Title: Aliens, ghosts and vanishings: strange and possibly true Australian stories.
Authors: Stella Tarakson and Richard Morden (illustrator).
Year of publication: 2016
Publisher: Random House Australia
Location of publisher: North Sydney
Number of pages: 282
Date I finished reading it: Wednesday, 4 January 2017
Fiction or nonfiction: Nonfiction
Genre: Paranormal / supernatural / the uncanny – history, Australian history
Personal reflections on reading it:
When I was a teenager, the school library was my refuge. I must have been about 14 or 15 years old when I first stumbled across the paranormal section of the library. There it was, in nonfiction section 001: UFOs. Over the course of my time there, I worked my way through those books, and similar texts on ghosts, the Bermuda Triangle, Atlantis, and the history of pagan religions. They were terribly exciting and interesting to me. When I exhausted those, I then read everything I could from our rural town’s small public library’s collection. But after a while, I found the stories were quite repetitive. The same anecdotes about Roswell and conspiracies about governments hiding the ‘truth’ about aliens from their citizens. Then, in my ‘born again’ days, the only book I ventured near on that type of topic was a young Earth creationist book on extra-terrestrials (and, I might add, a genuinely interesting read).
However, I knew that my home region of Gippsland, in the south eastern part of the state of Victoria, Australia, was a place where we seemed to have more than our fair share of the uncanny. We grew up on strange local stories: the Swamp Lady and the unsolved mystery of her disappearance, sightings of the extinct carnivorous marsupial the Tasmanian tiger, haunted hills and UFOs in the skies above our coast. In recent years, a family member put me onto a book about mysteries of the unexplained in Gippsland, and while I was able to borrow a copy from the local library, sadly the book was out of print and I was unable to purchase my own copy.
So, imagine my joy when I found out that Aliens, Ghosts and Vanishings existed to fill the void of books on the supernatural and uncanny history of Australia. I first heard about it through the illustrator’s Instagram, which I’ve followed for a while now. Though the book is apparently aimed at a teenage audience, I bought it for myself (I can excuse that by getting my teenaged child to read it now I’ve finished it!).
What makes this book different – apart from the local Australian content – is that it’s not just another ‘mysteries’ book. I found it to be a thoughtful, carefully presented text that clearly explains different ways of viewing these stories. Rather than falling back on the assumption that it’s all true, they carefully and respectfully suggest scientifically plausible explanations, while acknowledging traditional Indigenous knowledge surrounding many of the strange phenomena presented in the book. At the same time, they do not offhandedly dismiss the experiences of the witnesses to the various ghosts, monsters, spirits, UFOs, and more. There seems to be a genuine attempt to bring a calm, reasoned approach to the uncanny in Australia. While on the surface it may appear to be just another book about ghosts, it is so much more.
I think it’s a great introductory text for young people interested in these topics. When I was a teenager voraciously reading everything I could on the paranormal, I don’t recall any of the books being cautious in leaping upon supernatural answers. Most, if not all, were written by true believers and intended to convince the reader that extra-terrestrials were among us, that they were either benevolent saviours of humanity, or malevolent beings like the modern equivalent of the incubus and succubus, that all strange lights in the sky were definitely alien spacecraft, and that ghosts were uncontestably the spirits of the dead condemned to walk the Earth until a suitably skilled psychic set them free. Aliens, Ghosts and Vanishings does discuss these perspectives, but offers much-needed balance to the topic by talking about various ways that science and tradition have also tried to interpret those phenomena. At the same time, it is brilliant how frequently they respectfully draw on, and acknowledge, Indigenous knowledge and history, thus ensuring that it represents a fascinating history of this continent – and not just a history of the time since Captain Cook.