Riding With Ghosts

Michael Goss. The Evidence for Phantom Hitchhikers. Aquarian Press (in association with ASSAP), 1984. Republished Coronet, 2015.

Once again, a distinctive theme seems to have arisen unbidden in the pages of this issue of Magonia. Articles by Peter Rogerson and Nigel Watson explore the theme of 'participative folklore' where real, flesh and blood people actually experience some of the traditional themes of folklore. Such themes witchcraft, leprechauns lie on a thin dividing line between real experience and literary artifice; and no theme more, perhaps, than the phantom hitch-hiker.

The PHH (please excuse yet another paranormal acronym) has become almost a symbol of that type of encounter which lies just beyond the reality of individual experience; students of contemporary folklore have used it almost as a symbol of their fugitive subject matter. Until now the only books which have looked seriously at the PHH legend have been those like Brunvand's The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meaning, which have looked on the stories as archetype, and sought a meaning to the accounts in terms of social imagery. They have seen the PHH perhaps as a symbol of the transience and rootlessness of much of Western society. Another tradition of writing has seen the Hitchhiker simply as a ghost story, a good yarn to anthologise, without too much concern as to where the event may lie in a spectrum of reality and myth.,

Michael Goss is aware of the symbolic significance.of the PHH, and analyses it expertly and authoritatively in his study. But also he has travelled the road in search of the one or two original Hitchhiker witnesses; not friends of friends, or second cousins of the man who came to mend his auntie's washing-machine, but the man sitting opposite telling of how he met the Phantom, with all its time-honoured attributes. Even then, the evidence is slight, the stories uncorroborated, but how could they be otherwise? the final link in the chain just that little bit too elusive to pin down. But we know that it happened, we can be sure that one or two people, not many more, will put their hands on their heart and tell you: "I met the Phantom Hitchhiker!"

But that said, we still have the mystery; after all, a thousand people will tell you "I met an alien", and are we any closer to understanding what is happening? If the PHH is out there stalking the highways of the world, is it symbol, reality, illusion or hoax? Michael Goss leads us carefully through the welter of interpretation, and brings us out, much wiser, at the other side. He will not please the sceptic, who wants him to say that all is just a mass of rumour; he will not please the eager-believer, who wants to hear that they are the ghosts of picturesquely slaughtered wanderers. But he will satisfy those who are glad that at last the PHH has been brought firmly into the field of human experience, and can be studied as a paranormal event, but who is still willing to accept its meaning in terms of myth, belief and archetype.

This is a fine book, closely argued - it repays careful reading, is well written, and easily the best title in the 'Evidence' series, bar none. -- John Rimmer, from Magonia 18, January 1985.


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