The best books about dangerous spirits

Darren Oldridge Author Of Strange Histories: The Trial of the Pig, the Walking Dead, and Other Matters of Fact from the Medieval and Renaissance Worlds
By Darren Oldridge

The Books I Picked & Why

The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe

By Brian P. Levack

Book cover of The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe

Why this book?

I read the first edition of this book and fell in love with the subject. Then I spent thirty years studying the history of dangerous spirits. As a subject that belongs as much to popular culture as scholarship, the history of witchcraft has inspired many excitable and unreliable books. Levack’s study is the antidote: a superbly lucid synthesis of the best research, written with style and an easy touch. This is the book to help you really understand the complex and deeply human tragedy of witch trials.

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The Sorcerer's Tale: Faith and Fraud in Tudor England

By Alec Ryrie

Book cover of The Sorcerer's Tale: Faith and Fraud in Tudor England

Why this book?

A neglected classic of popular history. This book taught me things about the history of magic that now seem so obvious and important that I wonder how I missed them before. Ryrie tells the story of the fraudulent magician Gregory Wisdom, whose deception of a Tudor nobleman led to allegations of attempted murder by witchcraft. More broadly, he reveals a world in which the widespread acceptance of occult phenomena made counterfeit magic alluringly credible, and charlatans co-existed with “genuine” practitioners of magic. I know of no other book that describes the twilight world of fake and real sorcery with such vividness and insight.

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The Haunting of Hill House

By Shirley Jackson

Book cover of The Haunting of Hill House

Why this book?

I love the idea of ghosts and ghost stories but often find them disappointing. Few things in fiction genuinely scare me, though I like to imagine things that would. Shirley Jackson’s novel carries, for me, a rare and real chill. There is something unpleasantly compelling about this story of a friendless young woman seduced by the malevolent presence – a ghost? a kind of predatory spirit? – that inhabits Hill House. There are passages in this book that give me an almost existential shudder. We are all scared by different things, of course; but I hope that new visitors will find their own cold places in the rooms of Jackson’s watchful mansion.

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The Exorcist

By William Peter Blatty

Book cover of The Exorcist

Why this book?

The Devil has always been a great character in fiction. Often, he appears in a comic or outlandish guise. Blatty’s novel treats him more seriously. A devout Christian, he originally wanted to tell a true story of demonic possession that would persuade sceptical readers of the existence of God; he eventually resorted to fiction but retained his evangelical purpose. (Here he echoed the demonologists of the late 1600s who defended the belief in witchcraft as a rampart against atheism.) Blatty’s Devil is darkly cunning: he exploits human weakness to undermine faith in anything worthwhile in life, and he conceals his own existence to hide the possibility of God. These theological concerns could have weighed the book down. But instead, they are woven naturally into a compelling work of literary horror.   

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The Shining

By Stephen King

Book cover of The Shining

Why this book?

I spend a lot of time thinking about demonic temptation, mainly in the context of Tudor and Stuart England. Stephen King’s novel is set in twentieth-century America and barely mentions the Devil, but it presents a view of evil spirits in the mind that was familiar in the 1600s. The spirit haunting The Overlook Hotel preys insidiously on the weaknesses of the winter caretaker, Jack Torrance, toying with his anxieties, his frustrated ambitions, and his struggle with alcohol – and occasionally dropping poison directly into his mind. The result is a slow-acting corrosion of his better self. Torrance’s descent into depravity is chilling because so much of the violence is already inside him, and whatever spirit pervades the hotel hooks into his failings like “the ghostly tempter” in the pre-modern world.

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