Be Afraid

Jan Harold Brunvand, Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid: The Book of Scary Urban Legends, W. W. Norton, 2004.

It would be nice to say that this book breaks new ground and presents fresh urban legends for the 21st century. Sadly it doesn’t; what we get are the same old favourites, - you know - the hook, the phantom hitchhiker, the spider in the hairdo, the Mexican rat, etc., etc. There are variant tellings and often the history of the story is traced, but after a while these same old stories begin to pall.
It’s not as if there are no new urban legends out there. 9/11 must have produced many, but only a handful of such stories are presented here. There are a variety of other tales which often fail to reach these anthologies; for example just the day before reading this, as I was eating lunch in the pub I overheard a guy at the next table going on to his mates about how he never eats at McDonalds because the profits go straight to the IRA, a tale which surfaced at the time of the Warrington bomb back in 1993.
Tales like that of McDonald's funding the IRA are stories which people actually believe in, and which are presented as really true. Does anyone really believe that the tale of the courting couple and the escaped maniac ever happened. Tales like this are surely falling from the world of urban legend into that of the sick joke or teenage scare story. On the other hand Brunvand is too quick to dismiss tales of people having serious crush injuries who will die if the crushing object is released, and are given mobile phones to ring home. Sadly people in serious accidents may well be kept alive only because the wreckage or whatever acts as a tourniquet. When released the victim faces double jeopardy of massive haemorrhage and/or their body becoming flooded by toxic chemicals from the crush injury. -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia Supplement 25, May 2005.

Sword Swallowing

Andrew Collins. The Seventh Sword: The Search to Find the Seven Swords of Meonia. Arrow, 1992.

Today with the controversy raging around Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and its imminent release as a major motion picture in 2006, it's worth noting that such mixtures of fact and fiction are far from new. Former ufologist Andrew Collins has been a long-time exponent of the psychic adventure quest, and his book The Seventh Sword is probably the most accessible to a general audience.
At its best this is an exciting psychic adventure story revolving around Andrew Collins and his helpers Graham Phillips, Alan Beard, Terry Shotton and a family in North Wales. They use dreams, séances, intuitions and automatic writing mixed with large dollops of luck, to find the first Meonia Sword at the Knights Pool, Worcestershire in 1979. This quickly leads to the discovery of the Meonia Stone (or Green Stone) not far away. They believe the stone is like a psychic microchip that contains a vast library of knowledge.
Andrew and Graham smoke their Benson and Marlboro cigarettes, frown over Ordnance Survey maps, drive yellow Ford Cortinas and Austin Maxis, and indulge in fry-ups. This ‘designer’ materialism makes a stark contrast with the psychic visions that lead Andrew to five more Meonia Swords over the next twelve years.
At its worst The Seventh Sword is no more than a hall of mirrors, that turns Andrew Collins into the Indiana Jones of the British counties. The swords are discovered to be Victorian copies, but Andrew explains that the originals were probably replaced by ‘some quasi-Masonic occult fraternity’. The stone is associated with the Pharaoh Akhenaten, the Knights Templar, the legend of the Philosopher’s Stone, Mary Queen of Scots, Freemasons you name it!
They are so set on their quest that they resort to vandalism, trespassing and even stealing. There is also the shadowy threat of a rival occult group blocking their quest. After Part One, with Graham Phillips disappearing from the story, and new visionaries appearing, the adventure peters out, and the book degenerates into a mess of historical reinterpretation.
At the end The Seventh Sword remains undiscovered, and readers are invited to search for it themselves. What puzzles me is what good are all these (reproduction) swords and the Meonia Stone? They are invaluable if you like rushing round the countryside in the dead of night on the pretext of psychic whims, re-writing history, or even believing you can influence current events through these discoveries. The evidence is as flimsy as a lap dancer’s G-string. For materialists and cynics, just buy a metal detector and some proper history or archaeological books, and you’ll probably find more treasure than all the psychic quests put together. -- Nigel Watson, fro Magonia Supplement 61, May 2006. 

A Clutch of Conspiracies

Conspiracy Encyclopedia: The Encyclopedia of Conspiracy Theories. Collis Brown, 2005.

James McConnachie and Robin Tudge, The Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories, Rough Guides/Penguin Books, 2005.

Michael Newton, The Encyclopedia of Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories, Checkmark Books/Facts on File, 2006 (i.e. 2005)

In the wake of 9/11 conspiracy theories are making a major comeback; indeed the Collins and Brown encyclopedia here is a companion to a whole series, entitled Conspiracy Books, produced by that publisher. Between them, these books will take the reader on a gamut from well-documented cases of actual conspiracies, through conspiracy theories which might have at least some element of truth in them, to ones which are clearly the product of disordered minds.
Though international in scope, there is a clear emphasis on conspiracy theories originating in the United States. Whether that is because the US is a more conspiratorially minded country than most other places, or whether the First Amendment and fairly lax libel laws mean that one can get away with saying things there that on this side of the water would lead to m’learned friends being down on you like a ton of bricks.
This perhaps accounts for the relative absence of British conspiracy theories, particularly those surrounding the conflict in Northern Ireland. For example, you will not read in any of these books of how the Provisional IRA was set up by the CIA in 1969 with the connivance of the Irish government, and the at least tacit support of the British security services, and was supplied by funds from Saudi Arabia and Taiwan through an organisation called the World Anti-Communist League (British head, Patrick Wall, MP who later became President of BUFORA). The motivation was that the existing Official IRA was pro-Cuban and believed to be a front for the Irish Workers (i.e. Communist) Party. Given the situation there was going to an IRA anyway it was better that it was a good old Green Catholic IRA rather than a Red one.
I was also struck by the absence of any references to the conspiracy theories surrounding the Profumo affair.
Looking at the various conspiracy theories presented, they seem to fall into certain categories. The real conspiracies are either the product of ordinary greed and venality and protection of special interests, or follow from the old doctrine of my enemy’s enemy is my friend. Unfortunately, my enemy’s enemy is often just as unpleasant, and sometimes much more so, than my enemy of the moment. And of course, precisely who is my enemy and my enemy's enemy is always changing, yesterdays friend is today’s enemy and vice versa.
The grander conspiracy theories seem to echo either; the great do not die young by accident, or by their own vices, or at the hands of petty lunatics. Instead they are brought down by the incarnate forces of cosmic evil. If he rich, famous and powerful can be brought down in the most pointless and squalid fashion, what hope is there for the rest of us?
The clerks are traitors; those hired to protect us and our interests are really conspiring against us, they are the real enemy or are in league with the enemy. Mummy and daddy really do hate us. Or they hold secrets from us, because they know better; all these secrets perhaps are reflections of the big secrets of sex and reproduction that (at least used) to be hidden from children.
They have stolen the fairy gold which would end all our problems, whether it be free energy or the cure of cancer and other dread diseases. Perhaps indeed they are witches who have put spells on us.
They are in control, nothing happens by chance, someone is in control of the situation, a malevolent force in charge is better than no one at all.
The big one, all the heartache, pain and suffering in the world are caused by the terrible others, the children of perfidy and darkness, against who we, the children of light and righteousness, are in constant battle.
Of course the fact that real life politics is often a grubby, amoral game of power play, far removed from the claimed noble purposes of political actors only serves to exacerbate the situation.
For those who want guidance through the murky world of conspiracy theories, the Rough Guide is not only by far the cheapest it is the best of the three, with insightful commentary and almost always well balanced and sane. Conspiracy Encyclopaedia is a bit expensive but it is generally reasonable if a little whitewashy in its section on magazines and organisations. The Newton Encyclopedia is a typical Facts on File tome, ie written by a hack who doesn’t know much about the subject, is filled with irrelevant padding, and contains numerous factual errors, biases and tendentious commentary. -- Peter Rogerson, frm Magonia Supplement 60, February 2006.

Riding With Ghosts

Michael Goss. The Evidence for Phantom Hitchhikers. Aquarian Press (in association with ASSAP), 1984. Republished Coronet, 2015.

Once again, a distinctive theme seems to have arisen unbidden in the pages of this issue of Magonia. Articles by Peter Rogerson and Nigel Watson explore the theme of 'participative folklore' where real, flesh and blood people actually experience some of the traditional themes of folklore. Such themes witchcraft, leprechauns lie on a thin dividing line between real experience and literary artifice; and no theme more, perhaps, than the phantom hitch-hiker.

The PHH (please excuse yet another paranormal acronym) has become almost a symbol of that type of encounter which lies just beyond the reality of individual experience; students of contemporary folklore have used it almost as a symbol of their fugitive subject matter. Until now the only books which have looked seriously at the PHH legend have been those like Brunvand's The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meaning, which have looked on the stories as archetype, and sought a meaning to the accounts in terms of social imagery. They have seen the PHH perhaps as a symbol of the transience and rootlessness of much of Western society. Another tradition of writing has seen the Hitchhiker simply as a ghost story, a good yarn to anthologise, without too much concern as to where the event may lie in a spectrum of reality and myth.,

Michael Goss is aware of the symbolic significance.of the PHH, and analyses it expertly and authoritatively in his study. But also he has travelled the road in search of the one or two original Hitchhiker witnesses; not friends of friends, or second cousins of the man who came to mend his auntie's washing-machine, but the man sitting opposite telling of how he met the Phantom, with all its time-honoured attributes. Even then, the evidence is slight, the stories uncorroborated, but how could they be otherwise? the final link in the chain just that little bit too elusive to pin down. But we know that it happened, we can be sure that one or two people, not many more, will put their hands on their heart and tell you: "I met the Phantom Hitchhiker!"

But that said, we still have the mystery; after all, a thousand people will tell you "I met an alien", and are we any closer to understanding what is happening? If the PHH is out there stalking the highways of the world, is it symbol, reality, illusion or hoax? Michael Goss leads us carefully through the welter of interpretation, and brings us out, much wiser, at the other side. He will not please the sceptic, who wants him to say that all is just a mass of rumour; he will not please the eager-believer, who wants to hear that they are the ghosts of picturesquely slaughtered wanderers. But he will satisfy those who are glad that at last the PHH has been brought firmly into the field of human experience, and can be studied as a paranormal event, but who is still willing to accept its meaning in terms of myth, belief and archetype.

This is a fine book, closely argued - it repays careful reading well written, and, so far, easily the best title in the 'Evidence' series, bar none. -- John Rimmer, from Magonia 18, January 1985.

Out of Time

Joan Forman. The Mask of Time: The Mystery Factor in Timeslips, Precognition and Hindsight. Macdonald and Janes, 1978.

Included in this book are several accounts by people who claim to have had experiences in which they were transported in time. What interests us is not whether any of these experiences are literal encounters with another time (which we very much doubt), but the quality of phenomenological descriptions of some of these experiences. As summarised by Ms Forman, these include:  
  1. A silvery light which seems to be present during the timeslip, irrespective of the actual weather conditions.
  2. An unusual silence, outside noises seeming to fade.
  3. An apparent distortion of the planes in the scene viewed.
  4. A trigger or threshold factor, setting the experience in motion.
  5. A feeling of physical unease or malaise in the percipient, preceding the onset of the event.
  6. Distortion of sounds or speech, when these are present during the experience.
  7. Abruptness of the onset and termination of the experience.
All of these items, particularly two, five and seven, are to be encountered in accounts of alleged UFO experiences.
Timeslips are basically metachoric experiences, in which the percipient(s) find that the environment of consensus reality is replaced by one which appears to the percipient to belong to a past (or more rarely a future) time. The above features seem to be common to all kinds of waking metachoric experiences.

There is even a case in which ambiguous physical evidence, so typical of ufology, is presented. An elderly man went into a shop in Yarmouth and bought some envelopes for his coin collection. He noted a few period pieces: the Edwardian dress of the lady assistant, her surprise at decimal money, etc., but thought nothing of it. Only later, on returning to the shop, d id he find that the entire scene had changed and there was no lady assistant. The bag in which the envelopes had been put disintegrated, though the envelopes remained. However examination by the manufacturers indicated that they were simply 10 to 15 year old cellulose film bags, and could not have come from the Edwardian period. In other cases alleged conversations are reported in timeslips which seem to have the same absurd and trivial character as those described in UFO encounters.

This is a book which will serve to broaden our understanding of the basis of the UFO phenomenon. -- Peter Rogerson, MUFOB New Series 13, Winter 1978/9