May 05, 2011


A Book of Angels: Reflections on Angels Past and Present, and True Stories of How They Touch Our Lives. By Sophy Burnham. Tarcher/Penguin. $16.95.

Ghost Huntress, Book 5: The Discovery. By Marley Gibson. Graphia. $8.99.

     Sophy Burnham says she did not grow up believing in angels – but then one saved her life when she was a young adult. Marley Gibson says she never saw ghosts when growing up – but became a ghost hunter as an adult and now not only believes in spirits but also may have photographed or otherwise captured their images. Burnham and Gibson have taken their experiences in two very different directions: Burnham to a nonfiction book in which she repeatedly affirms the existence of angels as intercessors in the real world, Gibson to a series of novels in which she creates characters whose thoughts and feelings are “typical of those experienced by young people awakening to sensitive or psychic abilities” – and having those characters interact with spirits in ways intended to reflect and dramatize what real-world ghost hunters do.

     Neither of these books will convince nonbelievers in these phenomena, and neither is intended to. Burnham’s, originally published in 1990, asserts that angels occur in one form or another in all major religions (which requires some bending of texts of certain faiths) and interact with human beings even when humans are unaware of them (which is a wholly unprovable proposition). It is intended as a “we are not alone” feel-good volume providing support and a sense of hope to readers who want to believe that there is something of the divine presence (however defined) watching over the human race (if not necessarily over every person at all times). For those who find reassurance in such assertions, Burnham’s book will be balm for the troubled spirit: “We do not know what angels are or whether they stand in hierarchies in the skies. Nor whether they are assigned their duties according to seniority. We know nothing of this other realm, except that we are given brief, fleeting glimpses in our hearts. We hear its singing in lost memories. We see it at the edge of our eye, but so ephemerally that when we turn to face it, it’s already gone.” The poetic language – bolstered by Western works of art and Western snippets of poetry and prose – may lull and satisfy those already predisposed to belief in angels, but will scarcely calm others. The reasons for angels’ evanescence are not explored (angels being unknowable and their ways therefore incapable of being humanly understood); but Burnham does provide some interesting information on mentions of angels (broadly defined) in some little-known faiths. It is intriguing, for example, to consider the blood-drenched Kali (“one of the many aspects of God”) as an angel. It is more horrifying to read stories such as the one of the woman who pushed her five-year-old daughter to her death on subway-train tracks because she wanted the girl to “be with the angels.” Burnham occasionally brings some rationality to her observations, although she afterwards dismisses it quickly: “I once had an angel come as a swan. Or perhaps the swan was an angel. Or perhaps the occurrence is nothing but coincidence distorted: post hoc, propter hoc. Which means, because one event preceded another, you decide that the first one caused the second.” But because Burnham is sure there are angels and that her own life has often been influenced by them, she returns again and again to them as explanations of events. There is nothing wrong with this – faith is, after all, a matter of belief, not reason – but there is nothing particularly convincing for those not already convinced. Burnham’s purpose, in fact, is not to argue but to affirm, for herself and those predisposed to agree with her, that coincidence, happenstance and the inevitable incongruities of life are all evidence (within a given belief structure) that there are beings out there watching over and (at least sometimes) protecting us. Whether this is a slice of reality or a pleasant fantasy will depend on what a reader brings to A Book of Angels.

     Gibson does not insist on belief in ghosts as a prerequisite for enjoyment of the Ghost Huntress series, which after all is fiction. But she does use her own ghost-hunting experience to lend verisimilitude to these stories of 17-year-old Kendall Moorehead, who heads a ghost-hunting team that (unlike those in real life) has no significant difficulty tracking down spirits, some of which prove to be quite evil. In fact, The Discovery picks up after Kendall has pulled herself back together, body and soul, following an encounter with an especially malevolent one. Each Ghost Huntress book shows Kendall balancing normal teenage concerns (boyfriend, family, friends, school) with her special sensitivity to the paranormal and the ghost hunting that results. Typical of Gibson’s interweaving of fact and fantasy is the story in this book about a voodoo doll named Xander, created as protection for a boy but later said to cause strange and unnerving things to happen: “Nothing could ever prove the doll was animated, yet people swore it was,” one character helpfully explains. Gibson bases the Xander story on a tale from Key West, Florida, thus bringing an aspect of reality into Kendall’s fictional world. Of course there turns out to be evil there – the doll-comes-to-life theme is an old one in horror literature and films – and the result is that at one point, Kendall actually lives through a car accident that kills a classmate who is a cheerleader and budding opera singer, after which boyfriend Patrick reassures her, rather lamely, “Now she can sing with the angels.” Patrick, who speaks fluent cliché, also tells the distraught Kendall, “There are things in this world people aren’t meant to understand, Kendall. Even psychics like us.” And the classmate proves rather blasé about death, anyway, returning as a spirit to help Kendall and Patrick in their investigation. A mystery involving the Underground Railroad turns out to be the key to much of what is going on in The Discovery, and the original protective function of the doll turns out (not surprisingly) to have been changed into something evil connected with long-ago slave escapes. “You psychics get to see all the cool stuff,” one non-psychic girl complains to Kendall and Patrick, and even if not everything seems “cool” to the fictional characters, it will certainly be enjoyable to real-world fans of this series, which ends with the unexpected return of Kendall’s former boyfriend – a definite plot point for the next book.

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