The Penguin Book of the Undead: Fifteen Hundred Years of Supernatural Encounters.

The Penguin Book of the Undead is my first read for the R.I.P Challenge. It's an anthology of writings on the subject of the undead: ghosts, spirits, and other supernatural phenomenon. It was first published in 2016 and was edited by Scott G. Bruce, a professor of medieval history who, the biography at the beginning of the book tells us, worked his way through university as a grave digger!

The book, as the subtitle promises us, takes us through 1,500 years of the supernatural beginning with an extract from Homer's Odyssey: Odysseus in the House of Death, the to Pliny the Younger's musings on the existence of ghosts from his Letters, and finally for that section an extract from Lucan's Pharsalia. Continuing with the ancients, Bruce then offers a further four extracts from early Christian works from the Bible (Deuteronomy 18: 9-14, 1 Samuel 28. 1 and 3 - 25, and Matthew 14: 22 - 33), from the diary of Perpetua, a Northern African woman imprisoned for being Christian, followed by three extracts from the writings of early saints: St. Martin, St. Germanus, and St. Patrick. Next, to the late ancient / early medieval works: Bishop Evodius of Uzalis on the soul, St. Augustine's rejection of the existence of ghosts, and ideas of purgatory and the afterlife from Pope Gregory the Great. Bruce then takes us to Europe in the Dark Ages with The Vision of Barontus, and an account of the monk Dryhthelm who apparently came back from the dead as told by Bede in Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bruce then continues on further accounts from the church with Annales Fuldenses, Vita Odilonis, the Epistola of Peter Damian, De miraculis libri duo by Peter the Venerable, and Dialogus miraculorum by Caesarius of Heisterbach. From here we begin to see the shifts in attitudes to the concepts of ghosts in the chapters such as 'Spirits of Malice' from Chronicon by Thietmar of Merseburg and extracts from Geoffrey of Burton's Life and Miracles of St. Modwenna and Walter Map's De nugis curialium. In the next section Bruce explores the impact of war on the imagination with ghosts of warriors in Rodulphus Glaber's Historiarum libri quinque, another extract from Walter Map's De nugis curialium, and one titled 'An Army White as Snow' attributed to Abbot Maiolus of Cluny. Bruce then shares examples from Scandinavian literature (The History of the Danes and Eyrbyggja Saga). He then moves into literature from the late Medieval period (Otia Imperialia from Gervase of Tilbury, and a story originating with a monk from Byland Abbey and retold by M. R. James), to the Reformation with Ludwig Lavater's Of Ghostes and Spirites Walking by Nyght and A Treatise on Ghosts by Noel Taillepied. Finally, we arrive at the early Renaissance with the first appearance of an English translation of Seneca the Younger's Thyestes and some extracts from Shakespeare's Hamlet.

These extracts are fascinating and occasionally perfectly unsettling for an autumn evening's read, but what really makes the collection is the explanations at the beginning of each section to show the change in perception of ghosts, from simply spirits of the dead, to malicious and evil beings intent of wreaking havoc. The impact of religion, war, and literature is shown throughout on how we see our ancestors and, indeed, manifestations of our worst fears. I read it for a creepy October read and I was very happy with it, but it's also a must-read for those who love Gothic literature or who have a scholarly interest in the supernatural.

Comments

  1. everything okay? no boiler blow-ups? been a while...

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    1. Yes everything's fine :) With everything that's been going on with my mum being so ill, I completely forgot we had visitors this weekend from South Africa, so it's been a bit mad preparing it with only a few days to go. I've been told so many times but it never sunk in! But yes all is fine. Got posts planned, but been too tired to do them! Plus as things are calming down a bit here I'm having a bit of a stress aftermath. Not in a bloggy place at present, but really everything's absolutely fine :)

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    2. tx for the comeback... i well understand being busy, and sympathize with the stress thing...

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