'Haunted Houses, Ghosts & Spectres' Usborne's Supernatural Guide Revisited
This article is more than one year old and was last updated in August 2021.
Usborne have been re-publishing some of their cult paranormal-themed books for kids, so I thought it was time to revisit my favourite in the series... the one that introduced me to the legendary Borley Rectory.
'Haunted Houses, Ghosts & Spectres' was released in 1979, two years after the first in the World of the Unknown series on ghosts, which was re-published after an online petition last year. This month the second in the series on UFOs was reissued.
'Haunted Houses, Ghosts & Spectres' is actually part of another series of books, the Supernatural Guides. The series also included 'Vampires, Werewolves & Demons' and 'Mysterious Power & Strange Forces'. The guides were part of Usborne's pocketbooks range and were genuinely pocket-sized and would fit ideally into the thigh pocket of a pair of fashionable combat trousers.
Like Usborne's other paranormal books, 'Haunted Houses, Ghosts & Spectres' is packed full of memorable and vibrant artwork, that was actually pretty terrifying in places as a kid.
What makes the book so good is that it's so confident in the way it delivers accounts of ghosts and details about the paranormal world, but what's fascinating looking back at it 41 years later is how much attitudes have changed, which just shows how much ghost sightings are based on current trends, preconceived expectations and cultural references.
For examples there's a whole page on ghosts of the living, which were apparently common at the time of writing. The book says, "one explanation is that the figures are produced by 'mental energy'." Today the ghosts of living people are completely unheard of and if anyone witnessed anything like it they describe it as a doppelgänger rather than a ghost - because that's what culture calls that phenomenon now.
Modern-day researchers think that ghosts come in two different flavours, intelligent and residual hauntings. These terms aren't referenced once in the book. You might think this is down to poor research, but the Usborne team were meticulous in the way they would dive in to a topic and research every aspect of the topic they were compiling a book on.
The idea of residual hauntings caught on more recently. Even the legendary paranormal investigator Harry Price doesn't mention the term in his 1936 book 'Confessions Of A Ghost Hunter', perhaps proving that this isn't an established concept.
Similarly, the Usborne book features pages on phantom trains and horse drawn carts. Again these types of ghost sightings have gone out of fashion. Current day trends in haunting cases revolve around black monks, shadow people and spirit voices captured in the form of electronic voice phenomenon - all of which weren't on the paranormal menu in 1979.
The book also talks about the concept of unfinished business and headless ghosts, two more concepts that have fallen to the wayside. A caption alongside the headless ghost of a Dutch noblewoman reads, "it used to be thought that a soul could not attend the day of judgement unless its body was complete."
Perhaps the paragraph that best demonstrates the change in attitudes towards ghosts in the book is one that explains to the reader what a shrouded ghost is. Today the idea of a ghost with a sheet over its head and body is strictly confined to comic stripes, but in 1979 the Usborne team wrote "ghosts are very often thought of as shrouded figures, perhaps because of the white robes in which people were once buried."
Perhaps the knowledge that the dead were once buried wearing white is so long-forgotten collectively, that people simply don't describe ghost sightings in this way anymore.
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The thing I remember the most from 'Haunted Houses, Ghosts & Spectres' was the pages about the most haunted house in England. Admittedly Harry Price did do most of the ground work, but it was Usborne's pocketbook that introduced me to Borley Rectory.
The infamous house that burnt down in 1939 has two double-pages dedicated to it. The first to give the reader a brief rundown of the house's haunted history including tales of the apparition of a nun, a phantom coach and details of Price's investigation.
Turn the page and you'll find the very memorable 3D exploded plan of the house with all the paranormal hotspots labeled for reference.
After sections about phantom battles, haunted castles and poltergeists - where I learnt that the term means noisy spirit - you'll find a few pages on ghosts in America, and Australia and interestingly Chinese ghosts, something we're not exposed to much in the western world.
The text tells us that in China, evil spectres and spirits were known as "Kuei". The page reads, "they were thought to be the ghosts of people who had lived wickedly or died violently. Kuei usually tried to harm the living and searched for victims to take their place in hell."
On the next page is a Chinese ghost story...
The Haunted Willow
When Lu Ch'ien bought a haunted house, he decided to get rid of the ghosts himself. One night he was woken by a letter being thrust through the window. It came from a spectre that called itself Commander Willow.
The message said that ghosts had lived in the house for a year and threatened to kill Lu if he stayed. A ghost suddenly appeared, but it vanished when e Lu fired an arrow at it, leaving behind a gourd that it had been holding.
A few days later the spectre returned and Lu's servant shot at it. This time the ghost was hit in the chest and it ran off. Luckily, the ghost had left a trail of footprints showing which way it had gone.
Lu followed the footprints to the base of a huge willow tree, and found an arrow stuck in its trunk. The spectre had been a tree-spirit, and Lu chopped it down to burn as fuel in his now unhaunted house.
The book ends with some notorious ghost cases that turned out to be fake, and some of the most famous ghost photos of all time. It's hard to know if they really were famous at the time of publication, or whether this book made them famous. There's also a handy ghost report form for use by ghost hunters.
This book is currently out of print, but as other classic Usborne titles have been re-released and with rumours circulating that the 'Monsters' book will follow in 2021, perhaps 'Haunted Houses, Ghosts & Spectres' will also have its celebrated return in the coming years.
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