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Book Review: Weisser Field Guide to the Paranormal

Weisser Field Guide to the Paranormal

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Weiser Books (December 1, 2010)
  • Author: Judith Joyce

A Paranormal Spectacular [Fail]

Last month I got to review an absolutely amazing book, The Clavis or Key to the Magic of Solomon as edited by Joseph Peterson.  While that was an interesting and illuminating experience, its far more fun to take on a popular book where I don’t have to worry about dusting off 18th century references and doing what passes for fact checking in my columns.  Fortunately I’ll have none of those tasks this month as I’m reviewing the Weisser Field Guide to the Paranormal [1].

The short review:  don’t buy this book.  Don’t even buy books that resemble it to make sure you don’t buy it accidentally.  Now you can go read another column and be free from the screed that follows.  You are welcome.

Still with me?  On with the fun!   First, the book in question is called a “field guide to the paranormal.”  Which begs the question, what is the paranormal, and where exactly in the field would you need a guide to assist you?  If you guessed, um…nowhere? You might find a lot of self-satisfaction in your cynicism, but I would disagree.  Field guides seem to my untrained eyes to involve a disposition on the nature of the subject and then a detailed set of reference material detailing either how to identify them, or some other useful information one would need in the field [2].  There are many paranormal and occult things encountered accidentally or deliberately out in fields, and a detailed guide might just provide good armchair, or even practical, reading.

The idea of a field guide is that it might be actually used in the field.  Thus they are smallish books, and often printing on robust paper designed to survive being chucked into and out of a backpack under gritty, damp, conditions.  My Peterson’s Guide to the Atlantic Seashore [3] follows the general pattern of a field guide perfectly, its small, sort of waterproof, and has a broad and interesting introduction to seashore related stuff in the front (intertidal zonation anyone?).  With plates in the middle (who would not want at least another page on the brown seaweed “sausage weed”?), worms in the back, and an extensive bibliography to ensure that you know that it was written by real serious scientists with the intent of walking you through the complex muddle that is the Atlantic seashore it is both interesting to read and somewhat useful in the field.  And it’s written in type and layout designed for 30 year olds (field guides are too serious for 20’s and apparently not read by those over 50 without glasses).  And it contains an information density resembling a well-written encyclopedia on the Atlantic Seashore.  This is pretty much what I expect when I pick up a field guide.

Now, given all this, what, exactly, should a Field Guide to the Paranormal cover?  First we have to decide what we mean by “paranormal.”  The most obvious definition would be “not normal” but then many of our co-workers and relatives would need to be included.   Generally “paranormal” means things that are not easily explained by science, but could be explained if we could either catch them in a net or try a little harder with our experiments.  This differs from the occult in that it is not just dealing with hidden, secret, or mystical knowledge, but tangible things that exist in the world.  Overall the basic cut seems to be that cryptids (Bigfoot) and UFOs are included in the paranormal while they are excluded (by most circles) from the Occult.

This means that a field guide to the paranormal must encompass a huge range of subjects.  The key ones would be ghosts, UFOs, cryptids, strange events (spontaneous combustion), strange places (ley lines), and magic to name a few.  Ghosts could have a field guide all their own.  But life at the seashore is no small topic, so it should be possible to organize a book that helps people deal with paranormal events in the field.  In general it should cover the key topics, and it should do so in detail.  Ghosts, for example, would require a section on various ghost hunting procedures and technologies, an identification guide, and likely locations where they might be seen.  Bigfoot would have illustrations of the different types and a chart showing their worldwide distribution.  In color [4].  The same thing should apply to UFOs, other cryptids, and strange places or people.

At least that is how I would write and organize such a book.  It would be what it says:  a guide for people dealing with this stuff in the field.  For believers.

So lets see how this guide compares.

Weiser’s field guide is organized like an encyclopedia or dictionary, not a field guide.

Entries are listed alphabetically, with little regard for whether they are related.  Looking up Ghosts (under “G”), for example, gives a five and a half page write up that indicates paranormal investigators look for EVP and EMF readings.  But it neither explains what they are, nor indicates that by looking under “E” the reader will be able to cross reference those entries into the field guide.  Poltergeist and Stone Tape Theory [5] are called out in the entry under Ghosts, but residual haunting does not appear as an entry in the guide.

What all this means is that the “field guide” reads as a bathroom book.  A dictionary or encyclopedia would have cross-references to other articles that allowed the reader to follow related topics.  This book seems to assume you are reading it from front to back.  And cross-references would be easy in an encyclopedia dealing with a narrow subject like the paranormal.  This book is one of those generic encyclopedias of the occult/witchcraft/magic/whatever that we find taking up shelf space in the new age or paranormal section of the bookstore.

The writing is both skeptical, and colloquial.

Remember I said that field guides go a long way toward establishing scientific decorum with references and neat little line figures and whatnot.  Here the author seems to take the opposite approach.  Many entries begin with a breezy question:  “Does the human soul survive death?” is the opening line for Ghosts while the entry for Ghost Club [6] references Harry Potter and Casper in the first sentence.  This style would be fine for a bathroom book, but just looks odd in a field guide.

Even worse, in many of the entries the author comes across as skeptical.  While the author is clearly not a skeptic in the classical sense, she is also not writing as if the existence of these phenomena is a given and all we need to do is experience them.  Many times she comes across as winking at the reader, implying something along the lines of “look at all this stilly stuff that scientists don’t believe in.” Which is not what I would expect from a book that takes seriously the subject it was discussing.  For example, on ghosts:  “Modern science-oriented societies, however, ridicule this belief in ghosts.  Paranormal societies, thus, focus on providing the existence of ghosts in a scientific manner.”  While this is certainly true, the emphasis and focus here and throughout the book is more balanced than would be the case for a normal field guide.

There are too many extraneous entries.

This is a field guide, so why would you include entries that have nothing to do with what goes on in the field.  The biographical entries (Thomas Edison, Eddy Brothers, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to name a few) are puzzling because I’m unlikely to run into them in the field, except perhaps on a ghost hunt.  The information contained under their entries could easily go elsewhere.   Or the space could be devoted to more detail on the relevant entries.

But, seriously, this isn’t a field guide.

Instead it is yet another example of the endless number of regurgitated encyclopedias and dictionaries on the occult thrown up by publishers.  The reason why publishers publish this stuff in such volume totally escapes me.   The sheer number of them means that if someone even does manage to poop out a good one, it will be lost in the hundreds of bad ones.   And this one wasn’t good at all.

The crappy layout and aesthetics of the book are obvious indicators it was done on the cheap.  It is double-spaced.  Let me repeat that.  It is double-spaced.  Lots of white space to makes your reading easier, but I suspect its there because it fills out the page count.  The figures are black and white clip art that meagerly illustrate their subjects and do nothing to enhance the book aesthetically or pedagogically.   Go to any bookstore, or even your own shelf, look at a real field guide, they are far from double-spaced, and are lavishly illustrated.

This whole project looks like someone had a gap in the schedule for a printing press and had to throw something on the schedule to make sure the down time was not wasted.  “Hey, lets get a lesser-known writer experienced in the occult to poop out some text, throw in some clip art, double space it and cut it down and hey, we’ve got something that we can sell as a field guide.  That will keep old Betsy the printing press working over the holidays.  And those crazy investigatin’ kids will like the idea of a field guide.  Yeah, that’s the ticket.”

I am being hard on this book for a reason.  While this book is about the paranormal, and I don’t care a lot about the paranormal, it too much resembles other books occupying shelf space on subjects I do care about.  I care deeply about Paganism, Magic, Witchcraft, and the Occult beliefs.  And there are too many of these silly dictionary/encyclopedia/survey books churned out about them.  We need fewer of these sorts of books because they hurt our religion.  Let me repeat, they hurt our religion, and our reputations.   And we need to ask publishers to stop putting so many of them on store shelves and start putting more books of substance and vision on the shelves.  And we need to be writing more visionary and substantive works.

How many kids or curious adults pick up these books thinking they will learn something serious about the craft or our religion or even the paranormal and instead find dreck?  Too many do, and too many walk away because of it.  Many start with an interest in the paranormal and find their way to Paganism.  Many starting on their journey don’t know the difference, particularly kids.  A really good book on the paranormal, like Colin Wilson’s book, might just capture their imaginations, might just cause them to seek deeper truths.  These naive readers are exactly who this book is most likely targeted at.  Given that you are reading this column means you would look at this book and probably never even pick it up.  But someone who knew little or nothing about the paranormal just might.  And that makes me sad.

Perhaps some who have the true voice of the Goddess talking to them will persevere despite this crap.  We can tell ourselves that.  But in this economy, when the kid is from a family that has a tight budget, even buying books like this at a yard sale wastes something more precious than money.  It wastes a life that could be transformed by the Goddess.  And that’s why I really don’t like this book.

[1]  Judith Joyce, The Weisser Field Guide to the Paranormal, Weisser, 2011.  Interestingly Judith Joyce is a pseudonym.  The author is Judika Illes, an aromatherapist and scholar of many things occult.  http://www.judikailles.com/.  She seems like a sensible and nice person who writes professionally.

[2] The books I pulled off the shelf are all about seashells and the North American seashore, including one Peterson Field Guide to the Atlantic Seashore.  This stems from my inherent dislike of going to the beach with my family.  As a skin cancer victim I see it more as a slow motion death chamber than a vacation.  Thus I tend to wear big hats and try to remain interested by pestering the wildlife.  And, yes, I grew up a block from the beach in Florida.

[3]  Kenneth L. Gosner, Atlantic Seashore (Peterson Field Guides), Houghton-Mifflin, 1978

[4]  Bigfoot/Sasquatch are not topics in the book.  Let me repeat.  Not.  Even. Topics. But cryptids and chupacabra and Charles Fort are topics.  Thump, thump, thump, that’s the sound of the obvious hitting the table over and over again.  As yet another aside, I find it remarkable that Bigfoot was left out given the sasquatchploitation bandwagon we are currently on.  I just love it when they call them ‘squatch on Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot show.  Sounds like a particularly dirty kind of squat.  (http://animal.discovery.com/tv/finding-bigfoot/).  And yes, I come by all my paranormal creds honestly, by watching TV.

[5] An interesting theory that I have never heard of that means “residual haunting.”  Why the author has an entry under “stone tape theory” and not “residual haunting” escapes me.

[6] Some sort of United Kingdom ghost club claiming to be the oldest in the UK.  Ok, fair enough, but if you put in a page about this organization, why nothing about The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) and the US ghostploitation movement it has spawned?