Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Joe Nickell's Adventures...

I recently received a copy of Joe Nickell's Adventures in Paranormal Investigation as a gift, and during my during my recent expedition to the stinking wilderness that is rural Pennsylvania I finally got the opportunity to dig into it. Nickell's a Kentucky native, just like your old pal Skippy, but unlike me he actually gets paid to do paranormal investigations because they link into his job as a folklorist and professor at the University of Kentucky. Accordingly, Nickell gets to travel the world investigating hauntings, miracles, and urban legends - kind of like Kolchak the Night Stalker. Nickell has also written numerous books, of which Adventures is the latest. I thought I'd bang out a quick review because I found it to be an addicting little book, but please forgive my brevity and rather jagged prose - I'm trying to wrap this up during my lunch break.

Adventures in Paranormal Investigation is largely a collection of Nickell's articles from The Skeptical Inquirer, though some of the entries are apparently somewhat expanded. A couple of dozen different subjects are covered, from "vanishing hitchhiker" stories to stigmata to alien abductions, though most of them are given only a brief treatment. Overall none of the entries really go into great detail, but the book is still an interesting read. Honestly the best entries are the ones in which Nickell gets to show off his background in folklore, such as the discussion of haunted castles towards the end of the book. Nickell has an impressive gift for research, a prime example being his exhaustive tracing of the origins of a yarn about a "haunted dungeon" at a fortification in Florida, and entries that highlight this shine brighter than, say, his brief sketch of a study correlating alien abduction experiences with fantasy-prone personality traits. That being said, Nickell includes a bibliography at the end of each chapter, so interested readers immediately have a jumping off point for further study.

One concern that does come up occasionally (Because most of the book's chapters originally saw print as individual articles, I suspect) is that Nickell seems to have tendency to repeat himself. Over the course of about half a dozen chapters on ghosts and/or aliens, for example, the reader will encounter, verbatim, the same sentence about waking dreams. I found that to be a little tedious. I was also a little bothered by Nickell's brief hand-wringing about how he's a "paranormal investigator" rather than a "debunker" - I think that's a mincing of words that can probably be done without.

Overall Adventures in Paranormal Investigation is a worthwhile book even though it mostly just scratches the surface of its subject matter. Keeping in mind, however, that it is largely composed of Nickell's Skeptical Inquirer columns, regular readers of that magazine may find themselves reading over material that they've seen before. In particular, the chapter called "The New Idolatry", which deals with weeping religious statues and the like, ran in the Skeptical Inquirer fairly recently. Still, the book has a light "armchair reader" quality and will likely appeal the most to the curious and to casual skeptics who don't plow through quite as much skeptical literature as I do. Check it out. It's definitely worth a look.

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