Ghosts, Mediums, and Scientists: A Review of Spook by Mary Roach

Reading Spook was one of the most enjoyable pieces of research I’ve done. My fiction often involves ghosts and other forms of contact with the dead, as well as psychic phenomena. I’ve found numerous studies of mind-to-mind communication, remote viewing, precognition, etc., but this is the first time I’ve read about scientific attempts to study the afterlife. I read a couple of books on ghost-hunting and paranormal investigation; however, the author of those books is more a professional skeptic than a solid scientist.

Mary Roach explores current science on reincarnation, soul weighing, out of body experiences, and also the history of mediums and other interactions with the spirits of the dead. She’s one of the funniest writers I’ve come across. She manages to find the strangest items in the historical record—her chapter on ectoplasm, for example. The fact that it was regarded so seriously at the time it was a popular mediumistic trick is as fascinating as the methods used to produce it.

Roach participates in a training for becoming a medium; takes part in a study on creating the perception of a ghost through infrasound; goes along on reincarnation research trips in India; visits a small North Carolina town where a ghost helped a man win a lawsuit; and more. Her inquiries are serious, but she never takes herself seriously. Much of the humor comes from her ability to laugh at herself, and to notice the workings of her own mind.

Whether or not you believe in ghosts or life after death, you can enjoy and learn from the author’s journey.

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Seeing a Ghost

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As research for the seventh Mae Martin book, I recently read a book on paranormal investigation techniques by a professional skeptic. It reminded me of this post I wrote three years ago, which some of my current blog readers may not have seen, so I’ve updated and recycled it.

Once in a while, writing paranormal mysteries, I need to introduce a character who is no longer alive.* In Shaman’s Blues, Mae has no concept of ghosts at first, but Jamie, an anthropologist’s son, assures her that every culture has them.

Ghosts fascinate us, even when we don’t believe in them. People sign up for ghost tours of historic districts, and some choose the option to get the presumably haunted room at a B&B. Part of the attraction in ghost stories is the curious pleasure of safely experienced negative emotions. There is something frightening about an encounter with the dead, and most ghosts are said to have fallen into the place between worlds through tragedy. By seeking out ghosts, we can dip into terror and sadness for a quick swim and come back out, invigorated by the plunge.

It’s different for the ghost. Stuck in the crack between two worlds, attached to earthly life yet incapable of living it, looking, perhaps, for one particular soul, the ghost must be frustrated, bewildered and lonely. No wonder they behave badly sometimes. It can’t be much of an afterlife.

I say that lightly, but at the moment that I met a ghost, I was scared to the bone. It was quite some time ago, but I can still feel her when I think about her.

The cold is what made her frightening.

I was a college student on Christmas break visiting my sister and her husband, and my boyfriend and I stayed in the attic bedroom of their old house. In the dark before dawn, the alarm went off, and my boyfriend got up to go to work. We spoke briefly, kissed goodbye, and he left. Wide awake, I stayed in bed under a heap of quilts and blankets, hoping I could go back to sleep. Our shared body heat had made a cozy nest of the bed and I didn’t want to get up early on my vacation.

I snuggled the blankets around me—and was suddenly chilled. I wasn’t alone. A woman’s head and shoulders floated on the far side of the room. She stared at me, her face stern and judgmental over a high-collared dress, her hair pulled back in a severe tight bun. I was terrified, not by her apparent resentment, but by the deep, unnatural chill. At the same time, I thought her features were like the country comedian Minnie Pearl. I’ve cited Stephen King’s Danse Macabre in a book review before, and it fits here: comedy and horror go hand in hand. I pulled the blanket over my head until the cold went away.

Prior to that, I didn’t believe in ghosts. I’m not sure I do now, either, but it’s like what anthropologist Michael Harner says about shamans not believing in spirits. They don’t have to. They know.

*****

*My books containing characters who are ghosts or spirits are Shamans’ Blues and Soul Loss.soul ebookshaman

 

Bat Medicine

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On a recent evening, I walked to the wetland at the edge of the Rio Grande for the bat-rise at sunset, the silent dance of dark forms against the golden sky, and remembered that I’d written about it a few years ago. I let the bats swoop around me and silence my mind into clarity for a while, and then came back and found that old post. The bats are still sacred and healing to me, so here it is again.

*****

I began re-reading Linda Hogan’s book of essays Dwellings and Michael Harner’s The Way of the Shaman at the same time. This pairing of readings couldn’t be more dissimilar in style, content and purpose. I finished the latter book quickly, but took my time with the first. It’s too beautiful to hurry through.

Poet and novelist Hogan, a member of the Chickasaw tribe, writes of the spirituality inherent in the natural world. Her insights into the relationships between living creatures and our own souls is anchored in places and in specific experiences—going to hot springs in a cave, or working at a bird sanctuary. She doesn’t write about animals or the earth in general, but this piece of earth, this particular sunflower, this colony of mud-building bees. When she cites other writers, often scientists, she finds passages so beautiful they flow into her own essays like the breath of the same breeze. Her topics range from wolves, to the Amazon rainforest, to the life cycle of water and rock, to the deeper meaning of ape language experiments, and more.

These essays wake the reader up to the aliveness of every moment, as the author hears the song of corn, or discovers the liquid, graceful, wing-wrapped mating of two bats she rescued from their fall back into hibernation in a sudden spring chill. “I put them in a warm corner outside, nestled safe in dry leaves and straw. I looked at them several times a day. Their fur, in the springtime, was misted with dewy rain. They mated for three days in the moldering leaves and fertile earth, moving together … then apart, like reflections on a mirror, a four-chambered black heart beating inside the closed tissue of wings.”

In addition to this subtle observation of their beauty, she sees the bats from a Native spiritual perspective. “The bat people are said to live in the first circle of holiness. Thus, they are intermediaries between our world and the next. Hearing the chants of all life around them, they are listeners who pass on the language and songs of many things to human beings who need wisdom, healing and guidance in our lives, we who forget where we stand in the world.”

This forgetting where we stand is Hogan’s theme. We need to heal ourselves back into what she refers to in her novel Power as “the real human beings”. If you love language, you will love this book, and you may come away from it loving every living creature, every crack in a rock, every sound when the wind blows, as if you had never seen and heard and known them before. I hope you will, like I did, love this book so much you want to read it again and again.

Harner’s book is almost the opposite of Hogan’s. An anthropologist turned shamanic trainer, he does his best to distill the essence of shamanism into a kind of how-to book for modern people. After an introductory chapter in which he tells of his studies with the Jivaro tribe, he intentionally presents shamanism divested of culture, land, language and tradition. Even the animals are not real creatures that walk the earth and breathe and live their lives, but animal spirits, guardians and guides for humans, and plants are also their spirit essence, for use in healing humans.

His citations are dense and thickly strewn, sometimes without any background on the culture or lives of people he is citing. That, however, is his point. This is shamanism as modern medicine, a world-wide range of healing traditions pared down to their “active ingredients.” Shamans from Australia to North America use quartz crystals, drums, rattles and dances. Shamans all over the world take journeys to find knowledge, and have power relationships with animal spirits. He turns these elements into a kind of recipe for being a shaman. Maybe it works for some people, but for me the best parts of this book are the direct quotations from real shamans such as the “sucking doctor” Essie Parrish, rather than the parts about modern Americans “dancing their animals.”

Compared to my experience of traditional ceremonies, or even to running outdoors, or dreaming, neo-shamanism feels incomplete, but then I wasn’t reading with the intention of putting it into practice. I had read the book before and gone to a workshop with Harner at an alternative therapies conference years ago, and already knew I wasn’t going to use this for spiritual guidance. It was research for a novel, Soul Loss, in which one character is a teacher of neo-shamanism—not based on Harner himself, only on the kind of practice that he teaches—and I needed to refresh my recollections.

I dreamed once that I turned into a bat. In this form I flew though the dome of an art gallery and then descended to the bottom floor as the blue outline of bat, a bat made of twilight sky. In Truth or Consequences, I like to walk down to the Rio Grande at that low blue time of evening in the summer and let the bats surround me at the edge of the little wetland where redwing blackbirds sing by day. While the bats dance for bugs, I can stand in the midst of them, and they swoop close without ever touching me, perfectly aware in their busy flight, flawless pilots of their world of sound. To me the animals themselves feel more sacred than a journey to find my “power animal.” This bat immersion is the bat medicine I need.

Sparky’s is Real

In my endnotes for my books, I explain few details about settings and research. At the end of Soul Loss, I mention that the other businesses in the story are fictitious, but Sparky’s in Hatch, New Mexico is real. I got an e-mail from a reader who found that fact—quite understandably—hard to believe. Not that she thought I was lying. She was simply marveling that such a place could exist.

For those who have had a similar reaction, or have not yet read the book, here’s an update on that wonderful place from my latest visit to Sparky’s:

In the middle of a 100 degree Sunday afternoon, in a dance hall that serves no alcohol, the Desperadoes played Western swing while couples two-stepped on a dance floor framed by walls full of antique advertising signs and shelves and glass cases crammed with old piggy banks, cookie jars, radios and little robots. High on one wall, a Rajah Motor oil neon sign glowed between a couple of other neon antiques and a mounted deer head with a big hot pink butterfly perched over its right ear. An old metal diving helmet was displayed at the other end of the neon row. The bas-relief of the skeletal rider on a skeletal horse that I mention in the Sparky’s scene in Chapter Two is still there, but there’s always something new or rearranged.

Sparky’s is a living organism of sorts. The interior has expanded to include a third room between the restaurant counter area and the dance hall, and the décor there is Sparky’s best. The skeletons who used to occupy the passage to the restrooms are once again in somewhat piratical garb, and have joined a tableau over the door of the new room along with an old wooden jukebox and a collection of Catrinas, the elegantly clad skeleton ladies of the Day of the Dead.512px-Catrinas_2

You will never run out of “whoa, I didn’t see that!” discoveries at Sparky’s. The giant advertising statues outside have new companions. On top of a monster KFC cup, a green chile wearing lipstick and a bridal veil holds hands with red chile in a top hat as they beam at each other in nuptial devotion—a match made in Hatch. Sparky the robot, his fountain espresso cup ever-flowing, gets new decoration. Sunday he was wearing goggles and some red-white-and-blue stars. Inside, more musicians have autographed the wall behind the stage, where the one thing that never changes is the sign that says, “Do one thing every day that makes you happy.” If you’ve set foot in Sparky’s, you have already done that.

Need pictures? Check out Sparky’s Facebook page.

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Sparkys-BBQ-and-Espresso/74823382942?sk=timeline

Good food and good music in the strangest-best place for both.

*****

Catrina images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons