Spooky Edinburgh inspires Lumsden

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POL-TER-GEIST (noun): 'Noisy spirit'; paranormal source of physical disturbances.

As anyone who has ever watched Steven Spielberg's classic horror flick or the BBC Scotland drama Sea of Souls will tell you, poltergeists can be scary. Okay, the ones on the screen are, but do they exist in the real world?

Who better to ask than author and parapsychologist JJ Lumsden, who attempts to answer that question in his new novel, The Hidden Whisper.

Now based in Birmingham, Lumsden did his under-graduate degree at Edinburgh University, staying on to do his postgraduate studies which saw him based him at the university's world famous Koestler Parapsychology Unit for three and a half years. His interest in the paranormal however, began a lot earlier.

"Like many youngsters, I was curious as to how the world ticked, and the paranormal was a particularly intriguing part of that," he says.

"As I got older, the interest grew stronger. If phenomena proved genuine I realised there were significant consequences for our world view, and how the universe operated. So, when the opportunity to get involved in parapsychology came along – that was the route I wanted.

"At the time, the Koestler Parapsychology Unit was the best place to study parapsychology anywhere in the world," adds Lumsden.

"In its heyday, at the turn of the millennium, the unit had around a dozen members of staff and students. Unfortunately, in 2004, Professor Robert Morris (the unit's Professor of Parapsychology] died unex-pectedly and left a tremendous void and with no clear plan in place for moving on the KPU now has just two permanent members of staff."

The Hidden Whisper is set a world away from Edinburgh academia, in a retirement community in the desert of South Arizona. There, Jack and Chloe Monroe have an unwanted guest and a phenomenon they once thought of as simply strange has turned sinister.

Enter paranormal investi-gator Dr Luke Jackson – who has just one week to unravel the mystery and the clock is ticking.

In the novel Lumsden uses Jackson's character to give the reader an insight into his world, even providing extensive end notes which offer additional explanations of the many topics raised in the tale.

"Many people have an interest in the paranormal, and many people have (often strong) opinions on it. As you can imagine there's a fairly wide and diverse spectrum of views," he says. "From the offset, my aim was to write a book that tried to explain our current understanding of the paranormal in an easy going way. Fitting the science around a fictional narrative seemed logical, although it proved harder than I thought and an 18 month project soon topped three years.

"In blending fiction with science, the question was what sort of story to centre the narrative on? I wanted a book that had some mystery to it, so the aim was to create a whodunit/whatdunnit event. In turn, a poltergeist episode seemed a good choice as these events typically have a number of potential explanations."

Lumsden admits that he has not personally been involved in any poltergeist investigations – "They're fairly rare occurrences," he assures – but has studied psychokinesis.

"Most contemporary parapsychology is laboratory based," he says. "Researchers try to establish whether phenomena like Extra Sensory Perception or Psychokinesis can be generated consistently under laboratory conditions with all the controls and safeguards that entails.

"I specialised in psycho-kinesis research, and so never got hands on with any local paranormal events when I was in Edinburgh. My fieldwork has predominantly been conducted in Zululand, South Africa, where I've worked with indigenous healers to try to understand whether psychic healing is genuine."

Which is the question asked about all paranormal activity. So, does Lumsden believe that there is a scientific explan-ation for every eventuality or are there cases that have left him genuinely stumped?

"We've been beavering away at parapsychology for well over a century now, and while we definitely have a better understanding of the paranormal, it is far from complete.

"There are certainly occasions when apparently strange and mysterious events have quite prosaic explan-ations, but there are also occasions when we all step back and scratch our heads and furrow our brows. Theories and textbook explanations seem unlikely to account for everything we see."

Worth remembering the next time something goes bump in the night.

The Hidden Whisper by JJ Lumsden is published by Bennion Kearny, 10.99, www.thehidden whisper.com