The Weiser Field Guide to the Paranormal, by Judith JoyceThe Weiser Field Guide to the Paranormal: Abductions, Apparitions, ESP, Synchronicity, and More Unexplained Phenomena from Other Realms, by Judith Joyce
Weiser Books, 9781578634880, 210 pp. (incl. resource guide and index), 2011

Setting out to write a field guide to the paranormal is perhaps the definition of thankless task. There are bound to be quibbles with what one includes or doesn’t, and even terminology is certain to be contentious. Judith Joyce’s bravery is only matched by her handling of competing interpretations within the entries of this field guide, though the overwhelming impression in this particular book is one of editorial bias.

The “field guide” focuses very heavily on Victorian-era Spiritualism and UFOs instead of taking a broader view. With the American study of the paranormal so heavily influenced (and indeed, in the 19th century pretty much exclusively funded by) by Spiritualists, it was perhaps a legitimate choice, though not to my personal taste. In some cases (like the entry on Lily Dale) said emphasis threatens to choke the guide as a whole. A better title might have been “A Field Guide to Spiritualism and UFOs, with Some Other Cool Stuff Slid in Around the Edges.”

As a veteran (both as a writer and as an editor) of several anthologies, I was struck with the impression that Joyce as author fought to include some of the more interesting bits (the entries on Baba Vanga, shadow beings, and EVP spring to mind) against overwhelming editorial pressure for Spiritualism and UFOs. Joyce has a wonderful sense for the interesting or little-known detail, as in her entries on Thomas Edison, the difference between precognition and premonition, or Lincoln’s ghost–said entries being saved from eye-rolling and yawning by Joyce’s deft handling.

The entries, arranged in alphabetical order, grow far more interesting later in the book; and when Joyce is “given her head” they become outright enjoyable. Later alphabetical entries also move away from the earlier half of the guide’s insistence on mentioning “science may not know everything” every other breath. (The entries on pyrokinesis and the Roswell incident, not to mention the Stone Tape theory and x-ray vision, are worth the price of admission alone.) The Introduction falls short of laying out a case for the eventual scientific provability of paranormal phenomena, though it does give a brief overview of the effect of the Age of Reason on belief in the uncanny and notes that paranormal or unexplained phenomena provokes knee-jerk emotional reactions. Its invitation to “make up your own mind” would be far more readily accepted with less insistence on one or two editorial hobbyhorses and a wider scope of subjects.

The sections on cryptids, Atlantis, and ESP, not to mention crop circles, could have handily been extended and the Spiritualism bits savagely trimmed; and I was not altogether certain the emphasis on UFOs was necessary in a field guide with such rich paranormal ground to till in other directions. More coverage of different types of ghosts would have been very welcome, as well as examples of the different types of ESP defined–I would have loved to read about actual pyrokinetics, and I’m certain Joyce is the author to dig up their stories.

The method of organization throughout the field guide format is spotty as well. Certain entries end with “For more information, see book Z or website Y.” Setting such mentions in footnotes or in the Resource Guide at the end of the guide would have been less jarring as well as much tidier. Between the emphasis on Spiritualism communities and camps (Lily Dale, Camp Chesterfield, etc.) the impression was perilously close to paid placement instead of just editorial bias.

While interesting tidbits abound, the guide’s potential seems unfulfilled. Brevity and breadth are the paradoxical soul of the field guide, and Joyce seems the author to handle both once the editorial pressure toward certain areas is reduced. Weiser Books should perhaps return to the drawing board, giving Joyce her head in a revamped edition without such heavy-handed control.