Review: The Haunting of Borley Rectory: The Story of a Ghost Story – Sean O’Connor

Sean O’Connor, The Haunting of Borley Rectory: The Story of a Ghost Story, London, Simon and Schuster, 2022. ISBN 978-1-4711-9477-1 [hbk] £20.00

Another book about Borley Rectory? Yet another study of what was once famously – or infamously – known as ‘The Most Haunted House in England’? I admit I was musing aloud on these very things as I opened, with some trepidation, Sean O’Connor’s recent examination of what his book’s subtitle intriguingly describes as ‘The Story of a Ghost Story.’

482 pages later I knew I needn’t have worried, for ‘The Haunting of Borley Rectory’ is a compelling and highly readable matrix of complex and interlocking stories. What links these, aside from the author’s deft weaving of them together, is the Rectory itself – ‘as ugly as the bad taste of 1863 could make it’, according to local lawyer William Charles Crocker – and the result is an absorbing drama, played out over the decades spanning the building of the dank and imposing place to its burning down during the years of the Second World War. It even ends with a present-day postscript of sorts: suggesting that this most notorious of paranormal tales still has a way – or ways – to run.

No haunting takes place in a vacuum, of course, and the narrative of the rectory’s own troubled history forms just one of the stories contained herein. Ghosts, poltergeists, and other assorted paranormal disturbances have seemingly ever been with us – and none more so, it has been alleged, than at Borley – but there were no societies devoted to their investigation when the building was first completed. These would come later and one of them, the National Laboratory for Psychical Research, would come to have its own story firmly entwined with that of the rectory itself. This was almost entirely due to the involvement in the case of the Laboratory’s famous – some would say infamous – first honorary director Harry Price, whose enquiries (and later, books) would come to define the Borley ‘legend’ for years to come.

O’Connor is particularly effective in his depiction of Price. Was he a sleuth or a charlatan? The reporter of events or – in some celebrated instances at least – their creator? Opinion remains as divided now as it did during the heyday of the National Laboratory’s investigations, but instances of supposedly paranormal stone throwing where Price was caught red handed with his pockets full of stones suggest that in at least some instances he was more than a merely detached and dispassionate observer. And, as O’Connor makes clear during early chapters, Price is known to have watched and studied, in his own words, ‘illusionists, hypnotists, conjurers…fakirs, quacks and mountebanks’ early on in his career, even prior to his becoming a full-time commercial traveller selling paper to the grocery and bakery trades.

It is worth pointing out at this point that ‘The Haunting of Borley Rectory’ presents a fine microcosm of Forteana generally and would be a fine place to start for somebody new to the USPS. Even if you had never, ever, picked up a book on anomalous phenomena in your life prior to reading it you would have learned a very great deal by the end. There was clearly hoaxing and trickery in abundance during the rectory’s troubled heyday but, equally, there was odd and seemingly inexplicable stuff too: particularly the many reported sightings of the ghostly nun. And what of the seemingly inexplicable lights seen at the windows of empty rooms? The whispering voices? The pervading sense of evil and unease felt by so many: even in a place set aside for clergy use? Add in the hand of the trickster, ordering – or, more accurately, disordering – events toward his own maddening and unfathomable ends and you have it all. Anomalistics 101. The whole kit and kaboodle. And it is to his credit that without judging or prejudging O’Connor tells the whole, mad, tale and leaves the reader to decide.

It has become something of a truism within paranormal research that people are haunted, not places, and that there can be no telling of the tale of the latter without the telling of the tales of the former. O’Connor excels in his recounting of these, beginning with that of the Bull family, divided in their recollections as to whether anything paranormal ever happened at the place at all. He follows this with the tale of Eric and Mabel Smith, tenants for less than a year before they abandoned the house as being effectively uninhabitable. Next up – and most notoriously – is the tale of Reverend Lionel Foyster and his wife Marianne, the latter suspected by Price of manufacturing many of the phenomena that took place during their residency, including messages written on the wall apparently by invisible entities (some containing features indicative of Marianne’s own distinctive grammatical quirks). Marianne Foyster’s contribution to the Borley lore has been examined in detail before and O’Connor extends his own telling of this fascinating woman’s tale to encompass the events of her life when she had long left the rectory and all its attendant drama behind.

Except, of course, it could never quite leave her behind, and during the latter stages of the book we are brought up to date on her later years, the periods of tenancy of those who succeeded the Foysters, and, ultimately, to the story of Borley in the present day. Locals are still loathe to talk about the one-time notoriety in their midst, and O’Connor makes clear that visits are not welcome. There is nothing to see there now, anyway, with not even a single visible remnant of the once looming building still in evidence.

In the book’s opening and only disappointing line O’Connor avers that ‘The British are less sceptical than they like to believe.’ His quoting of statistics notwithstanding, ‘The Haunting of Borley Rectory’ gives lie to this assertion at various points, with some protagonists having clearly been very sceptical throughout and others, like Mabel Smith, making clear subsequent to her own tenancy that ‘neither my husband nor myself believed the house haunted by anything else but rats and local superstition.’ This may well, as Harry Price clearly thought, have represented something of a volte-face, but it was an opinion shared by many others who examined the evidence and who called much of it into question in the years both before and after the rectory burned to the ground. Besides all of this, ‘The British’ are a diverse bunch with a wide range of opinions and worldviews both ‘sceptical’ and otherwise, and the many and varied perspectives expressed in this book to the events at Borley provide ample evidence of this.

Unsurprisingly in a book ostensibly devoted to paranormal phenomena, we are left in the end with an enigma. A whole tangle of enigmas, in actual fact. Was Borley Rectory ever ‘The Most Haunted House in England’, as Price averred, or not? In a useful final chapter O’Connor summarises the evidence for and against this bold assertion, perceptively noting that ‘The Rectory – or rather the story that possessed it –  seemed to infect successive residents and investigators like a contagious disease that could be caught and transmitted.’ And it is true that successive tenants reported oddities that never quite went away, despite a mound of evidence that there was nothing in it from start to finish.

Ultimately the author leaves us with the thought that the story of Borley Rectory might ‘be interpreted as a curious parable from history demonstrating the commanding power of the story over the facts in uncertain times…’ If so, it has much to say to us today; the potency of the myth enduring through the decades to infect us even as we grapple with our own ongoing uncertainties and dislocations.

This review first appeared in Psychical Studies, Issue No 103, Spring 2024, pp. 25 – 9.