University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Building Supernatural Cities

In this post, Karl Bell, reader in cultural and social history, talks about his new book Supernatural Cities: Enchantment, Anxiety and Spectrality, bringing together scholars from across the globe working on the relationship between supernatural beliefs and urban cultures.  He describes what the book is about, and what he learned from the process of international academic collaboration.

In my most recent book I brought together and led an international group of scholars in an exploration of magic, monsters, ghosts and storytelling in urban cultures around the world.  Examining these ideas from the late eighteenth to the early twenty-first century, Supernatural Cities: Enchantment, Anxiety and Spectrality (Boydell and Brewer, 2019) challenges the assumption that supernatural beliefs and magical practices died out under the impact of modern urbanisation.  Engaging with urban supernatural cultures across five continents, the contributors demonstrate how such ideas played a role in evolving urban cultures, and how they continue to serve a cultural function up to the present day.  Underlying the broad historical and geographical scope of the book is the argument that the supernatural has continually been adapted and updated to accommodate and express our cultural, economic and environmental fears.

Heart Amulet from the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

Heart Amulet from the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

The book takes its title from my faculty-funded research project (www.supernaturalcities.com), and originated from the project’s first conference, held at the University of Portsmouth in 2016.  Both the conference and the subsequent book brought together a diverse range of academic approaches, with contributions from historians, geographers, anthropologists, folklorists and literary scholars.  When approached by the publisher, Boydell and Brewer, to develop it into a book, I was encouraged to expand the scope beyond a predominantly European focus.  This represented an ambitious scaling up from my previous research and publications, which have focussed on magic, ghosts, and urban legends in nineteenth-century Britain.

To facilitate that broader scope, I had to seek out scholars around the world who shared an interest in the themes of the book, and that led to a fascinating trawl through Academia.edu.  Long before we were all working online due to the Coronavirus, this meant collaborating with scholars who I have never met, in places as varied as Russia, South Africa, the USA and Australia.  Given that a third of the contributors were complete strangers to me, I was hugely impressed by their consummate professionalism and the way they got behind the publication.

My previous book editing experience was as a co-editor on Port Towns and Urban Cultures (2016) (See http://porttowns.port.ac.uk/port-towns-book/), a collaboration with fellow UoP historians, Professor Brad Beaven and Dr Rob James.  For Supernatural Cities, the challenges of structuring the book, reviewing chapters, and steering it to completion fell solely to me.  This necessarily resulted in a slower process and, again, I was impressed with the contributors’ patience and commitment.  Engaging with chapters that ranged from witchcraft in nineteenth-century Paris, to the Goat Man scare near Washington DC in the 1970s, to Manchester’s post-industrial psychogeography and the ghost lore of twenty-first century Beijing certainly took me out of my comfort zone.  However, as I have repeatedly found in my research, it is often when we dare to take that step that we develop as scholars.

The Goat Man of Washington D.C.

The Goat Man of Washington D.C.

The book sets out three ways of understanding the relationship between the supernatural and the urban environment.  The first section on enchantment considers the empowering influence of magical beliefs and the ability of folkloric tales to transform and enrich our understanding of the urban environment.  Examples are drawn from Paris, London, Limerick and the emerging modern cities of South Africa.  Focussing on less positive aspects, the second section uses the supernatural and the Gothic to explore social fears, environmental anxieties, and the demonising of various urban ‘others’.  Here, case studies are drawn from New York, Manila, Washington D.C., Tokyo, the post-Soviet era industrial cities of the Urals, and the London Underground.  The third section explores ghosts, spectrality, and their links to haunting, historical guilt and trauma, and memory.  Chapters focus on the Australian goldfield town of Ballarat, Mexico City, Beijing and Manchester. Across the collection, and the broad geographical sweep of its examples, it is fascinating to see the way these themes prove universal while taking on their own local cultural and historical expressions.

H.P. Lovecraft, The Horror at Red Hook (1927)

H.P. Lovecraft, The Horror at Red Hook (1927)

The book seeks to make an important contribution to our understanding of how urban environments, both past and present, inspire our imaginations, prompt cultural insecurities, and generate spatial fears.  If it helps stimulate greater multidisciplinary discussion between scholars of the supernatural and urban cultures, and if it can encourage dialogue between eastern and western perspectives (and northern and southern hemispheres), then it will have more than fulfilled my ambitions and hopes for the project.

For a full outline of the book’s contents see https://boydellandbrewer.com/supernatural-cities.html.  If inspired to read more, Supernatural Cities is available as an ebook via the University Library

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