Saturday, January 15, 2011

APPARITIONS by Joseph Taylor

The exhaustive full title is "Apparitions; or, the Mystery of Ghosts, Hobgoblins, and Haunted Houses Developed, Being a Collection of Entertaining Stories Founded on Fact, and Selected for the Purpose of Eradicating Those Fears, Which the Ignorant, the Weak, and the Superstitious, are but Too Apt to Encourage, for Want of Properly Examining into the Causes of Such Absurd Impositions."

A mouthful, eh? Printed in 1815, this is a fun collection of weird stories, all with the goal of proving that ghosts and supernatural phenomena aren't real. Therefore, there's a load of stories of hauntings that turn out to be pranks, mistakes, dreams, sleepwalking, or even criminal activity. There's a haunted castle that's actually the headquarters of a gang of coiners, a walking corpse that's actually a murderer, a female ghost who's just a sleepwalker, a ghost that's only in a guilty man's mind, and a haunting that's the result of a lecherous priest seeking a young girl's virtue. Taylor scorns belief in the supernatural, and his goal was to make people look closer and actually investigate. He does seem to be accepting of religion and in one story seems to scorn ghosts while entertaining a slight belief in telepathy, but still, it's a remarkable example of skepticism from nearly two centuries ago.

One story sticks out for those who, like me, enjoy reading about urban legends. Entitled "Remarkable Instance of the Power of Imagination," it's the tale of a young buck who goes into a supposedly haunted abbey and vows to stick his knife in the floor to prove he was there. You guessed many stories have recounted, he accidentally sticks the knife through his coat, and in turning to leave, believes spectral hands are grabbing at him. Modern versions of the story have the person dying of fright, but Taylor's version has the man panicking and knocking himself out as he tries to escape. He's rescued the next morning and his mistake is revealed by his friends, but he determinedly believes that he was attacked by ghosts.

It's fun to see such an old origin to a popular tale told by kids today; these days it's often part of a fraternity or sorority initiation, and a version is told about a cemetery in Baltimore. A variation of the story was used in the 1962 film RING OF TERROR.

I read APPARITIONS on my brand-new Kindle, downloaded for free from Gutenberg. It's still readable after 200 years, although some of the poems haven't aged well. But I recommend it for skeptical types and for those who enjoy a glance into the psyches of folks from Way Back When.

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