Seventy eight weird happenings are contained in this volume, from a demon strangling Devonian farmers in 1682 to a poltergeist terrorising a contemporary Chinese couple. With it the author Andrew Lang continues his mission to imbue the modern mind with some of the mystery he feels an obsession with empiricism had squeezed out.
Lang was an astonishingly versatile writer of short stories, novels, histories, anthropology, literary criticism and, most famously, twelve books of fairy tales. Though he loved to lose himself in an outlandish mystery he had a naturally sceptical turn of mind. One moment he would be criticising eyewitness accounts of a haunting, the next modern scientists who dismiss such accounts out of hand. The preface to The Book of Dreams and Ghosts poses the fundamental question:
"Do you believe in ghosts?" One can only answer: "How do you define a ghost?" I do believe in hallucinations… But as to whether they are ever caused by psychical influences from the minds of others, alive or dead, not communicated through the ordinary channels of sense, my mind is in a balance of doubt.
As he explained in an earlier work, Books and Bookmen (1886), that mind was long ago primed to ponder such matters:
At the age of ten I had the tales of the ingenious Mr. Edgar Poe and of Charlotte Brontë "put into my hands" by a cousin who had served as a Bashi Bazouk [mercenary in the Ottoman army] and knew not the meaning of fear. But I did… Every night I expected to see a lady all in a white shroud stained with blood and clay stagger into my room, the victim of too rapid interment.
In 1894, Lang had written Cock Lane and Common-Sense, his book most centrally concerned with psychical research, exploring clairvoyance, death-wraiths, spectral lights, phantom hands, possession, trance, bilocation and out-of-body experience among other phenomena. But The Book of Dreams and Ghosts was perhaps more about entertainment than research. It recounts a variety of phantasmic experiences either in Lang’s own words or through direct quotation. He titles the stories in a tantalising, Poe-esque manner – “The Dream that Knocked at the Door”, “The Scar in the Moustache”, “The Hand of the Ghost that Bit” – and tops and tails them with commentarial glue.
There is something dreamlike about the way the narration jumps blithely between time and place, from a fin-de-siècle Norfolk country house, to 1700 BC Assyria, and on to the Scottish archipelago of St Kilda where cows share the visions of their clairvoyant milk-maids. There is a kind of order to the arrangement of the cases, however, as it advances “from the normal and familiar to the undeniably startling”. The committed reader may experience the book as a dream intensifying. Indeed what Lang says of dreaming could equally be said of reading:
In dreams, time and space are annihilated, and two severed lovers may be made happy. In dreams, amidst a grotesque confusion of things remembered and things forgot, we see the events of the past… we are present in places remote; we behold the absent; we converse with the dead, and we may even forecast the future… Now, the ghostly is nothing but the experience when awake of the every-night phenomena of dreaming.