22 February 2008

"Most haunted" maybe, but by dull ghosts

The Most Haunted House in England
(Time-Life Collector's Library of the Unknown)
Harry Price
Longmans, Green and Co., 1940 (Time-Life Books Reprint)

After watching The World's Scariest Ghosts Caught on Tape one Friday eveninga few weeks ago, my interest in "true ghost stories" was peaked and so I scared up this volume.

Harry Price's The Most Haunted House in England is the book about a classic haunted house, Borley Rectory, which is a staple of many of the ghost and supernatural books I read when I was younger. It is well-written in that competent British school boy fashion, with impeccable grammar, restrained wit, and conservative style.

Price explains how he was invited to explore Borley Rectory, which was built in 1863 by the Rev. Henry Bull and which had allegedly been visited by the ghost of a nun and by a spectral coach drawn by two headless men. Price details the history of the village of Borley and the tales of the haunted rectory; the legend of a nun who was buried alive at the site that would become the rectory for her illicit liaison with a monk; and spooky stories from various sources---those who lived in the house, their guests, and those invited specifically for the task of research into the hauntings.

Sadly, for its status as a classic in the genre of supernatural literature, the book is not really scary. Almost all of the activities described were of the nature of a poltergeist (or Poltergeister, as Price would have it) in the form of mysterious sounds, teleportation of small objects, movement of small objects, and, over a period of several years, the writing of messages and small marks on the walls of the house. There was surprisingly little about the spectral coach and ghostly nun, particularly seeing how these alleged phenomena were what drew Price to the house initially.

The book serves as a documentary history of the alleged haunting, and the author leaves it up to the reader to decide as to the veracity of the stories of Borley Rectory in light of all the documentary "evidence" presented. Many contemporary critics feel that Price and one of the couples who lived in the house (those to whom the mysterious messages were addressed) established this entire story as a hoax. It wouldn't surprise me.

In short, this is a high-quality reprint of a classic, if unconvincing and not very scary, early 20th century monograph on ghosts. The Time-Life Collector's Library of the Unknown is a classy series for those who are interested in the literature of the unexplained, even if only in fun, and this volume is no exception.

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