Judy Allen's Unexplained reads like a return to my early adolescence, when I spent several years devouring books about ghosts, monsters, and paranormal phenomena. Who doesn't remember whiling away the hours of a summer afternoon—and perhaps sneaking in a little time during a boring junior high class—reading about Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster (or "Nessie," as we experts called it), UFOs, haunted houses, and the like? These were the types of books and stories that fascinated me and my fellow schoolmates of a bookish bent. We were all amateur UFOlogists, cryptozoologists, folklorists, and parapsychologists, even before we were introduced to such big words.
Unexplained is a strong entry in this venerable subgenre of young adult literature. All the usual suspects are present—those mentioned above plus ghosts, psychic powers, the Bermuda Triangle, and more—as well as a few that I was surprised to see. The mothman, for example, and feng shui, spontaneous human combustion, and crop circles are topics that, for whatever reason, I was not expecting to find here. My surprise is probably due to the fact that these things were a bit more obscure than the others when I was growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s. They weren't talked about in the books I read. So a point to note in Unexplained's favor is that its overall selection is up to date and surprisingly eclectic, even in the eyes of a jaded old hand like me. Both Allen and her publisher, Kingfisher (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin), have done a fine job in assembling a veritable treasure trove of information. If you can imagine a book that hybridises Time Life's popular Mysteries of the Unknown series with its Enchanted World series from the 1980s, but is more lavishly illustrated than either and written on a level that's intended to appeal to fourth through eighth graders, then you'll have a good idea of what Unexplained is all about.
It makes quite a pleasing presentation, right from the start. To begin with, the book's format is striking. It is an oversized hardcover of the coffee-table variety featuring sumptuous production values and artwork. The cover boards are adorned with the same eerie illustration that appears on the dust jacket. The endpapers feature a pale cloudscape. The pages themselves are thick and glossy and are positively crammed with attractive, full-color visuals. But this isn't to say they're cluttered or gaudy. Quite the opposite: the words sleek and rich come to mind. Kingfisher has used its considerable resources and talented art department to collect many famous and not-so-famous photographs of buildings, hauntings, natural scenery, animals, historical artifacts, famous works of art, and more and has laid them out in a pleasing design incorporating a wealth of original color artwork. For example, a two-page layout titled "Statues and Stone" presents photographs of a weeping Virgin Mary statue and the "Dropping Well" in Yorkshire, England, accompanied by a commissioned illustration of a Middle Eastern man being petrified in the desert by a basilisk. The overall plan of the spread is attractive and compelling and effectively generates a moody visual context to complement and amplify the text.
The structure of the book's contents is equally streamlined and effective. Allen has wisely chosen to organize her material by category. Hence, we have sections titled "Hauntings," "The Power of the Mind," "Superstitions and Symbols," "Natural Phenomena," "Strange Creatures," "Disappearances," "Ancient Mysteries," "Lost Lands and Secrets," "Cures, Signs, and Skills," "Lines and Labyrinths," and "From Another Planet." Each of these is divided into subsections, some of which are fairly broad and generic—e.g., "Strange Creatures" is divided into "Water Monsters," "Land Monsters," and "Alien Cats"—and some of which are comparatively specific, as in "Lost Lands and Secrets," which is divided into "Atlantis," "Shangri-La and El Dorado," "The Hollow Earth," and "The Hunt for Treasures." The book also features a glossary, index, and acknowledgments page, as well as a useful List of Phenomena by Area, which indexes various items according to their locations.
Then there's Allen's introduction, "What Is the Unexplained?" She begins by asking a few questions to set the book's tone and focus: "Are there ghosts? Can your dreams predict the future? Why do frogs fall out of the sky? What is the meaning of Stonehenge? Is the number 13 really unlucky?" And so on. Then she explains that while knowledge of the world increases every day and with especial swiftness in this present age of literacy, science, and the mass electronic media, some mysteries continue to elude explanation. "The world," she writes, "is such an extraordinary and complicated place that it's very unlikely that we will ever solve every puzzle, break every code, and understand every awesome phenomenon. But we can—and will—go on trying, and any one of us may discover the key to something that has been lost, hidden, or misunderstood for thousands of years."
In truth, as much as anything it's probably this tack that leads me to give Unexplained high marks. I find her tone and approach endearing. Yes, it's equally possible to scoff at it, to cop an attitude drawn from the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and deem the entire book a mass of rubbish for its deplorable (as CSICOP would see it) attempt to make pseudoscience and superstition seem attractive. But I choose to be charmed instead of offended. Chalk this up to my aforementioned early inundation and indoctrination in the world of the weird, but I think it can be a positive boon for young people to be entertained by this type of stuff, which helps keep the doors and windows of their imaginations wide open. I suspect the same impulse that has elevated YA fantasy literature to the status of the hottest genre in the contemporary publishing industry—namely, the desire to regard the world with an attitude of wonder and enchantment—also factors into the perennial fascination with books like this. We seem to be possessed by a desire, if not a positive need, to experience the world in this way. And what's the harm in that as long as we retain our critical faculties as well?
Unexplained isn't a uniformly successful book. Some of its text feels a bit sparse or thin. The subsection on psi powers, for example, features a discussion of déjà vu so brief and fleeting (consisting of a mere seven sentences) that it barely scratches the surface of the topic. The same goes for the subsections "Strange Rains," "Weeping Statues," and a few others. At times Allen appears content merely to list a few anecdotal notes for a given topic and leave it at that, thus giving the impression that she has metaphorically waved her hand in the direction of the subject instead of offering a viable entry for a book that is, after all, dubbed an "encyclopedia." Simply put, I wish she had gone a little deeper in places. I'm sure her decision to hold back had something to do with the level of detail deemed necessary for her target audience. And yes, for more substantial fare one can always turn to the likes of adult-oriented books such as Mike Dash's Borderlands, Patrick Harpur's Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld, John A. Keel's Our Haunted Planet, and John Mack's Passport to the Cosmos: Human Transformation and Alien Encounters, which delve deeper into the metaphysical and philosophical implications of paranormal phenomena. But it still strikes me that Allen's Unexplained goes a bit too far in the opposite direction, even for its YA audience, and as a result occasionally seems sketchy and shallow.
The same holds true for her or Kingfisher's decision to omit certain phenomena whose inclusion would seem almost required in a book like this. For instance, Unexplained makes no mention of the phenomena of spirit and demon possession. I'm guessing such subjects might have been considered too controversial for a young audience, but their omission is still glaring and unfortunate in light of the book's other contents.
In the end, these are minor quibbles. Unexplained achieves exactly what it sets out to do as delineated by Allen in her introduction and does it with energy and style. I'm betting it will prove enormously popular among junior high students and late grade-schoolers and even among high schoolers and adults who enjoy reading about the world of mysterious forces and phenomena. It's a book I would have loved to read when I was ten or twelve years old. I can still picture some of the cover images and interior illustrations of the books about paranormal things that I read at the time. They marked me permanently and became an important part of my imaginative makeup, and I think if Unexplained had been available to me then, it might well have outstripped them all.
Matt Cardin is a writer, scholar, musician, and teacher living in southwest Missouri. His short fiction collection of weird horror stories with a cosmic-spritual religious focus, Divinations of the Deep, established him as a major voice in the modern literary horror revival. He is also widely recognized for his scholarly writings about Thomas Ligotti. He runs a blog titled the Teeming Brain and tends a horror-themed musical project, Daemonyx. His novelettes "Nightmares, Imported and Domestic," co-written with Mark McLaughlin, and "Desert Places" appear in Dark Arts and Alone on the Darkside, respectively, both edited by John Pelan.