Let this one be a Devil’s biography (Book Review)

The Secret History of the Jersey Devil: How Quakers, Hucksters, and Benjamin Franklin Created a Monster
Brian Regal and Frank J. Esposito
Johns Hopkins Univ Press, 2018

Only in very recent years, thanks to Bill Sprouse and Brian Regal, has the connection to Daniel Leeds been made to the Leeds Devil which later became the Jersey Devil – the official demon of New Jersey. The story about Leeds’ alliances, his nasty break with his Quaker neighbors, the production of a controversial almanac, and his family’s feud with Benjamin Franklin has been colorfully described primarily by Regal, a science historian. The premise of this volume is that the Jersey Devil is a beast spawned not from a demon seed but from freethinking, politics, a hoax, and the media.

I’m sold on the idea that the legend of this devil was formed from these threads that reached far back to pre-USA times. But it’s not the story most people have heard. There was no Mother Leeds, no devil child, no cryptid lurking in the Pine Barrens. But there was a notable and chastised family, probably some monstrous births, some Native folklore, and a climate of susceptibility that nurtured the myth we have today.

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A modern encyclopedia of popular ghostlore (Book Review)

Ghosts in Popular Culture and Legend
June Michele Pulliam and Anthony J. Fonseca, Editors
Greenwood/ABC-CLIO, LLC 2016 403pp, Index.

This is an encyclopedia with alphabetical entries that explore mostly “tales and motifs” in popular culture from early writings to modern media. The entries are well researched and cross-referenced so the reader is able to see themes emerge throughout. I read it cover to cover as well as using it as a references for a paper reviewing paranormal trends over the past decade. While quite long, I read a few entries per day. – it’s a great bedside table book (if you don’t mind the red ghostly eye staring at you). The book intends to show the breadth and depth of ghostlore and its influences from society and other cultural influences.

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Reading list for paranormal investigation and research

In a recent discussion with a paranormal investigation group, I found myself referencing recommending books to check out for the latest on interesting facets of the field. I decided to share this annotated list. Continue reading

Big black cats of the Southern U.S. get their own book (Book Review)

Shadow Cats: The Black Panthers of North America
Michael Mayes
Anomalist Books, 2018.
Paperback, color illustrations, 221pp

Right now was a GREAT time to release a book about the subject “black panther”. I’m being sarcastic because if you Google the term, you get nothing but returns on the comic character and movie*. The “black panther” that author Michael Mayes (TexasCryptidHunter) writes about is the generic term for a big cat (specifically a leopard or jaguar) with black coloration. The color is caused by melanism, which is a recessive allele in leopards and dominant in jaguars. Overall black color has never been found to occur in lions, tigers or pumas (cougar/mountain lion). Since leopards are not native to North America and jaguars are in Central and South America (with a rare few wandering as far north as the southernmost areas of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas), large black cats would be considered “cryptids” because it is doubtful they exist. Science be damned, people report seeing large black cats all over the US (and also the UK, and in 2012-3 the French Riviera.) There is an array of reasonable explanations for these sightings but, as with any cryptid, people who have such experiences eventually settle on their own interpretation and many are convinced they have seen a dangerous predator in the form of a black panther. Continue reading

A rarity: An impressive and useful ghost guide (Book Review)

Steve Parsons appears to be on the same page as me about the poor understanding of ghost investigations by amateur investigators. He wrote a detailed and very readable book with the aim to show that this kind of sensationalized paranormal inquiry should not be confused with parapsychology or science: Ghostology: The Art of the Ghost Hunter (Steven T. Parsons, 2015,
White Crow Books, UK).

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Narcissistic America (Book Review)

“An organization suffering under the whip of an abusive or egomaniacal leader,” Jeffrey Kluger writes, “is hardly an organization functioning at its best.” Keeping the near-boiling caldron (of the leader) from bubbling over means minimizing experiences of shame and maximizing displays of pride and hubris and attacking those who upset the balance. Sound familiar? The book The Narcissist Next Door begins on page 1 with Donald Trump. It was published in 2014! We are living out this book today in the form of the Narcissist in the White House.

It was crystal-clear prior to his election that Trump was an exemplary narcissist. He had an overinflated ego regularly on display. As Kluger notes about narcissists, their confidence level exceeds their performances; and they don’t learn from experiences. Ego protection is of the utmost importance. If they didn’t think of the latest good idea, they will steal the credit for it. Continue reading

Ghosts as modern history (Book review)

Lisa Morton presents another version of the history of ghosts in Ghosts: A Haunted History (Reaktion Books, London, 2015). In this case, it is an international popular history of ghosts in philosophy, literature, movies, television and pop culture. It is general and short, but good. The glossy pages are full of illustrations. The theme of this, and other contemporary books on paranormal culture, is “ghosts are everywhere”. They certainly are ubiquitous in western pop culture. You can’t watch TV, go to the movies, or visit a historic city without bumping up against them! Continue reading

Confessions about Confessions of Ghost Hunters

There are three books that are explicitly titled “Confessions of a Ghost Hunter” – from 1928, 1936 and 2002.

There is also one called “Confessions of a Reluctant Ghost Hunter” by Von Braschler (2014) that I confess I didn’t read. A defunct Facebook page and website also of the same name appears to be related. Several other media also nab this title in some form or another to the point where it’s getting stale, like just another ghost reality TV show. But I’m here to compare the three books.

I read them in order of popularity today: Price’s first which is also the most substantial and the superior of the lot. Then Taylor’s, who was (maybe still is) popular with the modern amateur ghost hunting community. Finally, O’Donnells, which is nearly forgotten or even unknown by today’s paranormal researchers. Continue reading

The manufactured, badly-behaved Ouija demon: Zozo (Book Review)

In the classic book Psychology of Superstition, Gustav Jahoda writes that beliefs are not just in our heads, they affect our behavior, and that self-fulfilling prophecy is not uncommon in human affairs (p. 8). Many events seem trivial and unspectacular, but when placed into a paranormal context, they take on a new and enhanced meaning. We want explanations for the bad things that happen to us and we retroactively look to assign blame to anything but ourselves. There is satisfaction in seeking and establishing patterns that later seem obvious, even though they are concocted and baseless. This is my opinion of what happens when people think they have summoned bad spirits from an Ouija board. Superstition is at the core of this book, The Zozo Phenomenon by Darren Evans and Rosemary Ellen Guiley. Continue reading

Arrogant and confused, ghost and ghoul (Book Review)

I’m still doing research on the Stone Tape idea, as a paranormally-curious geologist does. I was interested in obtaining a book by T.C. Lethbridge because his name comes up repeatedly as a promoter of the concept. It’s been a tricky thing to trace the origin without having easy access to the literature in print. I’ll keep looking. Meanwhile, I was able to secure a copy of Ghost and Ghoul (1961) via intra-library loan from my local county library (to whom I donate financially every month because they are awesome). I’m glad I didn’t purchase it. It’s was absolutely worse than I anticipated. And, it had essentially no mention of the physical recording of ghosts. In fact, Lethbridge promotes the idea that ghosts and ghouls (not visible but “felt” usually as coldness and oppression) are mental manifestations. Back to that idea by and by. First, some additional information about Lethbridge gleaned from this volume. I’m sure there is far more about Lethbridge since he was apparently notable in his time and warranted references and biographies. But after this introduction, you may not wish to bother.

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Confusing speculative “language of stone” (Book Review)

I’m researching the history of the Stone Tape “theory” of haunting for my Spooky Geology site. It’s something I’ve been working on in bits and pieces for several years now. I’ve watched the movie The Stone Tape (thanks to mooching off Blake Smith’s Plex account) and have keyed into any mention of the idea from various paranormalists. One website mentioned that some paranormalists may have been influenced by a book by Don Robins called The Secret Language of Stone. From 1988, it obviously is later than the 1972 movie. But the write-up seemed interesting. With no luck finding a copy in a library, I picked up a used copy and read it in a week. By the time I was done, I was ready to punch Robins. It’s an annoying book. I don’t think it would have influenced many people who could have made it through the techno-babbling, tangents, and connecting of random threads to get to a frustrating end. Here’s another case of me reading a book so you don’t have to… Continue reading

Monster tales of the southern swamps (Book Review)

Beyond Boggy Creek: In Search of the Southern Sasquatch, by Lyle Blackburn (2017)

This is Blackburn’s third book in a semi-series of volumes on southern bipedal creatures. I reviewed the other two books as well:

Chronicle of the Lizard Man (Book Review)

Definitive guide to the Fouke monster – Beast of Boggy Creek (Book review)

This volume is not a rehash of Beast of Boggy Creek but an expansion of the area with reports of mysterious man-apes. The narrative pulls in both the Fouke monster and Lizard Man. True to form, Blackburn leaves out the most (but not all) of sciencey-sounding speculation that irks me tremendously in cryptozoology volumes and instead provides an entertaining and comprehensive account of the subject matter. This book is a chronicle of many colorfully-named Boogers stomping around the swamps and backwater ways of the southern US. They have characteristics somewhat unique from the traditional Northwest Bigfoot/Sasquatch in that the seem to be meaner, more apt to attack people, and reported to be sometimes smaller (orangutan-like) and move on all fours as well as bipedally. Assuming truth to such reports requires a conclusion that not only is there one unknown primate in the US, but two or more variants or species. That’s simply too difficult to accept on the basis of no solid evidence. Continue reading

Monsters (and sciencey-sounding nonsense) among us – Book Review

I feel I should preface this book review with an explanation of why I, a person that rejects paranormal explanations (for good reason), would be interested in reading books about cryptozoology and strange accounts. I think stories are valuable and people like them. I have no problems with authors collecting and relating stories from history or eyewitness interviews. Therefore, I often like books from professional writers who provide interesting accounts and details I’ve not heard before. Where I lose my patience is when authors exceed their areas of knowledge (such as with sciencey-sounding explanations), use unreliable reference material to support extreme conclusions, and suggest to their readers that there is merit to supernatural or bizarre explanations when they fail to thoroughly examine the situation. Continue reading

Manual of monsters from cinema and culture – Book Review

I 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. Continue reading

An inconsistent history of paranormal in America – Book Review

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

Supernatural 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. Continue reading

The Bigfoot Book: Speculation and supernatural but no skepticism

Nick 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. Continue reading

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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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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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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