Whisperers: The Secret History of the Spirit World, by JH Brennan - book review: Brennan's spirited passion is marred by too much haste


Have gods, demons and spirits been whispering their thoughts into our ears, over the millennia? JH Brennan thinks so.

Beginning with our most ancient and shamanistic origins, he moves engagingly through Ancient Greece and Egypt, before alighting on Moses and Mohammed. In more recent centuries, we have those other mystagogues who were said to speak with invisible supernatural entities – Joan of Arc, John Dee, Nostradamus, Rasputin, Aleister Crowley and even Hitler.

Readers thinking that Brennan means "spirits" as a synonym for the souls of the departed dead may be confused. His definition of spirits is more fluid; he means supernatural entities that might be gods, demons or ghosts. An esoteric by training and inclination, those expecting a knowledge of more recent works on ghost belief will not find it here. Instead, the book has the feel of a labour of love, written every now and then between other projects (such as his Faerie Wars novels, which are very popular in the US) and finished in a bit of a hurry.

The book pretty much collapses by the time we get to the 17th century, and there's a distinct feeling he's out of his comfort zone. His remark that Joseph Glanvil reported "séances" back to Charles II are wildly far from the mark – first, they weren't séances held under the auspices of Lady Conway, but learned neo-Platonic discourses that included luminaries such as Robert Boyle. Secondly, he didn't become Charles II's chaplain till a much later date. In fact, nearly all his stuff on Queen Victoria is wrong. There is no evidence in the public domain (it may well exist in the Royal Archive) that Queen Victoria attended séances or entertained child psychics at Buckingham Palace and Osborne House. The story about the gold watch given by the Queen to a little girl for a spirit reading was a hoax dreamt up by a family of Shoreditch vaudevillians, but Brennan reports it here as fact. His section on the "Grey Ladies" is frankly bizarre: "Grey Ladies do not have to be ladies at all but can take the form of male apparitions, phantom animals, and even inanimate objects like carriages or cars". I think he means what everyone else would call "stone-tape" or "vestigial" apparitions.

This is all a great shame because I found the first half of the book as beguiling as a sequestered sacred grove, the result of deep thought and a love of his subject. Brennan has done himself no favours with the carelessness that mars the final sections, and not even a fascinating account of his own ghostly experiences can quite revive it.