Ebury Press 2014, ISBN 9780091958480
Britain in the 1970s was a very strange time and place. Caught in the brutal come-down after the Sixties yet still retaining more than a hint of pagan mysticism in the air, Britain had a distinctive otherworldliness underlying the economic woes, ever-present threat of nuclear war and public service films warning children that horrific death lurked in every field, every street. Both grubby and garish, represented equally by Abigail’s Party and Children of the Stones, Albion seemed caught in an awful liminality. There was nothing quite like living through that strange time, in that weird place.
Nothing, that is, except for Scarfolk.
The invention of Richard Littler, Scarfolk is a fictional town in the North-West of England which is perpetually trapped in the 70s. Littler’s pastiches of the advertising and cultural symbols of the time, filtered through the paranoid occult and technological fears then present, became an immensely popular blog series over the past couple of years, drawing praise from writers as diverse as Ian Rankin, Caitlin Moran and Warren Ellis. The clever perfection of the parody images, combined with the Pythonesque word play and riffs on the stranger aspects of British culture, are a masterpiece in absurdist horror.
Although there are some parallels to other fictional towns draped in the Weird, Scarfolk is very much its own thing. Comparisons to the Welcome To Night Vale podcast are commonly made, especially when trying to explain Scarfolk to Americans: but whereas Night Vale has a folksy cute-weird inclusive charm that might tempt the fan to consider living there if it existed, nobody in their right minds would want to visit Scarfolk, let alone live there... it makes Royston Vasey seem positively inviting by comparison.
Now, Scarfolk has made the transition from blog to book, and in the process has both gained and lost something in translation.
The book contains most of the classic images Littler created for the Scarfolk site - favourites such as the controversial fake Penguin Books cover “Children And Hallucinogens”, which went viral last year, convincing many that the book had once existed (including, so rumour has it, several concerned Penguin executives). They are surrounded by a two-layered, almost Lovecraftian-styled framing story: the book purports to be a professor’s reconstruction of a found text, telling the tale of one Daniel Bush. Bush, while moving home after the death of his wife in a bizarre Morris-dancing related accident, is trapped in Scarfolk following the disappearance of his twin sons. Recovering from the brainwashing inflicted on him for ‘his own good’ by the residents, he wanders the town, trying to understand his surroundings and find his children.
Though that storyline itself is interesting (and draws heavily on other great British cultural influences such as The Prisoner and The Wicker Man), it doesn’t flow well: mostly because it’s continually interrupted by both the pictures and a lot of footnotes - the readers attention is being continually split. Each element of the book - the art, the story and the footnotes - don’t quite gel together... but each is thoroughly enjoyable in their own form.
The footnotes contain some of the best, most horrific writing in the book, I think: such as,
The ice-cream van man came between 3 and 4 a.m. His van blared out the haunting Swedish Rhapsody numbers station. The ice-cream van man wore a clown mask to disguise the horrific burns on his face because he didn't want to frighten the children. It didn't work. He used clothes pegs to hold the mask on because he was missing an ear. He lived in a nondescript building in an electrical substation and no one knew his name.
As an artefact, the book feels like it has fallen out of some grubby wormhole: the pages are faintly faded, the whole thing almost seeming to glower at the reader. The cover looks like a pre-battered textbook from a barely-used library, its recollection of the publishing tropes of the time a pastiche so perfect that it verges on the hyperreal. Sadly, this finish actually obscures some of the finer details of the illustrations; in one of my favourite pictures, the relabelled diagrams of the male and female genital anatomy, several of the terms are too blurry to be read easily.
(EDIT: Richard Littler contacted me after this review aired to note that the blurring of the pictures was a printing mistake and not intentional. Though that accident adds to the grimy air of this version, I am glad later editions will allow readers to fully see a woman's malteser and a man's battlestar galactica in all their glory.)
Despite these drawbacks, Discovering Scarfolk is a pleasure, if a disturbing one: you’ll never read or hold anything else quite like it.
For more information, please re-read this review.
Link: Discovering Scarfolk on Amazon UK
A critical care doctor and expert in the field of resuscitation, Sam Parnia has been fascinated with the question of what happens to consciousness at the moment of death since the time he lost a patient as a student doctor at the age of 22. Parnia’s joint fascination with resuscitation and the near-death experience (NDE) led him to establish the AWARE project, which is now a major collaboration between doctors and researchers in the coronary units of medical centers and hospitals across the globe. Dedicated to exploring and advancing our knowledge of these two inter-related areas, it began with an 18 month pilot study restricted to just a few hospitals in the United Kingdom, before the AWARE project proper launched on September 11, 2008 with the investigation extended to more locations, including some in Europe and the United States. To examine the veridical out-of-body experience component of near-death experiences, Parnia and his team installed approximately one thousand shelves high up on walls within rooms in the emergency, coronary and intensive care wards of participating hospitals, though they were unable to cover all beds due to time and financial constraints – with 25 participating hospitals, the total number of shelves they would have needed to install for full coverage would have been closer to 12,500. On these shelves they placed a hidden ‘target’, which they hoped patients who had OBEs might report back on after being successfully resuscitated. By targeting these specific wards they were hoping to cover some 80% of cardiac arrest events with their ‘shelf test’.
In the first four years of the study, AWARE has received a total of more than four thousand cardiac arrest event reports – some three per day. But while four thousand events may seem a good sample size for in-depth research into veridical NDEs, it must be remembered that these are cardiac arrests – not ‘heart attacks’, with which many people confuse the term, but cases in which the heart has completely stopped beating. As such, in only a third of those cases were medical staff able to resuscitate the patient – and then, only half of those critically-ill survivors remained alive to a point where they could be interviewed by the AWARE team. Further, those medical staff doing interviews on behalf of the AWARE study had to do so around their normal daily duties, and so not all patients were able to be interviewed post-resuscitation (especially so if they came in on the weekend). And, unfortunately, the team’s coverage of cardiac arrest events via shelf positioning was lower than hoped – only 50% occurred in a location with a shelf, rather than the hoped-for 80%.
Now, given that near-death experiences were only reported by 5% of survivors in the AWARE study, and that the out-of-body experience only occurs in a low percentage of NDEs, you might begin to see the problem. Out of some 4000 cardiac arrest events, the AWARE team was left with little more than a hundred cases in which a patient with a shelf in their room reported back after their resuscitation, and then only 5 to 10 of those actually had an NDE. In all, after four years, and four thousand recorded cardiac arrest events, the AWARE study has
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A Social History of Ball Lightning
The chimera that came in from the cold
by Martin Shough
Back in 1967 the astronomer Gerard Kuiper dismissed a 10% residue of unexplained UFO reports with a wave of the hand, thinking it “reasonable to assume” that this testimony must be “so distorted or incomplete as to defy all analysis.” However, he advocated a major Defence Department/FAA programme to research “very rare natural phenomena” such as ball lightning. Why? Because “no adequate data yet exist of ball lightning”, even though its existence had been “known for at least a century”.1
This raises a very interesting question: How was it possible for science to “know” anything with “no adequate data”? The answer is that science did not know. Rather, ball lightning had been kept in the natural philospher’s cabinet of curiosities along with a jumble of Forteana such as sea serpents, will-o’-the-wisps, fabulous mirages and spirits of the dead for a couple of hundred years. Disbelief and credulity swirled around together in a miasma of hopeless speculation until, during the early 20th century, the authoritative consensus settled into scepticism - a position which had only quite recently begun to change at the time Kuiper was writing.
Unpicking some of the reason and unreason behind this curious condition of scientific double-think is instructive. Logically and evidentially speaking, there is precious little difference between a “very rare natural phenomenon” which is unexplained and an unexplained phenomenon characterised as a “UFO”. Even more subtle is the distinction sometimes drawn between “a unique natural phenomenon never before observed” and a UFO. There will always be unique combinations of natural phenomena never before observed (in practice), so how is a distinction to be supported between such effects and UFOs? Is there a real epistemological distinction? Or is it mere semantics?
The difference appears in practice to arise because there are two levels of “explanation” whose meanings are weighted differently in the two cases: There is a level of detailed physical understanding, i.e. a link-by-link chain of observed processes accurately modelled in theory; and there is a level of conceptual classification. When either of these levels is satisfied we experience a sense of accounting, and when both are satisfied there is a closure which we experience as “explanation”.
Neither in the case of “unknown natural phenomenon” nor in the case of “unidentified flying object” is the level of detailed physical understanding satisfied, by definition; the difference enters in the conceptual classification and has to do almost exclusively with the way these ideas are emotionally connoted. Specifically, it is the mechanistic aura of the former and the animistic aura of the latter that sets them apart. The history of science associates mechanistic models with productive explanations, animistic models with backward-looking resistance to explanations. The extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) and its analogues are for practical purposes regarded as examples of relict primitive animism.
Ball lightning emerges with some sense of explanation out of the primary category of “rare and unexplained phenomena” to the extent that it replaces (these days) animistic with mechanistic connotations. The collective term is emotionally neutral, the terms “ball lightning” and “UFO” are not individually so, and parity is broken; a coupled particle-pair of overall neutral charge is, so to speak, dissociated into two particles of opposite charge which fly in different directions in the social field potential. The positive “ball lightning” particle is eventually scavenged by surrounding atoms of incomplete theory; the “UFO” particle is left to wander, a free negative ion in a lonely search for an appropriate theory with which to recombine. It is a pragmatic fact, quite separate from the question of evidence, that ... Read More »