Tag Archives: scepticism

Summerland: A 1920’s Mystery – Now free in the Kindle Store

summercover

Stay tuned for freebies this weekend, kids. I am about to give the Shameless Self-Promotion tag a good, hard workout. It stands to reason that since I spend so much time writing these books, it would be quite nice for people to read them.

_________________

 “Well, people often think the magician’s assistant doesn’t do much. She stands around in a skimpy costume and men look at her and she twirls and vanishes, but the assistant is really the one doing most of the tricks. The magician is often just there to present the routine, to add the flourishes and patter, but the nitty gritty, the tripwires and levers and mirrors and drapes that go in to pulling off the perfect illusion – that’s the province of the skinny little girl in the spangles.”

Magician’s assistant Poppy has always been an outsider, dragged from one town to another, spat on for being a carny, for being the wrong sex, the wrong race. Then one rainy night in the Midwest, she finds herself performing card tricks in front of the great Harry Houdini. Fresh from his well-publicised investigation of the medium Mina Crandon, Houdini makes Poppy a proposal; she is offered the opportunity to join his private secret service of sceptics, debunkers and magicians. Her job is to infiltrate spiritualist circles and expose fraudulent mediums, a quest that takes her across the Atlantic and into the lives of two very different young Englishmen, who are about to learn that in spiritualist circles secrets are much more than just common currency.

Due to sexually explicit material Summerland is not recommended for readers under 18.

Amazon.com

Starvation Heights: A True Story of Murder and Malice

Last week a woman named Naveena Shine garnered worldwide interest by attempting to live on nothing but water, sunlight and the occasional cup of tea, a diet better suited to a tomato plant than a human being. At the time of writing Naveena has flunked on her fast because science was allegedly ‘not ready’ for the earthshattering data she was attempting to produce.

Another reason for the end of the experiment was that Naveena’s internet was about to be cut off for non-payment. Apparently her philosophy that money was ‘just another form of energy’ didn’t cut any ice with her internet service provider.

Still, she shed some unwanted weight, gave everyone a good laugh and reminded everyone of that time David Blaine fasted for forty days while dangling in a perspex box next to the Thames. (Shamefully, my favourite part of that stunt was the bona fide evil genius who set up a remote controlled helicopter to fly boxed cheeseburgers right past Blaine’s nose.)

The world of extreme fasting is a weird one – gruesome and as such fascinating. So it was with a certain kind of shuddersome relish that I took up a book recommendation that had sprung from a conversation about Ms. Shine.

starvation heights

Continue reading

How To Be Psychic – Cold Reading Basics

So, you’ve learned to see ghosts! Well done you!

Having performed the steps in my previous guide you are probably now drunk, mentally unstable and convinced there are spectral goblins living behind that expired Muller Fruit Corner in the back of the second shelf of the fridge. Sorry about that.  But relax – I’m about to make amends, my lovelies. Here comes the money shot – emphasis on the money –  because it’s time to start talking to ghosts.

Talking to the dead is a lot less interesting than it sounds, since most dead people seem to be banal in the extreme. Spirits claiming to be William Shakespeare have demonstrated little to no ear for iambic pentameter and even all-knowing Mesopotamian prophets of the apocalypse have come off as downright boring when channeled through the wives of well known writers.

Ghosts tend to say a handful of things, which can be roughly summed up thus.

  1. Woooo I’m dead and that’s spooky.
  2. Woooo I’m dead and it’s lovely here.
  3. Woooo I’m dead and I’m looking out for you.
  4. Woooo I’m dead and you should definitely keep coming to these spiritualist meetings and isn’t the medium nice? (give them money tell your friends)

Whenever ghosts get into particulars it’s usually stuff like ‘Do you remember how Aunty Ethel’s hearing aid used to whistle?’ or ‘Remember how you left your rollerskates out in the rain and they went rusty?’, which is odd because you’d think that an answer to one of the biggest theological questions of all time would prompt even bigger questions, such as what does this mean for almost every religion ever and do George Harrison and John Lennon still talk or collaborate over there?

An even bigger question is why anyone would want to talk to the dead, since they’re not very interesting and notoriously bad at dealing with the earthshattering implications of concrete proof of an afterlife. Surprisingly, unlike many big questions, this one has a reasonably short answer.

Talking to the dead is really fucking lucrative.

If you want to make a fat heap of wonga as a medium, then roughly speaking there are two ways to go about it.

I was maybe thirteen when I first encountered the first method. It was on a very silly programme late on Channel Four called ‘Do Ghosts Exist?’ (Short answer – all the evidence currently points to ‘no’.) There was a studio audience and a medium – a Canadian gentleman who looked a lot like a dapper, slimmed down version of Raymond Briggs’ drawings of Santa Claus.

He then gave various members of the audience psychic readings so gob-smackingly accurate that it was enough to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Then, having impressed the shit out of them, he held up his hands and said “Okay, that was all a trick – I have no psychic ability whatsoever.”

That was James Randi, every bit as Amazing as advertised. He went on to elaborate on a method of fortune telling that was as old as dirt back when Nostradamus was cutting his baby teeth.

Nostradamus

Cold Reading – The Basics

Cold reading is a dying art these days, for reasons we’ll get around to in time, but it largely boils down to a cross between twenty questions and a game of not-so Holmesian observation.

I once saw one famous psychic zero in on his mark and coo ‘And I’m getting the sense that you’ve not been well lately, is that right?’, which was a staggering leap of deductive reasoning on his part. His victim was not only a lady of a certain age and certain weight, but was also wearing a tubigrip bandage around one knee and walking on crutches.

Even more astonishing, nobody in the audience laughed, pointed or asked how much he was getting paid for stating the bleeding obvious, which brings me neatly to my first point.

1. You Gotta Have Faith

Sceptics don’t tend to attend the readings of psychics – they find them silly at best and morally reprehensible at worst. This suits psychics, mediums and faith-healers just fine, since nebulous, negative ‘energy’ tends to interfere with whatever kind of ghostly WiFi they’ve got going on these days. (I assume they’ve upgraded. If they haven’t, they really should.) Plenty of mediums have claimed they can’t produce the goods in the face of sceptics, which is why many well-known sceptical investigators are considerate enough go to psychic readings or faith-healings in disguise, so as not to offend the medium’s delicate sensibilities.

Oddly, psychics seem to have a blind spot when it comes to sniffing out undercover sceptics, but again – it’s probably that negative energy. That or they’re also being polite.

A credulous – or at least suggestible – audience is a cold reader’s greatest asset. One of the biggest names of the Nineteenth Century psychic scene – Daniel Dunglas Hume – arguably escaped all-out exposure because he almost always performed to a select ‘home circle’ of good friends and their guests, usually in other people’s houses. Or palaces. Like I say, he was a big name.

home levitates

He managed to convince people that THIS happened.

So, say you have a good audience, well suited to your purposes – what next? Well, you go ‘fishing’. If you watch a stage medium (Pick your recordings carefully – many of the big names rely on heavy editing.) you might notice that they go through a great deal of names before landing a ‘hit’.

2. Talking About My Generation

A ‘hit’ in cold reading parlance refers to a correct guess, while a ‘miss’ refers to the opposite. Your ability to score a hit or miss is dependent on your power of observation. The age of your subject is significant. An eighteen year old subject is less likely to have dead parents than a subject in her fifties.

Watch any stage medium these days and their first go-to is usually “I’m getting an older lady/older gentleman,” simply because these days dead grannies are far more likely than dead children. Interestingly this hasn’t always been the case – back in the Nineteenth Century when infant mortality was higher, dead babies were big business. Many women, including the writer Florence Maryatt, attended seances in the hope of exchanging a few tender words with their infants. Luckily for Florence, her late two week old daughter had learned to talk since passing over.

When fishing for names you should also take generations into account. For instance, a thirty five year old subject is unlikely to have dead elderly relatives named Kylie, Ryan, Tracey and Shaz. If you go for Ivy, Albert, Dolly and Rose you’re more likely to land a hit. A friend of mine was recently awed by a medium who guessed that she had an ‘Uncle Albert in spirit’, to which I replied ‘Who hasn’t got a dead Uncle Albert?’ I’ve got at least two.

3. Sing It Back

Another interesting thing to watch for with mediums or fortune tellers is their habit of agreeing with their subjects.

It goes a little something like this.

Medium: I’m sensing a younger man in spirit – your age, maybe older. Younger?

Subject: Younger brother.

Medium: Yes. Your younger brother.

When you start consciously listening out for this you’ll be amazed how often this is deployed, to the point where some mediums sound like there’s an echo in the room. Again, watch carefully – many of the big names edit heavily on their TV shows and this is exactly the kind of thing they edit – the bit where the subject gives the psychic reader the answer. Raw stage performance footage is the best place to spot this at work. Like I say – when you’re watching for it you’ll be stunned you ever missed it. It’s a lot of fun – like a Magic Eye of bullshit.

third eye

Don’t write in. I know the difference between the third eye and a magic eye.

You’re probably disappointed now, aren’t you? Sadly it really is that banal when you get right down to it, but don’t go away. While cold-reading in itself isn’t that interesting, the psychological explanations of why it works are where it gets downright fascinating. So, update your bookmarks, because next time we’re diving headlong into the world of horoscopes, the short-comings of human memory and why in the early 1990’s a lot of psychologist’s patient notes started looking like some of the really unpleasant pages from the Malleus Maleficarium.

*

For more psychic skullduggery and the strange-but-true story of how magician Harry Houdini declared war on psychics, check out my historical fiction, and watch out for my new upcoming novel, Paris Green – A Tale of 1920’s New York.

Adventures In Research – Diet Books, King Tut and the Girl From The Magic Shop

I’m very nearly done with my new historical novel, which is so full of lies, duplicity and sheer bloody cruelty that I cannot wait to write the sequel to Fifty Shades of Neigh and spend the next few months wallowing happily in a big bunch of dick jokes.

I love writing historical fiction, but the main problem with it that all that research you did? All those lovely, carefully catalogued period details? All that time you spend immersing yourself in the popular culture of the era, absorbing the contemporary fads, fashion and slang?

Yeah – shut up about that.

In a good historical novel the characters will use enough contemporary slang to lend a flavour without making it incomprehensible to the modern ear. In a bad historical novel everyone will antiquey-speakey most verily even though yea, it sucketh great donkey balls, and in a really bad historical novel everyone will not only yabber on like they’re at a Renaissance Faire but also discuss the etymology of their gibberish. A really good historical novel will slip you a history lesson without you even knowing it. A bad one will beat you over the head with lumps of Wikipedia a la Dan Brown or go full on Downton and have people say things like “Well, indeed – after the War to end all wars we’re all in need of a little gaiety, and why shouldn’t Lady Ethel get her hair cut like the popular contemporary actress Louise Brooks in this year of our Lord 1926?”

This is not to say you can skimp on the research – you’d better damn well do it. I once came across a vampire novel that was utterly spoiled by the fact that not only was I supposed to believe that the vampire hero had trained as a Catholic priest in late 16th Century England but in the 1650’s had been quite the sexy young thing at the theatres and operas of old London town. You do research so that things like this don’t happen. Then you shut up about it. Research is essential but should remain invisible – sort of like Spanx.

So this is where blogs come in handy. Here’s just a taste of the fascinating stuff that either got a one line mention or kept an urgent playdate with the DELETE key. Continue reading

How To See Ghosts

Ghosts – what are they? Where do they come from? We may never know.

What we do know is that ghosts are a cheap and interesting source of entertainment and a good way of livening up any slumber party. The main problem with ghosts is that they tend to be shy. It’s like they just don’t want to be photographed, documented or fiddled about with in any way shape or form.

You have to be bold with ghosts – they’re timid. Bigfoot timid. If they were any more timid they’d be hanging out in Loch Ness, pretending to be an extinct marine reptile with an astounding gift for avoiding sonar.

Loch Ness monster

Hello.

So, allow me to present my simple five step guide to persuading the ghosts in your life to abandon their natural reticence and start doing proper ghost stuff, like banging on walls, setting fire to ouija boards, levitating the kids and killing your sleazy stockbroker boyfriend. (Okay, they might not do the last one – I can’t promise results on any of the below, so you might have to just dump him.) Continue reading

How to be disagreeable

I love this. I want to hug it and kiss it and call it George. Go and watch it if you haven’t seen it already. It’s okay – I’ll wait.

See? Wasn’t that good?

D.J. Grothe cleverly sums up the reason why for so long I have been reluctant to call myself a sceptic. Sceptic, by the way – not skeptic. I’m British. You will prise my peculiar spelling habits from my cold, dead, teastained fingers.

I finally had to come out and say it because I write a lot about mediums and I felt like in the interests of fairness that I should admit that I do write with a certain degree of bias – I simply don’t believe you can talk to the dead. I don’t believe in an afterlife. I don’t believe in God.  Continue reading

The Further Madness of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I have always loved The Hound of the Baskervilles. I can take or leave most of Sherlock Holmes, but to me The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the most perfect mystery stories ever told. The ghostly bogs and quicksands of bleakly beautiful Dartmoor are used to great dramatic effect. There are escaped prisoners and hatchet faced housekeepers and an old, old house, complete with family curse. The ghost story tone here is flawless, worthy of Henry James, and the shudders are well provided in the shape of a vicious, glowing spectral dog, feeding into folkish fears of padfoots and barghests.

And it’s all a red herring. All of it. The whole carefully constructed spooky atmosphere is a smokescreen for the real evil at the heart of the story. There are no ghosts, just a cleverly plotted supernatural scam, the reveal of which is as lip-biting as a well judged striptease.

It’s a great story. Read it if you haven’t. Read it if you have. It’s one of those ones you can read again and again, best enjoyed on long winter nights with a reading lamp and all the curtains drawn, the better to shit yourself up good and proper. The Hound of the Baskervilles is far more scary than it has any right to be, especially since it doesn’t (spoiler!) contain any actual ghosts. It’s an astonishing illustration of how fear, legend, atmosphere and the desire to believe can feed into our delusions and cause us to ascribe paranormal explanations to mundane events.

Even more astonishing is that Sir Arthur fell for his own trick. And not just the once.  Continue reading