Finding Bigfoot-crazy Americans. Sykes viewpoint as a scientist and as a Yeti/Bigfoot cultural “newbie” is unique and provides an insightful look into the wacky world of Bigfootery. While that sort of makes the book charming, it also makes it problematic. Dr. Sykes apparently didn’t know the first thing about the subculture of the North American hairy man and he got taken for an exciting ride a few times. He got pulled into the belief, admittedly losing scientific objectivity at times.  To those of us who already knew the sordid history of Bigfoot seekers – Melba Ketchum, Derek Randles, and Justin Smeja or the collection of those who say they have a special relationship with the creature or believe it is a spiritual or supernatural being –  this book could, at times, be wince-inducing.

“…when I have found myself in the company of cryptozoologists, their sincerity and absolute belief in the existence of their quarry begins to rub off.”  – Dr. Bryan Sykes

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outlook-not-good

The State of the Science: Parapsychology (Book Review)

In October of last year I wrote a blog post about a review of a new parapsychology compendium. Finally, I’ve gotten to read the entire book referenced for myself, cover to cover, 400+ pages.

cardena coverParapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century (2015) edited by Etzel Cardeña, John Palmer, David Marcusson-Clavertz

It took about 7 weeks to get through the whole thing. I took copious notes, as I always do, to help me remember and understand. But why do this? Most people have zero interest in academic parapsychology. They can’t even explain what it is or why I might pay any mind to it. Most of my skeptic friends dismiss it outright. I’ve been interested in professional and amateur endeavors in this subject area for 20 years. There are two main reasons why I spent so much time crawling through this book:

  1. I wanted to see what they have to offer. What is the state of the science? Where has it been? Where is it going? What is the feel of the academic scene? What do they consider important? What does the future of parapsychology look like?
  2. I have been working on amateur research and investigation groups and it was necessary to consult an expert source in order to compare to professional standards. In both respects, this book was incredibly helpful and perfect for that need.

An academic book like this is not well suited for a typical review. You can scan the contents online. So, perhaps the most useful thing I can do is to explain what I derived from the information provided as a person educated in science with a great interest in the scientific and popular aspects of this particular field. It’s an outsider’s view, certainly, but as the book itself alludes, there really aren’t that many insiders. If this book can compel me to be motivated about parapsychology research, it’s a real prize.

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ghost-hunter

A Guide to Ghost Hunting Guidebooks: NO MORE! Please!

This might come as a shock to the millions of ghost enthusiasts out there: The scientific consensus is that ghosts are NOT spirits, remnants of the dead, recordings of energy, or supernatural entities. Our existing knowledge about nature does not point to a conclusion that ghosts are a single definable thing, paranormal or normal, that you can find, observe, measure, or study. Yet, there are about 200 guides to “ghost hunting” in print or e-book form that lay out ways to obtain evidence of or make contact with ghosts. Therefore, we have a conundrum at step one of any attempt at ghost hunting – we can’t define what a ghost is, and we do not know its properties because we’ve never determined that they exist and measured them. No ghost handbook has ever led anyone to catch and identify ghosts, they can only lead you to interpret something as a ghost.

In that sense, all ghost hunting books are worthless. So why bother with them?

First, it’s an interesting cultural phenomena. Actively investigating reports of ghosts and paranormal activity is mainstream and a popular hobby and tourism draw. In 2010, there were over 1000 paranormal investigation groups in the US, the majority of which researched hauntings. (Hill, 2010) It’s not worthless to examine why people spend their time and money on this hobby and how they go about doing it.

Second, the idea of paranormal investigation contains important aspects of society’s attitudes towards finding out about the world, decided what is meaningful and true, using science to examine questions, cooperation and trust in a community, and taking part in a larger effort beyond one’s own small role in life.

I’m deeply interested in the second point. I’ve found that examining amateur paranormal group behaviors and output highlights concepts about science education and public discourse about belief and reality. This piece mentions 11 books on ghost hunting that I have examined. They have broad similarities and distinct differences.  In the main portion, I review 4 books on the basis of the following:

1. Readability (language, errors, quality of writing)

2. Credibility (sources, supported arguments vs speculation, factual correctness)

3. Overall value as a cultural product (Buy it or not?)

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