It’s Hallowe’en time and the ghosts are in our bookshop window and wandering spookily down the stairs, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to explore some of the more mysterious of the Press’s books. You can order them at bookshop.org or get in touch if you’d like to order from our bookshop in the centre of Cambridge.
Whether you’re a fan of the festival or not, it must be said that the supernatural, occult, mysterious and unprovable has held a fascination for human beings across the world and throughout history. Cambridge University Press publishes some great titles on the history, psychology, anthropology and practise of witchcraft, occultism and “Extraordinary Beliefs,” so if you’re not out-and-about trawling your neighbourhood for sweets and chocolate, then there are worse ways to spend the evening than getting to grips with some spooky reading!
In the Cambridge Library Collection there is a brilliant range of reprints of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century explorations of spiritualism, mesmerism, vampirism, and magic. There are also those by mediums themselves, with intriguing titles such as Ghost Land (1876) in which book, purportedly written by an enigmatic nobleman Chevalier Louis de B., incidents and sketches are collected from those who have had spiritual encounters and are initiated into occult mysteries.
The creator or Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was a firm believer in the spirit world. His two-volume History of Spiritualism (1926) covers the background and origins of Victorian spiritualism, reports on several scientific investigations of spiritualist phenomena, discusses celebrated mediums from 1870 to World War I, and examines topics including ectoplasm and spirit photography.
On another side of the debate, in A Magician among the Spirits (1924) Conan Doyle’s erstwhile friend, and supreme sceptic, Harry Houdini describes his research from attending hundreds of séances, debunking mediums and psychics who had convinced many notable scientists and academics.
Published in 1866, The Humbugs of the World, by P.T. Barnum (famously portrayed by Hugh Jackman in The Greatest Showman and creator of "The Greatest Show on Earth"), describes some of the most fascinating and outrageous examples of the occult trend perpetrated in his time. It’s a highly entertaining read telling of, for example, Mr Warren, who wrote an advertisement in enormous letters on the pyramids of Giza, and the Fox daughters who caused a stir among spiritualists in New York when they held séances with tapping spirits (in fact their own cracking knee joints!).
We also have a book by the chemist and illusionist John Henry Pepper, of Pepper’s Ghost fame, in which he details the history of his world-famous illusion and how it was done. With the trick now considered to be a precursor to cinema, The True History of the Ghost (1890) gives a nice insight into the development of popular nineteenth-century culture and the entertainment industry.
As well as defences and debunkings there are also histories and scientific investigations. Another writer with a fascination for the occult was Sir Walter Scott whose collection of Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830) is notable for its scope and its rational standpoint; exploring the influence of Christianity on evolving views of "witchcraft" or "evil", explaining the many (often innocuous) meanings of the word "witch", and examining topics including fairies, elves and fortune-telling as well as inquisitions and witch trials.
Lives of the Necromancers (1834) by the political philosopher (and father of Mary Shelley) William Godwin, is an historical and geographical survey from the Ancient Middle East and Greece to the New England witch trials, defining magical practices and supernatural episodes from the lives of many historical figures from Socrates and Virgil to Joan of Arc and James I. Shelley’s own classic novel, Frankenstein, has its very own Cambridge Companion because of its wide-ranging influence and fascination.
The paranormal continues to provoke scholarly discussion, so if it’s something a bit more modern you’re after then we’ve got you covered too. In Extraordinary Beliefs (2013) Peter Lamont takes a historical approach to questions of why we do or don’t believe in the inexplicable, arguing that we cannot understand extraordinary beliefs unless we properly consider the events in which people believe, and what people believe about them. Beyond Belief (2010) by Martin Bridgstock provides an integrated understanding of what an evidence-based, sceptical approach to what the paranormal involves, and why it is necessary.
In the world of witchcraft, the Malleus Maleficarum, first published in 1486–7, is the standard medieval text. Its descriptions of the evil acts of witches and the ways to exterminate them continue to contribute to our knowledge of early modern law, religion and society. Our highly-acclaimed edition, translated by Christopher S. Mackay as The Hammer of Witches (2009), is the only complete English version available. With detailed explanatory notes it’s a brilliant insight into the fifteenth-century mind and its sense of sin, punishment and retribution. Following this up with the comprehensive Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt (2013) edited by Bernard Rosenthal gives important scholarly background to fascinating, dark and tragic social events of the late seventeenth-century.
The scope of The Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West (2018) extends from the Ancient Near East to twenty-first-century North America; from Persian curse tablets to US neo-paganism. It includes chapters on developments in the Jewish and Muslim worlds in terms both of their contributions to European notions of magic and their positions as models of alternative developments in ancient Mediterranean legacy. Similarly, the volume highlights the transformative and challenging encounters of Europeans with non-Europeans, regarding the practice of magic in both early modern colonization and more recent decolonization. There is also a brand new (2021) edition of the classic Magic in the Middle Ages by Richard Kieckhefer, now fully updated to include new developments in the history of medieval magic in recent years, featuring new material on angel magic, the archaeology of magic, and the magical power of words and imagination.
If you’re more interested in the blood-sucking side of things, then Fiona Subotsky’s Dracula for Doctors: Medical Facts and Gothic Fantasies (2019) might intrigue and delight you. Exploring how medicine and psychiatry are portrayed in gothic literature, this engaging book illustrates how Stoker's famous work was influenced by nineteenth-century attitudes to disease and medicine and reveals many previously unknown links. Extracts from many sensational stories of the time are presented, and the role of doctors and their appearance and contribution to gothic fiction is investigated. The book covers topics such as asylums, their purpose, practice and patients, deadly diseases echoing the symptoms of vampirism, and the otherworldly allure of the undead. Dracula for Doctors is an entertaining and informative examination of how Victorian medical knowledge and culture informed Stoker's gothic masterpiece.
Finally, a quick “did you know”. The novelist Deborah Harkness who wrote the ‘Discovery of Witches’ series about Vampires, Witches and Demons living amongst humans (now in a major Sky TV adaptation) started out as an historian of science and magic and published with Cambridge! If you’d like to know the formative work behind the bestselling historical fantasy series, then check out John Dee’s Conversations with Angels which examines the Elizabethan natural philosopher’s library and enigmatic records of angelic conversations to understand more about ideas of nature and apocalypse in the sixteenth-century.
So however you spend this Hallowe’en, why not pause to consider the world of experiences, theories, and investigations of surprising, scary, imaginative, or downright strange events and people? There’s plenty to sink your teeth into!