cover image The Premonitions Bureau: A True Account of Death Foretold

The Premonitions Bureau: A True Account of Death Foretold

Sam Knight. Penguin Press, $28 (256p) ISBN 978-1-984879-59-2

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. (May)