May 20, 2013

An Encyclopedia of WTF: a review of Roy Bainton's "Mammoth Book of Unexplained Phenomena"

The Mammoth Book of Unexplained Phenomena
by Roy Bainton
Robinson (UK) / Running Press (US) (2013)
596 pages
ISBN (US) 9781780337951

If anything, I'm a skeptic. But, that doesn't preclude me from enjoying stories of some of the most absolutely bonkers stuff the world has ever seen--or at least claimed to have seen. Heck, my three biggest loves in genre are monsters, ghosts, and robots, and I pretty much get a heaping helping of all three in this book (replacing robots with UFOs, anyway).

This Mammoth Book tackles a myriad of subjects all relating to paranormal events, whether they be UFO sightings, hauntings, and even the Loss Ness Monster. While I have heard of quite a few of the stories touched upon in Bainton's exhaustive book, there was an equal number of tales that I have never heard about. For that, the book offers itself up as a near indispensable launch pad for casual fans of the unexplained. And all with Bainton's keen eye as a skeptic, himself.

After an introduction that catalogs humanity's apparent predisposition to believe in some truly outlandish things, the book dives into one of its meatiest topics: UFOs. In almost chronological segments, Bainton relays the history of that craze from almost the very inception of flying objects, which dates back much farther than I originally thought. From there, he moves on to other topics, including but not limited to: the afterlife, space observation and exploration, and cryptzoology. Various cases and mysteries are summarized, with plenty of sources cited in case curiosity gets the better of you, and you feel compelled to dig deeper on a specific subject.

Something I found astonishing was the statistics cited in the early chapters of the book on just how many Americans truly believe in the paranormal. A 2005 Gallop poll asked people whether they believed in any of ten paranormal elements. Those were: 1) extra sensory perception; 2) ghosts; 3) haunted houses; 4) telepathy; 5) clairvoyance; 6) astrology; 7) communication with the dead; 8) reincarnation; 9) channeling spirits; and even 10) witches. Nearly three-quarters of those polled believed in at least one of those ten things. That's absolutely astounding to me, as I would have guessed half--at best--before reading this book. Then again, America is a country where one in five were found to believe Barrack Obama is a secret Muslim, so maybe I was naive.

While few sections go beyond a couple pages in their accounts, Bainton does offer a buffet of trivia that should whet the appetite of readers. Bite-sized retellings of now infamous urban legends in the realm of the supernatural abound in this book, and I had a great time pouring over it from cover to cover. It may not be the definitive work on any of the topics covered, but what Bainton gives readers is more than enough ammunition should you choose to type in a few terms in Google to see what more you can come up with one your own.

With a smattering of dry wit, the book neatly avoids textbookery, and seems like the kind of book that would be great as ammunition on a living room's coffee table to spark a conversation, should the subject of seances or the Shroud of Turin come up.

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