Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

3 out of 5 stars
Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
Mary Roach (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005).

Mary Roach, Spook: Science Tackles the AfterlifeThis was enjoyable and very readable, which didn’t surprise me, given the reviews I had read of her other books. What did surprise was the book’s scope and its not inconsiderable depth.

Roach explores mediumship, research into Near-Death Experience and reincarnation. She interviews (among others) Michael Persinger and Vic Tandy. And there are also a couple of thought-provoking chapters on the history and (odd as it seems) on-going attempts to identify and measure the human soul.

My favourite chapter is the one in which she revisits a case from 1925 (the Chaffin case), in which a supposed ghost revealed the location of his revised last will and testament. The new will was accepted in court as genuine, but in the process of interviewing the man’s descendants, uncovering the original documents, and hiring an expert analyst, Roach (in my opinion) provides a definitive explanation for the case.

She adopts a wry and sceptical approach to her material. Her analyses are sound, but her style is always deflationary in tone. One of her techniques (common among stand-up comedians) consists in highlighting a bizarre detail, then harking back to it unexpectedly, so that what at first seemed strange comes to seem ridiculously familiar. (Harry Hill does this a lot.)

Her writing is funny, but I found this technique annoying at times. It probably means I prefer books on the paranormal that confront us with oddness, rather than those that work to puncture the outlandish and return us to the familiar. Yet Roach does not come across at all as a blinkered debunker. Largely, I was won over by the breadth of her research and the solidity of her arguments.