Author Archives: Matt

Review: This House is Haunted by Guy Lyon Playfair

In This House is Haunted, author Guy Lyon Playfair documents a famous British poltergeist incident from the 1970s. Playfair experienced the haunting firsthand as one of two outside investigators who became directly involved with the proceedings.

I have to admit that while I enjoy a variety of paranormal topics, I’m not typically drawn to ghost stories. Hauntings, however one chooses to explain them, tend to defy a lot of generally accepted science. By comparison, extraterrestrials may or may not exist, but interstellar beings are entirely scientifically plausible. The same goes for many cryptozoological mysteries. While the evidence tends to be circumstantial, one can reasonably keep an open mind toward such things without having to disregard the basic rules of the universe. Poltergeists and the behaviors ascribed to them, on the other hand, are substantially more outlandish. Their blatantly inexplicable nature means that a much greater leap of faith is required just to reach the point where we can even consider them a possibility. As Sagan said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

In some manifestations of the paranormal, consistency of experience across a diverse population can also lend to the intrigue. Why do so many unrelated people tend to have such similar bizarre experiences? Part of what makes the Sasquatch mythos so curious is the way the stories remain relatively uniform over decades, cultures, and widespread geography. Alas, this is rarely so with hauntings. While we could certainly point to some “core” elements that make up a classic spook story, typical experiences rarely come across as fundamentally consistent or predictable. People see, hear, and feel things differently in each case, and most incidents are rarely verifiably repeated. Ghosts are so ethereal that they effectively become a catchall for anything and everything odd and inexplicable. This lack of overarching definition hardly helps in granting the viewer a strong conviction towards the evidence.

So, is all hope lost? On the contrary, This House is Haunted is my new standard for what a poltergeist study should be. Here we have a prolonged event witnessed both by a consistent group of dedicated observers as well as a variety of independent third parties over an extended period of time (months). It even appears to have yielded a bit of physical evidence, although what became of this in the years that followed is somewhat unclear. While it may not meet the bar of incontrovertible proof, the incident contains enough depth to stand firmly on its own; an apparent anomaly in reality as we know it.

The book was developed from the author’s own notes and recordings, and in my view it was very well presented. The text was nicely paced, to the point, and not over dramatic. The majority of the 300-odd pages are a recounting of the events as they happened, with commentary and speculation generally kept to a minimum. The major participants are portrayed in satisfying depth, and come across as both interesting and sympathetic. Fairplay also injects an occasional subtle wit that helps keep the retelling fresh and lively.

Rather than feeling dismissive, I found myself drawn in. Could such a wild incident really be true? Of course, little in the way of explanation is forthcoming. It all ends rather abruptly, as such events and the stories based on them are prone to do. What remains, if we can allow ourselves to consider it, is a rather cracking mystery; one which lends an air of legitimacy to the all too ethereal world of the poltergeist.

Highly recommended for fans of the paranormal.

Rating: 5/5

Review: Neanderthal: The Strange Saga of the Minnesota Iceman by Bernard Heuvelmans

In Neanderthal: The Strange Saga of the Minnesota Iceman, Bernard Heuvelmans introduces us to a carnival attraction with a mysterious provenance that may be even stranger than advertised.

Heuvelmans, along with friend and fellow cryptozoologist Ivan Sanderson, are tipped off to an allegedly authentic “Iceman” on display at a midwestern carnival. Initially suspecting a ruse, both parties soon find themselves shocked by the apparent genuineness of the exhibit. Of course, it wouldn’t be a mystery if everything were so straightforward, and the two soon find their investigation obstructed by the attraction’s owner. His convoluted and inconsistent story telling, refusal of physical examinations, and general aversion to letting the truth see the light of day all hamper further efforts at getting to the bottom of who or what the Minnesota Iceman really was.

Despite having a first rate curiosity at its center, the book has its ups and downs. Heuvelmans is constantly on the defensive, going on repeatedly and at length about the superiority of his approach to the investigation, the closed-mindedness of his peers and the media, and every other perceived flaw which ultimately permitted the iceman to slip through the investigative cracks. The author was clearly hurt by this episode in his life, both with regard to its affect on his professional image, as well as the toll it took on some of his personal relationships (with Sanderson being the most obvious collateral damage). Regardless of the potential accuracy of his gripes though, the defensiveness of the discussion at times borders on melodrama, and eventually becomes a drag on the reader. The admonishment may have been an necessary exercise in catharsis for the author, but quickly surpasses the point where it adds meaningfully to the story.

Heuvelmans also treads too deeply into speculation. The presentation of the facts of the case (the viewing of the iceman exhibit, its movements over the span of a few years, and the activities of the owner, the investigators, and the other bit players) is only about half the full length of the text. As suggested by the title, the author comes to believe that the iceman was in fact a Neanderthal, surviving to modern day. He details, at length, his theories for specifically how such a creature could have been captured and transported to America, ultimately arriving in its final state as carnival attraction. This is followed by a full fledged argument for the general survival and continued evolution of Neanderthals as a species.

On the one hand, it’s somewhat obvious why Heuvelmans wades so deeply into conjecture: it’s another manifestation of defensiveness. He feels he must justify the sheer plausibility of the outlandish claims he’s making. He must convince the world that not only has he discovered a hominid hitherto undescribed by science, but that it is in reality a species thought to be extinct for thousands of years.

These theories are certainly interesting, and to some degree they do present the reader with an avenue to coming to terms with the more basic conclusions of the investigation. The problem with bare speculation is that it poses a double edged sword: rather than the unassailable facts of raw, scientific observation, we now have a long and contrived chain of suppositions, any or all of which are prone to being mistaken. The longer the chain gets, the more likely a weak link will invalidate the entire thing. Basing the viability of his case on the plausibility of a long and convoluted theory risks the opposite of the desired effect: discrediting the author and the more sound aspects of his research by pairing it with inaccurate guesswork. He almost simultaneously decries the closed-mindedness of his peers in the scientific community, while offering as his thesis half fact and half blatantly unprovable speculation.

In hindsight, the years have not been kind to the suggestion that the iceman was a member of the Neanderthal species. As Loren Coleman discusses in the afterwords, advances in research and technology, including DNA analysis, have only served to further diverge the standard image of Neanderthal from the traits observed in the iceman. It seems more unlikely than ever that this classification was correct, and that’s a shame, because it in no way invalidates the fantastic mystery that underlies the story. It simply serves to show how basing an argument on complex speculation can inadvertently detract from the case it was initially intended to support.

In the end, Neanderthal: The Strange Saga of the Minnesota Iceman is still a decent book with a highly satisfying, if frustrating, curiosity at its center. I would still highly recommend it to any armchair cryptozoologists out there, with the caveat that some chapters have definitely aged better than others.

Rating: 4/5

Review: The Eerie Silence by Paul Davies

In The Eerie Silence, physicist and astrobiologist Paul Davies explores the current state of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Today’s SETI program focuses on scanning the skies for signs of alien life using large radio telescopes. Despite 50 years of effort and regularly improving technology, the search has so far proven unsuccessful. Davies’ book analyzes why this might be, and proposes alternate techniques that may be more appropriate for future SETI programs.

One of the themes of the book boils down to the fact that almost every facet of SETI is at least in part guesswork. It’s hard to search for alien life when no one has ever discovered any such life to analyze. We don’t know that the life forms we’re searching for even exist, let alone where they live, or what technology (if any) they possess. Davies expends a substantial amount of effort addressing these concerns.

Major points of discussion include:

  • Should we expect advanced intergalactic beings to have similar technology to ours? What else could we look for?
  • For that matter, what is life, and would extraterrestrial species even be identifiable as life forms as we know them?
  • What are the odds of life existing elsewhere in the universe in the first place?
  • If SETI succeeds some day, what do we do about it? What are the implications?

The Eerie Silence is part math, part science, and part philosophy. The book, as with the entire field of study, has no answers to any of the hard questions. Even so, I left feeling enlightened, at least with regard to the complexity of the problems and the diversity of possible solutions. The media often glosses over these types of sticky details, but Davies addresses them head on. Is life really likely to be abundant in the galaxy or isn’t it? Does all life eventually lead to higher intelligence? The answers aren’t clear, and for some genuinely interesting reasons. I didn’t agree with every assertion the author made, but such is the case with conjecture.

Paul Davies manages to distill complex topics down to a level which is both readable and accessible, if a bit dry at times. The book is well worth a read for those with an interest in life, science, and the universe. The content is thought provoking to say the least, and may even lead you to think a little differently about our own place in the cosmos.

Rating: 4/5

Review: Come Up and Get Me: An Autobiography of Colonel Joe Kittinger

Colonel Joe Kittinger is probably best known for his work with projects Excelsior and Manhigh, which culminated in a record setting parachute jump from the edge of space. In truth, this was only one highlight of a colorful life filled with daring and record-setting aeronautics.

Kittinger was a career aviator for the US military. His time as a research and test pilot contributed to the development of new flight safety equipment, as well as breaking ground for a fledgling NASA. (His famous leap starting, in a way, with the first space walk.) He served as a fighter pilot in Europe as well as Vietnam, where, after being shot down during a combat mission, he was held prisoner of war.

Following his release and return as a hero, Kittinger would eventually find his way back to ballooning. In addition to winning a number of competitive balloon races, he would go on to become the first man to pilot a balloon solo across the Atlantic. In his later years, the Colonel and his wife turned to barnstorming: flying from town to town in an open-cockpit plane, delighting fans at events and airshows.

The life of Colonel Joe Kittinger has not been a dull one. To call him a daredevil might seem fitting, but may equally do the man a disservice. He was a risk taker, but not necessarily in a haphazard or reckless way. He set goals and pursued them with bravery, dedication, and more than a little bit of luck.

Joe Kittinger was truly a man who lived to fly. Come Up and Get Me will appeal easily to fans of aviation, ballooning, and military history.

Rating: 4/5

Review: Monsters of the Northwoods by Paul and Robert Bartholomew, et al.

Bigfoot may be best known for his appearances in the Pacific Northwest, but that hasn’t stopped reports of the creature from cropping up elsewhere around North America. In Monsters of the Northwoods, authors Paul and Robert Bartholomew, William Brann, and Bruce Hallenbeck make the case that Sasquatch may also be hiding out in the more remote corners of New England.

The text focuses on the states of New York and Vermont, first covering a variety of historical accounts, and leading up to a series of modern day creature encounters.

While the concept here is great, and there are a number of enjoyable items to discover, the execution is best described as uneven. For example, there are a few chapters dedicated directly to local monster sightings, but they’re interrupted by another chapter which attempts, rather unconvincingly, to correlate these events with unidentified flying objects. This diversion only serves to break up an otherwise logical geographical progression in the story telling.

Arguments over arrangement aside, the UFO material was simply not a good fit for the text. The authors were forced to fall back on non-Northeastern events just to make these paranormal connections. Here (and elsewhere) they don’t seem to have been able to decide what kind of book to write: one which discusses the macro issue of “Bigfoot the general mystery” or one which addresses, much more specifically, “Bigfoot in the Northeastern US.” As a result, they spend time on both and excel at neither. I would argue that the latter would be better executed by ignoring the philosophical arguments like “is Bigfoot connected with UFOs?” or even “what is Bigfoot?” (the focus of a later chapter). Leave these discussions to studies of the phenomenon as a whole, which can leverage the most compelling cases from anywhere in the world. You’re not going to be able to do justice to such sweeping issues using only material drawn from as narrow a segment of the globe as the Northwoods, and still make everything feel cohesive and well argued.

The sighting reports, while much more in line with the title theme, are also of hit or miss quality. Chapter two dedicates five or so pages to an incident which seems to be immediately debunked at its conclusion. The main character in this bit has, we’re told, “personally interviewed over fifty people claiming to have either seen or heard [the monster].” Why the authors opt to spend several pages investing in the debunked story, rather than relating any of these other, potentially more interesting and open-ended items is unclear.

While certain incidents (particularly ones directly involving the authors?) are covered in satisfying detail, others are glossed over in little more than a sentence or two. In one instance, at the close of the chapter on Vermont sightings, the authors attempt to draw a comparison between Sasquatch and a mystery feline creature, the “catamount”, also said to inhabit the Northeastern US. They seem to be trying for the argument that, just because something is not proven, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not real. Which is not inherently unreasonable: after all, many animals were myth before they were officially described and accepted by science. Yet in this instance, the catamount, like the Sasquatch, has never been accepted by science, seemingly mooting the entire point. They may as well have drawn a comparison with the Loch Ness monster. Ironically, the authors dedicate some three whole pages to a verbatim news article describing this random cryptid; more detail than is given to any Bigfoot-related clippings elsewhere.

Ultimately, despite the uneven quality and a lack of focus, Monsters of the Northwoods was not unenjoyable. For Sasquatch enthusiasts, it’s always exciting to see the mystery reach new territory. It should also hold particular interest for those who have a personal connection to the region, and who may never have thought to be on the lookout for monsters in their neck of the woods. Those who don’t fall into the above categories might be better served by starting elsewhere.

Rating: 3/5

Review: Encounters With Star People by Ardy Sixkiller Clarke

Encounters with Star People gives the UFO phenomenon a fresh new treatment, focusing exclusively on the experiences of modern American Indian people. Author Ardy Sixkiller Clarke, herself of Indian heritage, has personally collected and curated these stories. They are all presented here for the first time, having previously been held in strict confidence, known only to the experiencers, or other close members of their communities.

The 20-plus chapters each introduce a separate story, most of which focus on one or two specific individuals being interviewed by the author. She relates her experiences with each unique personality, and manages to portray a lot of character in her contacts in a relatively short amount of space. The nature of the events documented ranges from basic sightings of unidentified craft to alien encounters and abductions.

The skeptical reader will likely take solace in pointing out the myriad minor (or major) inconsistencies between the experiences related here. Inexplicable variation tends to be the rule in ufology, and the same apparently holds true within this community. Despite this, viewing the breadth of these accounts through the lens of a shared culture gives the whole thing a rather unique air of consistency. The believer may even find that the stories aren’t quite so wildly inconsistent after all, and that there seem to be at least a few themes which appear to underlie these otherwise independent events. It’s worth noting that some of the book’s later accounts take on a decidedly dark tone, and I admit to finding the cumulative effect of so many, not entirely dissimilar, experiences a bit disturbing.

My one substantial complaint with Encounters with Star People is that all accounts have been made anonymous. This is a point the author is very clear about, and we’re told, rather understandably, that it was a hard and fast condition of being able to publish much of the information she was given. I certainly understand why someone would desire not to be openly associated with fringe topics which could easily be used to threaten their job, relationships, or general quality of life. Having said that, as a reader one is forced to recognize that an anonymous account is also an unverifiable account, and as such provides zero evidentiary value. Some of the stories here are fantastic, but for the skeptically minded, they may as well be out right fiction. Assuming many of the items here are true, at least in some quantity – as human experiences if nothing else – then it’s a shame that such great material will likely be diminished and overlooked for the lack of a name. Even just one such story, backed up by confirmed and credible sources, might carry more weight than dozens that can never be traced beyond these pages.

With that in mind, if you can look past the anonymity and appreciate the material at face value, then Encounters with Star People is undoubtedly a ufological gold mine. Dr. Clarke should be commended for the effort she has put into this research over the years, and for bringing the culture of the star people to the general public. This work has added more new reports to the canon of ufology than possibly any other in recent years, if not decades. At times amusing, confusing, and even alarming, it was a hard book to put down.

 

Rating: 4/5

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre

Kim Philby was a unique individual who lived a fascinating life as one of the most successful spies the world has ever seen. Outwardly a loved and respected member of the community, the man spent decades secretly betraying the people and governments who supported him.

Ben Macintyre opts to approach the Philby saga not as an academic presenting research but as a storyteller revealing a drama being played out against the all too real backdrop of international war. He adeptly weaves together a cohesive and riveting story line utilizing quotes gleaned from interviews, biographies, journals, and other surviving documentation. The author openly admits that many exact details will never be known, and that his version of events required “judgements about the credibility of different sources,” which “is not an exact science,” but ultimately is “as close to a true story as [he] can make it.”

Even if only largely true, the story has all the twists and turns of a thrilling spy novel. The fact that the actions of these individuals shaped the outcomes of very real wars, influenced international relations, and directly contributed to the lives…and deaths…of thousands of people around the world just makes the whole thing all the more fantastic. Macintyre presents characters which are often deep, conflicted, and borderline surreal, yet simultaneously sympathetic and relatable. He paints a vibrant picture of the unique time and culture within which these personalities thrived: a Britain where the upper class ruled, and one’s status and personal connections made all the difference.

These men were, perhaps, as close as the world has known to real life James Bonds. It’s certainly no coincidence that Ian Fleming was a contemporary and often an acquaintance of these same individuals. Their exploits, even without the central thread of treachery, make for some compelling reading.

Kim Philby’s betrayal was so thorough and successful, the story at time borders on classic movie theater horror. The protagonist’s companions haplessly, tragically, work against their own self interest, while the audience is forced to stand by, helplessly watching as the villain, who seems so obvious in retrospect, works his craft. The fact that the victims were not only real, innocent people, but some of the most powerful governments of the world, is jarring.

A Spy Among Friends is about as much of a page turner as a book about real life human history gets. Macintyre does a superb job of bringing the material to life in a way which is thorough, accessible, and dramatic. I highly recommend it, regardless of one’s personal interest in, or knowledge of, the Philby case.

Rating: 5/5

Review: Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween by Lisa Morton

Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween is divided into 6 main chapters. The first two cover the origin of the holiday around the British Isles, beginning with Samhain and the early rituals of the Celts. The author traces the progression of these festivals through the centuries and on up to modern day Hallowe’en. Chapter three moves overseas and examines the parallel evolution of Halloween on the North American continent. Having established the historical context, the author then presents a global picture of the adoption of Halloween in modern times. This is followed by a unit dedicated to the festival of Dias de los Muertos, after which the book wraps up with an examination of Halloween in popular culture.

As author Lisa Morton observes, despite the huge popularity of the holiday in modern times, Halloween has received surprisingly little academic attention. It has also been subject to a variety of misinformation, particularly around its early history and religious significance. Suffice it to say, Trick or Treat offers a wealth of information on the topic, most of which appears well researched. Morton’s approach is objective, and she makes an effort to dispel some of the common Halloween myths in passing.

My biggest issue with this history of Halloween comes down to the structure and presentation of the material. There are times when Morton really steamrolls her way through the content. There is very little opportunity to stop and take stock; the facts are presented, and a sentence or two later we have already moved on. The information was there to be had, but it came in such a barrage that I left feeling unsure how much of it I had really absorbed.

I would also have preferred to see more space dedicated to the subject matter of the first couple chapters; to really flesh out more of the historical context, and pace the progression through time a bit better. The chapter on Dias de los Muertos felt largely unnecessary, and it could easily have been cut down to concentrate on more relevant material.

Finally, the chapter on popular culture felt poorly worked in. A lot of it seemed redundant, having just gone past-to-present in previous chapters, only to do so again in much of the same context as before. That same material, if added in alongside the historical pieces instead of after them, may have really improved the flow of the entire presentation.

On the whole, as someone who has been a fan of Halloween since childhood, I enjoyed the opportunity to develop a more grown up and informed knowledge of this most misunderstood of holidays. Complaints about presentation aside, I would recommend this book to most curious trick-or-treaters.
Rating: 4/5

Review: Britain’s X-traordinary Files by David Clarke

It’s hard to rate Britain’s X-traordinary Files poorly based on execution. The book is well edited, thoroughly referenced, and easily readable. It’s also, frankly, a bit dull. With a title clearly playing on the intrigue of the hit X-Files science fiction series, one might be forgiven for expecting an exciting revelation or two hidden somewhere in the mix. The driving force behind research into, and entertainment based on, government secrecy is all about the prospect of uncovering the mythical smoking gun; the proof that the government knows the “truth” behind extraterrestrials, Loch Ness, and many other of the world’s curiosities. It’s the foundation of countless books, websites, and documentaries, as well as conspiracy theories and works of fiction.

In the context of this book, “X-traordinary” may translate more accurately as “something a bit unusual”… and being a little off-kilter doesn’t necessarily equate to being new and interesting. The concluding chapter on the Loch Ness monster is a prime example. Nessie is arguably Great Britain’s most widely known and beloved mystery, and most people know at least a little something about the case. It’s been around for decades now, and is well ingrained in popular culture. So what does the British government think of the situation? To sum up: a few believers who find it compelling, a bunch of non-believers who don’t, and the general consensus that even if it probably doesn’t exist, it’s great for tourism, so why mess with it? In other words, exactly what most people probably would have assumed, without twenty-odd pages of evidence extracted from notes, letters, and official documents.

Cutting a bit deeper, one may ask why we bother reading up on these fortean topics at all? For some of us at least, the answer is that a good mystery is exciting. It’s knowing that even if the monster isn’t real, a mystery persists in how so many people can experience it. It’s the love of a good ghost story if nothing else. But the X-traordinary Files isn’t necessarily a book about the mysteries themselves. It’s a book about how governmental entities saw and responded to these events. The author isn’t presenting and analyzing Nessie so much as he’s presenting and analyzing the records of people who were in power at the time. It’s a discussion of people discussing a mystery. Which more often than not, boils down to being just that much less thrilling than addressing the topic head-on. There are no shocking revelations; in fact there doesn’t even seem to be much new material at all. In most instances the official documents do little more than reiterate and corroborate what was already the official story, which I expect most of the general public already knows.

Author David Clarke addresses a variety of subjects, including ghosts, angels, psychic powers, phantom helicopters, and more. Even the Bermuda Triangle makes an appearance, despite being nowhere near Great Britain. There doesn’t seem to be any particular rhyme or reason to how the material was selected, and the level of detail given any one item is rarely more than what you would expect from a cable TV special on the same. Again, the focus here being more the official documents on the subjects than the subjects themselves.

Rating this book fairly has proven a challenge. In truth, I think the author executed the material well, it’s just that the content is not, to my mind, nearly as interesting as the book jacket would have you believe. There is almost no new or revelatory information; just confirmation of what was already publicly known, or at least suspected. And so, I’m not sure what audience I would recommend it for: A beginner would be better served by a book that approaches the subject matter more directly, while paranormal veterans may prefer something with more focus or fresher content.

Rating: 3/5

“The vast possibilities of our great future will become realities only if we make ourselves responsible for that future.”

– Gifford Pinchot