December 2014 Book Review

Just in time for Christmas: for the forteans who love to read...

The Spectral Army of Souther Fell: The Story of a Story | Stephen Matthews
ISBN: 978-1904147558 | 317 pages | £12 | Available from www.bookscumbria.com


When reviewing a book which deals primarily with a single case, I would normally précis that content in a couple of lines. However, even with the shear amount of information contained within Matthews’ work, the only thing I can say for certain is that in the first half of the 1700s, something perceived as being unusual was reported on more than one occasion, on the isolated landscape of Souther Fell, something which is now touted in most paranormal books as the manifestations of a ghostly army.

Matthews’ work falls beyond just another ‘book on ghosts’. The opening chapter is a highly detailed analysis of the evolution of a myth, tracking the reproduction of the phantom army story in popular and not so popular (but still influential) publications, until we reach the two original accounts – those penned by George Smith and James Clarke, in 1747 and 1787 respectively.

While the reports by Smith and Clarke are similar, there are striking differences, which sent Matthews’ off on a pain staking analysis of each writer, placing their political and social biases under the microscope to account for variations in their reporting.

Progressing through the book and the history of the story, other people of note to examine the phantom army are themselves subjected to scrutiny; Coleridge, Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott and many others all had a part to play in keeping the story alive, and perhaps more importantly, shaping the tale into the myth we know today.

Social history aside, Matthews also looks at the rational explanations which have been suggested over the years as causing the manifestation, including meteors and a quite detailed section on the Brocken spectre. For good measure, the book also features an original full account from the famous Edge Hill phantom army report, and several other lesser known ghost stories reproduced in full from old source material.

It is hard to fault a well thought out and methodical approach to understanding a ghost report from almost three hundred years ago, and those wanting their historic ghost stories investigated using a fine toothed comb will not be left disappointed.

In some ways it is good to know that nothing changes – Matthews' definitive guide to this famous case affirms that two hundred and sixty-seven years after the first account of the spectral army of Souther Fell entered the public domain, we still have believers and non-believers fighting their opposing views on life after death in full public view using whatever the popular medium is of the day...

 

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