A Little Book of Superstitions

The University of Chicago PressLast night, a tidy package of books  arrived in the mail for me. William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (complete with his original artwork), Ware’s Victorian Dictionary of Slang and Phrases, and a palm-sized black book entitled Superstitions, Omens, Charms, Cures 1787.

Clearly I went for the most intriguing book first: Superstitions, Omens, Charms, Cures 1787. This book (published by the Bodleian Library in Oxford) might be tiny, but it packs a wallop. Advice on the occult is offered up by one Francis Grose, whose commentary on things that go bump in the night is just a step beyond delicious.

Take for instance, his advice on getting rid of ghosts that haunt without giving you any indication at all what the cause of their haunting might be: “the shortest and only way is to exorcise, and eject them; or, as the vulgar terms is, lay them. For this purpose there must be two or three clergymen, and the ceremony must be performed in Latin, a language that strikes the most audacious Ghost with terror.”

There are so many omens of death listed that you could hardly open your eyes without seeing one of them, which seems like no healthy way to get through the day.

In a section entitled “Sympathy,” Grose describes the sensation of getting the chills and shivering when someone walks over the site of your future grave, but with the caveat that, “Probably all persons are not subject to this sensation; otherwise the inhabitants of those parishes, whose burial grounds lie in the common foot-path, would live in one continual fit of shaking.”

Clearly, Francis Grose, who originally published these musings on the supernatural as part of a larger book in 1787, is a man with an extraordinary gift for the well-crafted turn of phrase. He’s also a hoot.

And why, pray tell, am I reading this crazy little book? Research, my friends. Sometimes this whole writing thing has real benefits.