Sean Carroll. The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself. One World, 2016.

You can’t say that cosmologist Sean Carroll isn’t ambitious, at least in the subtitle. However this book really does not go into the origin of the universe, still less the multiverse, but does discuss the core principles of modern physics, the possible origins of life and the hard problem of consciousness. He adopts a position that he calls poetic naturalism, which basically means talking about things at an appropriate level while acknowledging there is a unitary natural world, that is, in at least some sense, physical.

Carroll was once interested in the paranormal but now takes the view that the likelihood of there being anything in it is so small it is not even worth conducting the experiments on it. He makes the reasonable point that if there were still unexplored forces that operated in the realm of ordinary human experience we would have detected them in scientific experiments. Of course critics might reply that if anomalies were detected it is likely that they would be attributed to experimental error. The problem I have with the idea that everything is so well known that we don’t even have to do the experiments is that in the mid-nineteenth century everyone knew that atoms were indivisible, it was in the definition. The idea of splitting the atom into components made no sense at all and was quite beyond the energy levels accessible to say Michael Faraday, yet it is the nature of these then hidden components that makes the world the way it is.

Carroll, is I think on stronger ground in his dismissal of Cartesian Dualism, excellent and quite modern sounding arguments against which were made by Elizabeth Simmern van Pallandt, a much brainier cousin of Charles II (had there been sexual equality in the seventeenth century her mother would have become Elizabeth II (or possibly III) of England and there would have been no Civil Wars or Cromwell). Whether he is equally on strong grounds in his treatment of the “hard problem of consciousness” is less certain.

In the final part of the book where he discusses matters of ethics he is on even shakier ground and is danger of sliding into scientism. In general this is not one of those glib popular science books and at times requires real concentration and attention. – Peter Rogerson



Ben Mezrich.  The 37th Parallel: The Secret Truth Behind America’s UFO Highway. Heinemann, 2016

Sorry to disappoint folks, but if you think you are going to discover the truth about the UFO Highway or any other amazing secrets in this book you will be disappointed. It is not really a story about UFOs at all, rather it is the story of one of the people investigating them, Chuck Zukowski, a computer programmer and one time unpaid deputy sheriff from Colorado and his journeys across the country with his wife and children in search of strange lights in the sky and mutilated cattle, and follows his interaction with the semi-mysterious Robert Bigelow who plays a bit part in this narrative. 

It also portrays his and his sister’s interactions with police and military, which in one case led them being followed most of the way home by people in a dark van after Chuck’s sister Debbie had tried to get into a public restaurant that seemed to have been taken over by various agencies. In another case a wildlife warden is suddenly escorted out of a section of a national park by a group of military. Of course this feeds Chuck’s belief that there is a great secret out there. I suspect that the only secret is that people in uniform think they are the Lords of Creation and not public servants. Of course if Chuck and Debbie were black they would probably be dead by now.

Much of the folklore that one encounters in this book looks pretty strange and perhaps irrelevant to the real problems of the times. This would be a mistake; one can almost see a straight line, not an alien highway across America, but one from the fears over cattle mutilations to the anger that has led to the rise of Donald Trump. As for the alien superhighway, that comes in right at the end, as Chuck comes to believe that all sort of weirdness occurs on a line across the 37th parallel, [see video link below] as do a number of historic buildings. It is all very reminiscent of the failed claims for orthoteny, BAVIC and leys. -- Peter Rogerson



With autumn coming around it was time for another visit from Clas and Carl-Anton from AFU in Sweden to pick up another tranche of books and magazines, probably the last big hoist from my original collections. However I am constantly getting more stuff in for review in Magonia, and eventual transfer to AFU.


While there are a number of other libraries and collections on parapsychology, psychical research and related topics, AFU is unique in the depth and breadth of its collections, ranging from scholarly treatises to children’s books; from mainstream science to the wildest outer fringes, a vast breadth of subjects from psychical research to Bigfoot, from UFOs to conspiracy theories, from astronomical anomalies to historical mysteries and unsolved crimes, from the sociology of science to the esoteric, from earth mysteries to ectoplasm, from folklore to mass hysteria. It is also unique in its international and multilingual coverage.


Containing not only more than 20,000 volumes but huge collections of magazines and newspaper cuttings, it is the library of the damned and excluded from the mainstream of history, much of it the sort of thing derided as trivia or ephemera. Yet it is often these fringes and fragments often excluded from official archives as “not relevant to the key collections” but which often give the most historical insight.

Our friend Peter Brookesmith expressed some reservations about the value of collecting mounds of small magazines, newspaper clippings and report forms of “vague lights in the sky”. However that misses the point, it is not the “lights in the sky” which will interest future historians but rather what sidelights this material will throw on the belief systems and the working, leisure, cultural and intellectual lives of often working class people, lives that usually very poorly documented. One thing that AFU are in need of is new expanded premises to house their growing collections, so if there are any multi-millionaires out there who want to donate, contact them on http://www.afu.info/afu2/ 

However amazing news from Warrington suggests there might be an alternative; spatio-temporal distortion as in Doctor Who’s TARDIS. Readers of Jenny Randles books will be well aware of what she believes are strange spacial and temporal distortions around the mid-Mersey area and her belief that these may have inspired Daresbury born Lewis Carroll. It now appears that these distortions have moved into Warrington town itself and are centred on a retail outlet in the town’s Golden Square Shopping Centre, currently occupied by a shoe shop of modest external dimensions. (229 feet) Here Livewire which runs Warrington’s libraries and recreation centres assures us can be fitted the central library (30,000 + volumes), computer zone, shop, box office and a cinema.

I think you guess the amount of spatio-temporal distortion that would require and one wonders why Livewire didn’t go the whole hog and include a swimming baths, basketball lacrosse and badminton courts, an athletic track and a Formula 1 racing circuit. Think of the uses of the application of this technology; house the entire Houses of Parliament in a garden shed, and put the new South Eastern airport in a back garden. Of course no such Wonderland technology exists; the sad truth is that the people promoting all of this are the ones living in an Alice in Wonderland world, where you can pretend to believe six impossible things before breakfast and who have come to believe in the words of Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark, “What I tell you three times is true”!

This is just one small example of what people are starting to call the post-modernist approach to the truth, in which no real attempt is made to hide the fact that lies are being told. The fact that politicians, bureaucrats, newspapers bosses and managers routinely tell lies and seem to have no concept of 'truth' no doubt feeds conspiracy theories. If there are lying about a library or museum or park or whatever, what really BIG things are they lying about?



Willow Winsham. Accused: British Witches Throughout History. Pen and Sword, 2016.

This book presents an interesting approach to the history of witchcraft in Britain. The author avoids attempting to outline the whole subject from the earliest days, which risks superficiality in a work aimed at the general public, but also resists taking a detailed look at one particular aspect of the topic, which risks losing the general reader in endless detail. Instead we have a careful selection of eleven cases, which between them show the development of personal, social and legislative attitudes to witchcraft.

The stories are bookended by two rather untypical cases, one from an era well before the main witchcraft prosecutions and one from long after. Alice Kyteler lived in fourteenth century Kilkenny, and having survived, and prospered from the wills of four husbands, she was an obvious target for claims of sorcery heresy and even murder, as well as leading a cult of devil-worshippers – an unusual claim for the times. But her story seems to have developed into a case of conflict between church and state, with a heresy-hunting bishop up against the local secular authority, the seneschal, each asserting their powers. Alice seems to have cheated the witch-hunters and her eventual fate is unknown, although, like many such figures, she features in local folklore and fiction. There are at least four novels describing her life, and the suggestion that she was the inspiration for Chaucer's Wife of Bath.

At the other historical extreme, Helen Duncan was also caught between spiritual and secular forces. Her trial, the last under the Witchcraft Act of 1736, was ostensibly for fraud, but involved claims that she was somehow foreseeing, or clairvoyantly passing on information about British casualties in World War II. Sentenced to nine months in prison, her case became a cause celebre, leading to reform of the laws relating to fraudulent mediums, and starting a long campaign to clear her name and have her conviction quashed, which is ongoing.

Between these two cases we see the growth of the idea of the witch as a disruptive element in society, bringing death and misfortune on all those who had in some way offended her (usually her). Agnes Waterhouse was charged with witchcraft in 1566, one of the first victims of the 1563 Act of Parliament legislating death as the punishment for “killing or destroying a person through witchcraft”. Denounced as a witch by fellow villagers in Essex for causing death and illness through her 'familiar', a cat, which in retrospect she might have regretting calling Satan.

Witch trials often took on the nature of feuds between local families, as in the case of the Welsh witch Gwen ferch Ellis, who got caught up in disputes between the Mostyn and Conway families. There were very few witchcraft trials in Wales, and although charged with causing death by witchcraft, there is no record of how her trial progressed, and she seems to have slipped away unrecorded.

As these cases progress, we begin to see how the official view of witchcraft changed through the seventeenth century. By the time of the trial of Jane Wenham, in Hertfordshire in 1712 the authorities were less inclined to believe the stories brought before them, and although Jane was found guilty by the magistrates in Hertford and sentenced to death, the conviction was later overturned by the Judge, who declared that it was “not against the law to fly” (one of the claims made against her), and granted a reprieve.

By the nineteenth century it is the supposed witch herself who who was able to bring a case to court. In Devon in 1852 Susannah Sellick charged her neighbour with attacking her. The neighbour, Mary Pile had claimed that Sellick had bewitched her daughter and attacked Sellick in an attempt to draw blood to counter her supposed spells. Pile thought that denouncing the 'witch' would be a defence in court to common assault, but by now the magistrates were having nothing to do with it, and convicted Pile and an associate of assault. Six years later Susannah was again forced to court after being attacked by a neighbour, and again is vindicated.

Although this case was treated by the local papers as an indication of primitive beliefs still held by the inhabitants of rural Devon, in the Victorian period witchcraft allegations were not necessarily restricted to remote country areas, as demonstrated by Peter Rogerson's discovery of witchcraft claims in very urban, industrial Warrington as late as 1876.

In presenting these accounts, Willow Winsham goes beyond just reporting the details of the claims, counter-claims and trials. She shows the protagonists as real people rather than just historical elements, looking in depth at the characters concerned, their relationships, their family backgrounds, and the society in which they lived. Although written in a very readable and entertaining style, this is a scholarly work, and the author has researched her subject widely, as the extensive collection of notes and references testifies. A fascinating insight into the deeper stories behind figures lying on the fringes of history. Highly recommended. – John Rimmer.



Sánchez Romero and S.R. Schwalb. Beast: Werewolves, Serial Killers and Man-Eaters, the Mystery of the Monsters of the Gévaudan. Skyhorse Publishing, 2016. 

During the period 1764 to 1767 a series of horrific attacks occurred in the remote Gévaudan region of France. The victims, numbering in excess of one hundred, consisted mostly of women and children who were subjected to a frenzied assault that often resulted in the dismemberment of the body. Survivors of such attacks (and there were few) described seeing a large beast with a dog-like muzzle, and coarse coat flecked with orange. The events caused a panic in the region, and after the failure of the locals to track down and kill the animal, if such it was, the French government intervened and sent their own expert huntsman to attempt to track down the beast.

The authors have chosen their subject well, for there is plenty of archival material extant, including police and newspaper reports, as well as local official records. This material has been assessed in a professional and scientific way, and all the theories explaining the attacks such as wolves, were-wolves, hyenas or men dressed as wolves are objectively compared. At the same time the book has a pleasant narrative style, which keeps the reader interested in unravelling the mystery of who or what was responsible.

The reader will therefore find this to be both a readable and informative account, which also serves a useful purpose, since the book adds to the social history of 18th century provincial France by providing a vivid portrayal of the way local society reacted to the trauma they were experiencing. -- Robin Carlile



Christopher Dell. Monsters: A Bestiary of the Bizarre. Thames and Hudson, 2016.

This is a typical Thames and Hudson production, a lovingly assembled collection of images with a minimum of discussion, which would probably be superfluous. The illustrations are all more than a century old, so there are no depictions of modern monsters such as Bigfoot, Chupacabra and Mothman. Alongside familiar monsters such as demons, dragons, werewolves, zombies, ghouls, harpies, and the once-popular men with heads in their chests (now out of favour, probably because they are not easy to depict on screen), there are such rarities as the Tripodern that frightened early settlers in North America, and the Tarasque, a six-legged dragon with tortoise-like features, an effigy of which is paraded at an annual procession in Tarascon, southern France, to commemorate its defeat by St Martha.

All books of this kind have a tendency to reproduce the same images, which gets a bit tiresome. Right back in 1980 it occurred to me that there might be a market for a coffee-table book on the occult which did not include a reproduction of the title page to Matthew Hopkins’ Discovery of Witches. Dell’s book is largely free from these visual clichés, though there is an engraving from Molitor’s Tractatus von den bösen Weiben, die man nennet die Hexen, ‘Treatise on those evil women, that men call witches’, better known by its Latin title De Laniis, when almost everyone has seen those, though I do not suppose that anyone has read the book itself for centuries.

"I do not suppose anyone has read the book for centuries"

There is no commentary on individual images, though their sources are carefully referenced. That on page 75 is ‘A page from a witch’s spellbook, from Wittenberg, Germany, pen and watercolour, late 18th century, Wellcome Library, London.” This has two panels, both showing a magician with a wand in his left hand, with monsters he has summoned up, a serpent about to bite its tail in the first, and an unidentifiable horned quadruped in the second. People might like to know that the enigmatic script at the top of each is the writing called Passing the River, and reads ‘Michael’ ‘Jehovah’, then ‘Ratziel’ ‘Shaddai’ (another divine name, usually translated ‘Almighty’), these presumably here being the words of power used by the magician to summon the monsters. Perhaps working this out has been left as an exercise for the reader.

Monsters tend to inhabit realms just beyond what is known, medieval mapmakers illustrating them in distant places. Even in the seventeenth century, Athanasius Kircher ‘gave credence to reports of dragons in the Swiss Alps’ though he was ‘more doubtful about giants in the south of Italy’. But nowadays most of the planet is explored, leaving little room for monsters. ‘Perhaps it is for this reason that the popular imagination has turned to the ‘final frontier’ outer space. From the earliest science fiction of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells – and even more rapidly during the 20th century – we have in a sense been transported back to the concept of ‘monstrous races’: the idea that just beyond our reach lies something truly spectacular.’ It is curious, though, that whilst monsters are the defining feature of Doctor Who, for instance, they are seldom met with in allegedly true stories about UFOs. -- Gareth J. Medway.



David Weatherly. Strange Intruders. Leprechaun Publishing, 2016.

Most of us have heard of neighbours from Hell who make life quite intolerable for those around them, but few would take the idea literally. However, as this book shows, there are those in the United States who claim that they have had neighbours who if not exactly from Hell are to put it mildly, pretty damn weird and who seem to lack most human social conventions. They barely converse, live in complete squalor, appear out of nowhere and disappear just as abruptly. Cats don’t like them and dogs run a mile, and maybe they eat raw dog food.

People like this used to dress in black and visit UFO witnesses but now the dress code has been relaxed and the blackness is restricted to their eyes or perhaps their cavernous mouths. This makes them near relatives of the black-eyed children who beg to come into your house. Of course no-one ever lets them in or photographs them. Perhaps this is because they have the habit of being in two places at once or having transparent legs.

There are of course all sorts of other strange creatures, jinns and boggarts, or at least the latter’s Massachusetts cousins the Pukwudgies, along with their colleagues the Shadow People, the grinning men with their impossibly wide grins, Mad Gassers, our old friend Springheel Jack and the new kid on the block, Slenderman.

In the memorates and folklore collected by Weatherly the old and new, tradition and modernity fuse into one another. New folkloric entities such as shadow people and black-eyed children perform many of the functions of classical petty supernaturals, while the mysterious neighbours seem to be a distilled essence of our fear of the 'Other'. The terrible Others are not like us, their food is alien, they eat like animals, they don’t know our social conventions, they don’t know how to use household facilities and they are so unlike us they are not really human at all. That is perhaps the true sinister side of folklore. – Peter Rogerson



Michel Zirger and Maurizio Martinelli.  The Incredible Life of George Hunt Williamson: Mystical Journey: Itinerary of a Privileged UFO Witness. Verdechiaro Edizioni, 2016.

George Hunt Williamson (1926-1986) is one of the more than semi-mysterious characters that Ufology drags up from time to time. In part this is due to the fact that he was a consummate fantasist. The authors of this admiring book take his fantasies at face value but provide just enough evidence to destroy them. The authors clearly take the tales told by George Adamski and his ilk at face value also, but despite their credulity their book provides a fascinating insight into the cultic milieu in which Williamson moved, and it is interesting to see that his story acts as one of the links between Adamski, the famous cult at the centre of When Prophecy Fails, and the group surrounding Uri Geller and Andreja Puharich.

His start in life seems to have been much more prosaic; born on December 6 1926 as George Leonard Hunt Jnr, the son of George Leonard Williamson and Bernice Hunt. George Snr is listed as the owner of the Radiation Cabinet Company in the 1930 census but by 1940 was an industrial painter and decorator. George Hunt Williamson's life seemed to be mapped out to be the first person in his family to go to university, where he studied anthropology. About 1950 he seems to have dropped out of academia and into the fringe world of the occult. In this he claimed to have contacted space intelligences by means of radio, the Ouija board and other occult means He became one of the witnesses of George Adamski’s alleged meeting with a Venusian and then went on to write three books that were among the pioneers of the ancient astronaut type, mixing occultism, science fiction and populist rhetoric.

The death of his first wife Betty in Peru while he was on a lecture tour in Europe seems to have severed the thin hold he had on reality. He seems to have been wholly taken up with some family legend that he was descended from the former Serb royal family of Obrenovic and got his mother to write out an affidavit which said that her mother’s father was Wilhelm Maximillian Osborn, who was really Wilhelm Maximillian Obrenovic Obelitz von Lasar the heir to the throne of Serbia, who had been born about 1820, had been smuggled out of the country after his father was killed when the boy was seven, was then raised by the King of Saxony, and visited to Paris where he married the cousin of Empress Eugenie of France, Maria de Montijo de Guzzman. Records however show that Williamson’s maternal grandparents were William Steven Osborn an Illinois farmer, canvasser and doctor born in 1842 not 1820 and Mary Emily Petty. Both of the these people’s parents were as American as apple pie, not a Serb in sight.

The story may have come from Williamson’s maternal grandmother Katharyne Lorin Osborn, described as a writer of short stories, world traveller who spoke eight languages and was friend of Queen Elizabeth of Romania. City directories give her the more prosaic life as a dressmaker in Spokane, Washington. On the basis of these fantasies Williamson changed his name to Michel D’Obrenovic. Being Obrenovic wasn’t good enough for him though, so he fantasied that the family, descended from an early nineteenth century freedom fighter, and were really descended from Prince Lazar, a claim the family never made for themselves.

It was under that name that Williamson married the over-the-hill starlet Jennifer (Marshall) Elizabeth Holt, becoming her fifth and last husband in 1973 (they divorced in 1979). During this time he tried to get into films without much success. Earlier in 1967 he had tried to return to the academic mainstream and finally got his anthropology doctorate, but academia held little appeal. More to his taste was becoming a wandering bishop in the 'Orthodox Christian Church' and later founding his own 'Holy Apostolic Catholic Church' and becoming a sort of adopted son of Thelma Dunlap, one of the archetypal 'little old ladies in tennis shoes'.

In the end it is more probable that Williamson was a classic case of Caraboo Syndrome, rather than a conscious confidence trickster. In the admiring world of the cultic milieu he could find an outlet of his sense of importance and need for display. I suspect that he had wanted to be an actor but his parents wanted him to be something respectable like an academic, so he turned his whole life into a series of acting roles.This critical account will no doubt be regarded by the authors of this book as just more scepticism. For my part, I find it baffling and a Fortean phenomenon in itself, how intelligent and cultured people can even for a few moments take the tales told by George Adamski and his ilk at face value. -- Peter Rogerson. 

  • Third paragraph corrected to refer to "Williamson's maternal grandparents". The error crept in posting the review on-line.