Hilary Mantel, a reporter from UK's The Guardian Unlimited, wrote this skeptically tinged review of Mary Roach's skeptically tinged book on the many different areas of paranormal study. I haven't read it yet, but as long as it's not downright dismissive without looking at the current data available, then I think it could be a good read.
The Other Side
When I was a small child at a Catholic school we were taught that the soul could not be weighed, measured, pictured nor described. Like a gas it permeated us, like a liquid it filled us to the brim. Like a sheet of glass, it could be marked or stained by venial sin, or etched by mortal sin - in the latter case, industrial-strength repentance would be needed to make it clear again. Intimate with every part of us, it was neither in us nor of us; when we died, it would go on, without the body. We learned this at the same time as we learned our times tables and how to tie our shoelaces, and most people could grasp the metaphors involved. But when the priest came for the annual religious examination, he would hold out a piece of chalk and ask us to "draw a soul"; there was always some dimwit who swaggered up to the blackboard.Descartes, among others, fell into the dimwit's error. He thought the soul was located in the pineal gland, or at least that the pineal gland was a sort of information hub for spirit; he came to this conclusion after hacking up a great many carcasses, bought in the butchers' shops of Amsterdam. The idea that the soul can be located, that it can be weighed, that it has colour and form, has persisted into the present century, as Mary Roach shows in her nimble excursion across the frontier into the next world. Is the soul, detached from the body, subject to the laws of gravity, or "relegated to an eternity among the derelict satellites and Nasa detritus"? Does the soul weigh 21 grams, as the title of the Hollywood movie suggests? Could the dead be heard if, as Edison thought, you could make a sort of psychic megaphone? At the end of the 19th century, and early in the 20th century, the air was full of disembodied voices, of invisible rays. Radios and telephones and X-rays were technological marvels; most people didn't understand them, but no one would accuse you of being a credulous fool if you claimed that your mother's voice was issuing from a bakelite handset.
Dreams, phantoms, omens, apparitions - perhaps these marginal, troubling phenomena could be quantified, analysed, explained? Freud, for one, wanted so much to be thought of as a scientist. But states of mind, let alone states of the soul, proved resistant to verification, and the dead seldom speak when the qualified and accredited are listening. Their communications as recorded by professional psychics are so banal and garbled that they must be regarded as a sly cosmic joke. "How is the weather?" a discarnate entity is asked, in one current, properly funded American research project. The answer comes from the Beyond: "It's like Florida without the humidity." Another shy spook confides: "I can wear pleated pants now." The afterlife's answer to "Do you engage in sexual behaviour?" is a little hesitant, but can be summed up as a disappointing "not really".
Roach is an American columnist and science writer. She had a religious upbringing, claims to have had nun paper dolls, and engaged in "the meagre fun of swapping a Carmelite wimple for a Benedictine chest bib". This over-privileged childhood has left her a little too pleased with herself and her "bad attitude." She is the naughtiest girl at psychic school - a weekend course in raising spirits - and like many psychics themselves, she has a big ego, and can even show off about her shortcomings: "My ignorance is not merely deep, it is broad; it is a vast ocean that takes in chemistry, physics, information theory, thermodynamics, all the many things a modern soul theorist must know." But she is energetic and canny in pursuit of haunted spell-checkers, spirit orbs, lab-induced temporal lobe seizures, electronic voice phenomena, ectoplasm, infrasound and near-death experiences. Skittish but smart, she knows how to navigate the marshy ground of self-delusion that is found between truth and lies, and she has captured the deep personal unpleasantness of many of the people who work in the spook trade - their aggressive irrationality, their intolerance, their unsubtle bullying tactics. But it is surprising she is not more impatient with her whole subject. It's easy to poke holes in supposedly scientific studies of mediumship, but perhaps they should not be undertaken at all. The afterlife has become a staple of trash TV and a branch of the leisure industry. It is no more useful to disbelieve in ghosts than to disbelieve in tenpin bowling or portable barbecues. A fair reaction to the puzzle of the afterlife is what Roach calls "the Big Shrug".
She touches, though, on some intriguing topics which could have merited further exploration - voice hearing, for instance, which recent Dutch research suggests is a phenomenon more widespread among the perfectly sane than anyone had imagined. "It could well be that the main difference between skeptics and believers is the neural structures they were born with." Some people will never see a ghost, and some people can't help it; reason with them as hard as you like, they will not deny the evidence of their senses. At the end of her tour of the afterlife, Roach believes "not much, but more than I believed a year ago". It is a mild conclusion to an entertaining book that is best when it is digressive. Her footnotes are a gruesome joy. It is worth reading Six Feet Over just to meet Frederick II of Sicily, a pioneer scientist of the 13th century, who used to give his guests a good dinner and then disembowel them, "wishing to know which had digested the better".
· Hilary Mantel's most recent novel is Beyond Black (Harper Perennial)