An Encylopedia of Claims, Frauds and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural

by James Randi (St. Martin's Press, NY, 1995).

Review by William R. Coker


I first learned of this book from a review in the latest issue of Genii by the excellent Jamy Ian Swiss. A previous recent book by Randi from the same publisher, Conjuring, was faulted by essentially every reviewer in the magic community for sloppy research and hasty proofreading, and both faults are very much in evidence in the present work.

There are strange typos on nearly every page. For instance, in the entry on "angels," a word which I assume should have been "Bible"' is printed as boldface letter j! In the entry on the "Secret Gospel," we read about "Clement of Alexandria, one of the early fathers of the Church, writing in the late 18th century...!"

The book has a lot of humor and some of the apparent errors are deliberate jokes, such as the double entry for "bilocation," and the entry for "Jardinier, Martinet"--- a nod to that national treasure, Martin Gardner. The problem with humor in a reference book is that the reader sometimes has no idea how to interpret a given entry -- is it real or a joke? For instance, the entry on the "Necronomicon" treats it as an actual book, whereas it and its author are the completely imaginary creations of H. P. Lovecraft.

There is also a great deal of sloppy or "off the top of the head" research, as when gaming cards are said to have evolved from the tarot, when in fact the evolution was the other way around.

There are strange omissions. L. Ron Hubbard has an entry, but there is no entry for the vile, destructive cult he created. The "entity" channeled by Jane Roberts, Seth, has an entry but there is no entry for Roberts herself. Arthur C. Clarke, in an introduction, laments Randi's omission of Creationism. Many such omissions seem to be due to the haste with which the slender book (251 pages in the main text, in very large type, plus two appendices on predictions and the Tutankhamen curse) was prepared. Other omissions seem to be deliberate. As Randi says on p. 197 in his brief discussion of medical quackery, "political and legal considerations have prevented open discussion or even the questioning of procedures that are clearly without merit. The highly litigious nature of American society has effectively provided the quacks with protection, and the public suffers because it cannot afford to defend itself...." Randi has been the recent victim of a long chain of frivolous litigations which have virtually wiped out his life savings, even as he won every case. This goes a long way toward explaining and justifying the hasty, sloppy and incomplete, and strangely restrained, aspects of this book.

No magic secrets are exposed, except for the venerable "one-ahead" question-answering act, rarely if ever used in this form by modern mentalists.

As for the book's strong points, there are many. As a hobby, I have been collecting and reading books on pseudoscience and pseudoscientists since the mid-1950's and I found much here that was completely new to me. I had never heard of E-rays, had no idea Sir William Crookes was a follower of Eliphas Levi, etc., etc. To offset the many short, "blow-off" entries, there are nice, long, informative entries on Erik Jan Hanussen, Karl Ernst Krafft, cold reading, Nostradamus, dowsing, etc., etc.

Is the book worth $24.95? You betchum, and even if you can read through it in one sitting, as I did, you'll have more than a few chuckles and absorb some genuine and hard-won wisdom.

William R. Coker


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