Our Collection

Halloween 2019: Exploring the Unexplained

The Book Recommendations pages of our website offer several articles highlighting horror novels and ghost stories from our stacks that are sure to keep you up nights during Halloween season. Those articles can be found here, here, here, and here

This year, Circulation Assistant Stephanie Merchant is back with a look at books on unexplained phenomena from the Library's stacks. A few years ago, Patrick Rayner also explored the mysteries of stack 11 in call number range 133. That article can be found here

With the Halloween season upon us, it’s a good time to explore some of the more esoteric areas of our collection. UFOs, spiritualism, ghosts, the unexplained in general - there are some amazing gems locked in the recesses of our stacks, both scholarly and arcane.

UFOs: Keep Watching the Skies!

Sightings of mysterious “unidentified objects” came flooding in following the end of World War II, just as the Cold War started in full swing. There was no end to the litany of articles and books proclaiming these flying objects visitors from another world, and that the US government was covering up these otherworldly visitors. 

The oldest book on the topic in our collection, The Book of the Damned by Charles Fort, was originally published in 1917. A study of “anomalous phenomena,” it would provide a foundation for much of modern parapsychology, and it is where Fort proposed such scientific theories - debunked by conventional science - as the “super-Sargasso sea” theory, which purports to explain how objects spontaneously and anomalously teleport to another dimension. This was expanded upon in his later book New Lands (which includes an introduction by Booth Tarkington). Ultimately, Fort’s theories had more influence on the science fiction and fantasy communities than on actual science itself. His lasting legacy is the source of the term “fortean,” which is used by many as a descriptor of a variety of paranormal phenomena. Also in our collection is R. Dewitt Miller’s work You Do Take it With You, showing that some championed fortean thought well into the 1950s.

Major Donald Keyhoe flew with Charles Lindbergh across the coast in 1927 (see Flying with Lindbergh) and was with the Naval Aviation Training Division during World War II. Already a published freelance writer, he didn’t make a true splash until he published his work on UFOs in the late 50s. Books like Flying Saucers from Outer Space can feel like science fiction, but it is presented as fact. It was even used by the producers of the 1956 film Earth vs. the Flying Saucers as source material. Aliens from Space: The Real Story of Unidentified Flying Objects, The Flying Saucer Conspiracy, and Flying Saucers: Top Secret soon followed as Keyhoe established himself as a major voice among believers in unidentified objects in the skies.

Notoriety followed the publication of several 1950s and 1960s tomes. The Case for the UFO and The Expanding Case for the UFO by M.K. Jessup are two key examples. Jessup, a candidate for an astrophysics PhD who dropped out to pursue the study of ufology, led many to believe there was more to our universe than what mainstream science was telling us.

For a more mainstream science perspective, The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry by J. Allen Hynek - founder of the Center for UFO Studies - offers a more objective take on the phenomena. As a mainstream scientist and advisor for the USAF, Hynek bounced back and forth from believer to skeptic, often debunking many sightings but also making educated scientific guesses on the real life possibilities of life amongst the stars. This book coined the classification system that mainstream society would adopt in referring to extraterrestrial experiences and that would later lend itself to the title of Spielberg’s classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Worth a look is Mark Pilkington’s book on ufology, Mirage Men, which looks into the conspiracy of UFOs as a conspiracy itself. Pilkington leads us through the wild world of ufologists, conspiracy theorists, and the intelligence agents who supposedly cover up these incidents. He puts forth the theory that the government has a vested interest in keeping UFO conspiracies alive and well as a way to cover up their own experimental aircraft, real-world espionage actions, and simply as a way to assert their power to control intelligence information over its private citizens. A conspiracy to explain a conspiracy, it seems.

Flying Saucers are Real! by Jack Womack offers an historical survey of the plethora of books on UFOs published over the years and the art that accompanied them. He weaves a narrative that these books project more of the inner life and conspiracies that humans make for themselves than they do of any actual extraterrestrial visitors. In American Cosmic by D.W. Pasulka, published by Oxford University Press in 2019, the author interviews successful and influential scientists, professionals, and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who believe in extraterrestrial intelligence, disproving the common misconception that belief in UFOs is strictly for fringe members of society.

A dive into this collection (mostly kept on stack 11, call number 629.13) may leave you feeling like you’ve gone through the looking glass, but just remember that the truth is out there somewhere.

Ghosts: Tales From the Beyond!

Digging through the many volumes the Library contains on ghostly phenomena can provide quite a trip to the other side. Spiritualism - the belief in a variety of psychic phenomena, particularly in ghosts and the afterlife - really took hold in the inter-war period but had its roots in the Victorian era. Many volumes in the Library’s collection come from this period and offer a fascinating look into the era's collective belief in the unknown and the afterlife. A Book Written by the Spirits of the So-Called Dead came to the collection in 1883 and was donated by the compiler himself - a Mr. C.G. Helleberg. It includes spirit communications from George Washington, William Wilberforce, Margaret Fuller, and Abraham Lincoln as told to Mrs. Lizzie S. Green and other mediums. These figures allegedly spoke through the mediums to offer insights on the current problems facing the industrial society of that day.

A Mrs. C.A. Dawson Scott claimed to receive messages from Woodrow Wilson and later compiled them in the volume Is This Wilson? in 1929. William Oliver Stevens may have held an English literature PhD from Yale, but he was a well-known ghost hunter who published a book called Unbidden Guests in 1946. Elliott O’Donnell is our most prolific ghost-hunting writer, publishing many books from the early 20th century through the 1950s. His Confessions of a Ghost Hunter may read like fiction, but he claimed them to be fact.

The great Harry Houdini was an escape artist and illusionist infamous to this day. He was also an avowed skeptic and proponent for debunking spiritual fraud whenever he could. His book A Magician Among the Spirits is a cutting diatribe examining his many exposures of frauds, con artists, and charlatans he felt preyed on grieving people desperate for answers. He believed in this so much it affected his long term friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - avowed proponent of spiritualism and communicating with the dead. Also in our collection are many of Doyle’s texts written at the time on paranormal and otherworldly occurrences. The New Revelation, Pheneas Speaks, The Wanderings of a Spiritualist, and The Vital Message are a few of his books on the subject and offer an insight into the man who created the rational Sherlock Holmes detective stories. For more on Doyle, Houdini, and spiritualism see the "Further Reading" section below. 

Closer to home, Spindrift: Spray From the Psychic Sea by Jan Bryant Bartell chronicles the haunting of her Greenwich Village apartment in the 1970s and the phenomena she reportedly witnessed. We also have several books by famed parapsychologist Hans Holzer - who most infamously inserted himself into the the Amityville Horror incident on Long Island - and wrote books like Window to the Past: Exploring History Through ESP.

If you’re feeling the back of your neck prickle in the building this time of year it may be time to take a look at some of the more otherworldly sections of the Library. The selection above merely scratches the surface of our collection on the unexplained. Get in the stacks and have a look. You never know what you might find. 

Further Reading

If you would rather not spend this year's Halloween in a sleep-deprived, trembling state of terror, we offer this list of recent (-ish) books that explore scary subjects from a more scholarly/historical perspective - witches, ghosts, vampires, the undead, and more unexplained phenomena. A few are published by university presses, and while academic writing can present its own set of horrors, all were well-reviewed and are sure to fascinate.

A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 years of Hunting for Proof | Roger Clarke 

Clarke, a film critic for the Independent newspaper and Sight & Sound, indulges his lifelong interest in the paranormal in this well-documented look at ghost stories and the people who have told them throughout history. “Roger Clarke tells [these] gloriously weird stories with real verve, and also a kind of narrative authority that tends to constrain the skeptical voice within” (The New York Times).

The English Ghost | Peter Ackroyd

Ackroyd, a shockingly prolific and acclaimed author, has written books on Venice and the history of England, biographies of Dickens, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot, and much more (he has over 60 entries in our online catalog). In this book, he retells English ghost stories with skill and provides an informative introduction on the history of British hauntings, and explains why the English seem to have a special affinity for all things sepulchral.

The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic | Owen Davies, ed.

This, richly illustrated academic study looks at the 5,000-year history of witchcraft and magic, primarily in the Mediterranean and European world. Essays include “Magic in the Ancient World,” “The Witch and Magician in European Art,” “The Rise of Modern Magic,” and “Witches on Screen.” From the rise of demonology in the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment and  witch trials, to Samantha on Bewitched and the Harry Potter series, the contributors cover a lot of ground.

The Penguin Book of Witches | Katherine Howe, ed.

Howe presents an expertly annotated collection of historical accounts (court records, sermons, etc.) of witchcraft, dating from medieval Europe to early 19th-century America.

Haunted: On Ghosts, Witches, Vampires, Zombies, and Other Monsters of the Natural and Supernatural Worlds | Leo Braudy

Library Journal: Braudy (Professor of English and American Literature at USC) “examines the reflective horror monsters and myths that societies create…illuminating how sociological backgrounds from the past two centuries have given rise to fabled creatures, from Frankenstein and vampires to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and what underlying collective fears they represent….a fluid and chronological discussion of how political, religious, and class struggles are expressed by identifying the ‘other’ through horror, superstitions, and witch hunts.” Published by Yale University Press. 

Possessions: The History and Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley | Judith Richardson

The cultural landscape of the Hudson River Valley is crowded with ghosts - the ghosts of Native Americans and Dutch colonists, of Revolutionary War soldiers and spies, of presidents, slaves, priests, and laborers. Possessions asks why this region just outside New York City became the locus for so many ghostly tales, and shows how these hauntings came to operate as a peculiar type of social memory.

The Vampire: A New History | Nick Groom

Choice: “Drawing on a wealth of historical sources, this book explains how the image of the vampire emerged into European public consciousness through the collision of 18th-century medical enquiry with age-old folk beliefs of southeastern Europe… this erudite, entertaining, and eminently readable book merges folklore with fact and literary analysis with the history of science.”

The Penguin Book of the Undead: Fifteen Hundred Years of Supernatural Encounters | Scott G. Bruce, ed.

Library Journal: “Set down by theologians, scholars, and playwrights, these tales of encounters between the living and the restless dead date from antiquity to the early modern period and are placed in their proper historical and cultural context by Bruce's introductions to both individual pieces and the eras in which they were penned.” Publisher’s Weekly: “an exceptionally well-curated compilation…. Bruce has chosen selections from numerous cultures, including ancient Greece, Anglo-Norman England, and medieval Scandinavia, with an emphasis on ecclesiastical writings whose frights served morally instructive purposes.”

Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life after Death | Deborah Blum

Booklist: “Blum addresses the attraction that spiritualism, the Victorian fad for communicating with the dead, held for a coterie of British and American intellectuals” (William James and Alfred Russel Wallace among them). Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter.

The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln's Ghost | Peter Manseau 

In this “meticulously researched study” (Publisher’s Weekly), Manseau explores the spirit photographs of William H. Mumler, whose portraits captured people and their departed loved ones and captivated post-Civil War America as it experienced death on an unprecedented scale.

Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany | Lyndal Roper

Drawing on hundreds of original trial transcripts, Roper portrays the lives, families, and tribulations of women accused of practicing witchcraft in 16th- and 17th century Germany. Roper, a lecturer in history at the University of Oxford, explores the terrors surrounding early modern witchcraft by discovering their roots in basic fears about human and natural fertility.

The Ghost: A Cultural History | Susan Owens

Owens (formerly curator of paintings at the Victoria and Albert Museum) presents  a historical review of how the British have portrayed, and looked at, ghosts through the ages. Organized chronologically, Owens features a wide range of artists and writers, including Hogarth, Blake, Henry Fuseli, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, Donne, Shakespeare, Pepys, Defoe, the Shelleys, Emily Bronte, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Muriel Spark, Hilary Mantel, and Sarah Waters.

Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country | Edward Parnell

In Ghostland, Parnell goes in search of the ‘sequestered places’ of the British Isles - lonely moors, moss-covered cemeteries, stark shores and woodlands. He explores how these landscapes conjured and shaped a kaleidoscopic spectrum of literature and cinema, from the ghost stories and weird fiction of M. R. James, Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood to Graham Swift’s Waterland to The Wicker Man.

Through a Glass, Darkly: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Quest to Solve the Greatest Mystery of All | Stefan Bechtel

Masters of Mystery : the Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini | Christopher Sandford

The Witch of Lime Street: SĂ©ance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World | David Jaher

One of spritualism’s  most famous spokesman of the late 19th-early 20th century was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. These three books profile Doyle’s practice and beliefs, and his very public quarrels with Harry Houdini over the truth of spiritualism. (Watch David Jaher's 2016 Members' Room lecture here.)

Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead | Christine Wicker

Since its founding in 1879, the village of Lily Dale in upstate New York has been a destination for people who believe that they can communicate with the dead. Populated by the largest community of spiritualists in the world, the vocation of medium is said to be “no more unusual than teacher or police officer.”  Library Journal: “Whether or not one accepts the existence of the supernatural, the resulting book is a very good read. Residents are often portrayed with humor but are never condescended to or ridiculed.”

The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies | Robert Kirk, Introduction by Marina Warner 

This unusual little book, long unavailable, was recently republished recently by New York Review Books. Late in the seventeenth century, Robert Kirk, an Episcopalian minister in the Scottish Highlands, set out to collect his parishioners’ many striking stories about elves, fairies, fauns, doppelgängers, wraiths, and other beings of, in Kirk’s words, “a middle nature betwixt man and angel.” For Kirk these stories constituted strong evidence for the reality of a supernatural world, existing parallel to ours, which, he passionately believed, demanded serious exploration.

Zombies: A Cultural History | Roger Luckhurst

With an international scope that draws on anthropology, folklore, travel writings, colonial histories, popular literature, cinema, medical history, and cultural theory, Roger Luckhurst traces the zombie through our culture and imaginations from the nineteenth-century Caribbean, through comic books and movie screens.