Since 1997 I have taught or lectured at three UK universities: Southampton, Cardiff, and (until recently) in the very beautiful city of Durham. I also write books and articles. I’ve always liked strange subjects. John Donne seemed strange to me when I first encountered him in 1990, and fifteen years later I wrote a book on him. Early modern anatomy was also a strange phenomenon, and my interest in this gave rise to my books Murder After Death, and The Smoke of the Soul. The first of these touches on the tantalising quest for the anatomical location of the soul itself, and the second follows that subject through in much greater detail. A related book, The Secret History of the Soul, looks at versions of the soul from Homer to St Paul. When writing this, I was surprised to find that more modern Christian ideas about the soul were only invented some time after the New Testament itself. In fact, both the Old Testament and the New Testament have a lot of unexpected things to say about body and soul and heaven and hell. And probably not many Christians know that, whilst on the island of Cypress, St Paul blinded a rival prophet by magic.
Next, we have Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians. This one is very strange. Where to start? Simply: the contemporaries of Donne and Shakespeare, or Charles II and Pepys, were eating people for medicine. They smuggled, traded, shipped, chopped, distilled, processed, marinaded, smoked and swallowed Egyptian mummies, fresh corpses, the moss of the skull, and human blood, smoking hot at the execution scaffolds of Germany, Denmark and Sweden. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the English traded so heavily in human skulls from the battlefields of Ireland that there was an import tax on them of one shilling per head. This topic proved so popular and so controversial that I was rudely dragged from peaceful scholarly obscurity into the fierce lights of the television cameras, before radio mics, and into the daily papers. In fact, it proved so popular that Routledge and I have produced a second edition, with quite a lot of new data, due out this November.
What else? I’ve recently finished a new book, The Real Vampires. The title points up the fact that, popular as vampires are, the ones which sometimes literally scared peasants to death were actually very different. They sprang from a world of raw magic, filled with seemingly bizarre beliefs about life, death, the soul, disease and much more. Vampires stalked through people’s nightmares; paralysed them in their beds; screamed or offered cheeky backchat as they were being staked through… Living people were sometimes staked or burned as vampires. In some countries vampirism could be inherited. And in a surprising lot of cases, vampires behaved like poltergeists. And yes: people were on occasion so terrified of vampires that they actually died of fear.
This book led me onto even stranger topics still: ghosts and poltergeists. As a lifelong rationalist and agnostic, I had no interest in these until I came across vampires behaving like poltergeists. What could this mean? After a lot of reading, of cases seemingly so impossible they made your head hurt; and after talking about poltergeists to many people, and having a surprising number of them say, Yes – that’s happened to me, I came to suspect that poltergeists were actually real. Not only that, but I also realised that the poltergeist is a master of disguise. Across centuries and continents, when people talk about vampires, witches, demons, ghosts, and even fairies, they are often clearly describing poltergeist outbreaks. And ghosts? These probably lie behind some poltergeist cases; though perhaps not all. At any rate, having initially tried to shut ghosts out of the picture, I found ultimately that you couldn’t really exclude them without ignoring huge amounts of evidence. Far too many people, of every possible type, have seen ghosts. To me, this by no means straightforwardly implies a soul, afterlife, and so forth. But it raises a wealth of powerful and compelling questions. I aim to explore these in several future books. But because I’ve found these subjects so extraordinarily rich, and have already unearthed so many amazing stories of the supernatural, I’ve compiled and edited one hundred such tales from the nineteenth century press. This is titled A Century of Supernatural Stories. I hope a lot of people will read this, and to that end I’ve published it with Amazon to make it accessible and affordable. More recently, I’ve completed a second volume, A Century of Ghost Stories, due out in spring 2017.
At present I’m working on the last stages of Fairies: A Dangerous History (Reaktion, spring 2018); researching and compiling A Century of Animal Stories (2018); and completing a children’s book, Our Week With the Juffle Hunters. In a few weeks I will be restarting work on my poltergeist novel, The Ghost Web. Although I fear this will not be a good year in politics, I aim to make it a productive one for publishing.