“This is rich, florid, funny history, with undertones of human grief . . . Knight is shrewd and perceptive . . . [he] pushes his material into neurobiology, into the nature of placebos and expectations and self-fulfilling prophecies . . . Knight’s book is crisp.” —Dwight Garner, New York Times
"[E]legant and eccentric . . . [Knight's] prose glides like mercury and he does not waste a word. With deft skill, he explores historical theories of perception, time, death, fear."
—New York Times Book Review
"[A] thought-provoking and deeply researched book . . . Knight probes the space between coincidence and the ineffable mystery of supernatural possibilities."
"[Knight's] prose delights."
—Wall Street Journal
“Stunning… An enveloping, unsettling book, gorgeously written and profound.” —Patrick Radden Keefe, New York Times bestselling author of Say Nothing and Empire of Pain
From a rising star New Yorker staff writer, the incredible and gripping true story of John Barker, a psychiatrist who investigated the power of premonitions—and came to believe he himself was destined for an early death
On the morning of October 21, 1966, Kathleen Middleton, a music teacher in suburban London, awoke choking and gasping, convinced disaster was about to strike. An hour later, a mountain of rubble containing waste from a coal mine collapsed above the village of Aberfan, swamping buildings and killing 144 people, many of them children. Among the doctors and emergency workers who arrived on the scene was John Barker, a psychiatrist from Shelton Hospital, in Shrewsbury. At Aberfan, Barker became convinced there had been supernatural warning signs of the disaster, and decided to establish a “premonitions bureau,” in conjunction with the Evening Standard newspaper, to collect dreams and forebodings from the public, in the hope of preventing future calamities.
Middleton was one of hundreds of seemingly normal people, who would contribute their visions to Barker’s research in the years to come, some of them unnervingly accurate. As Barker’s work plunged him deeper into the occult, his reputation suffered. But in the face of professional humiliation, Barker only became more determined, ultimately realizing with terrible certainty that catastrophe had been prophesied in his own life.
In Sam Knight’s crystalline telling, this astonishing true story comes to encompass the secrets of the world. We all know premonitions are impossible—and yet they come true all the time. Our lives are full of collisions and coincidence: the question is how we perceive these implausible events and therefore make meaning in our lives. The Premonitions Bureau is an enthralling account of madness and wonder, of science and the supernatural. With an unforgettable ending, it is a mysterious journey into the most unsettling reaches of the human mind.
A British psychiatrist's inquiries into "the problem of precognition" are recounted in New Yorker contributor Knight's mesmerizing debut. In October 1966, one week after the collapse of an enormous coal waste pile killed 116 schoolchildren in Aberfan, Wales, John Barker, a psychiatrist with "a keen interest in unusual mental conditions," and Evening Standard science reporter Peter Fairley issued a call for people to report their premonitions of the disaster. The responses they received including a letter from Kathleen Middleton, a London dance teacher who awoke the morning of the accident "choking and gasping and with the sense of the walls caving in" led Barker to speculate that precognition "might be as common as left-handedness." To test the theory, he and Fairley established a "premonitions bureau" to "log premonitions as they occurred and see how many were borne out in reality." Within 15 months, they received more than 700 premonitions, 3% of which proved to be correct. One of the most accurate correspondents was Middleton, who also envisaged a train derailment, Robert F. Kennedy's assassination, and Barker's untimely death from a burst vessel in his brain. Amid the vivid profiles of Barker, Middleton, and others, Knight interweaves intriguing episodes of precognition from history and literature. The result is a captivating study of the uncanny. Photos.