Review: ‘The Premonitions Bureau,’ by Sam Knight

The subtitles of nonfiction books often promise more than they deliver. Sam Knight’s new one does the opposite.

Knight, per his subtitle, has written “A True Account of Death Foretold.” This minimizes the appeal of a book that contains several absorbing story lines. And it implies that the author, a New Yorker staffer, has compiled a credulous report on fortunetelling and other hokum. In fact, his debut is neither gullible nor one-dimensional.

“The Premonitions Bureau” focuses on the human mind’s malleability, and an eccentric effort to prevent suffering. It features evocative subplots about newspapering and psychiatry in 1960s Britain. At the heart of this concise, cerebral tale is an English doctor who believed that “precognition” — the ability to predict the future — merited serious research.

John Barker, a psychiatrist, was “interested in subjects that struck others as macabre or inexplicable,” Knight writes. He was working on a book about people who allegedly died from intense fear when, on Oct. 21, 1966, he and fellow Britons learned that tons of coal waste had spilled down a Welsh mountain, destroying a school and killing 116 children and 28 adults .

Barker, morbidly curious if any of the casualties merited mention in his book, headed to Wales. But in chatting with locals, he learned of another phenomenon — two victims had purported premonitions about the disaster.

Intrigued, Barker sought more information. London’s Evening Standard publicized his unconventional project, asking readers if they’d experienced similar forebodings. The paper received dozens of replies, inspiring the newspaper to establish a “premonitions bureau.” Readers were asked to report their dire predictions, hopefully saving lives by reducing deaths from natural disasters and plane crashes.

For Knight, Barker’s story is the catalyst for a heady look at the workings of the brain. Citing numerous historical examples, he explores how our social environments, wealth and other factors influence our predispositions, which in turn shape our actions. Barker, who grew up hearing his father’s tales of World War I battlefield ghosts, wrote that he himself was prone to “vague forebodings” that presaged tragedy. Why, in his professional life, did he find premonitions he deemed credible? Because that’s what he was looking for.

Knight, a gifted scene-setter, takes us inside a raucous 1960s London newsroom and the grim mental hospital where Barker worked. There, in 1968, a fire killed 24 women, some of whom died in locked rooms, spurring calls for reform.

Barker endorsed some mystical hooey, and this book, grounded in palpable realities, gives him a duly skeptical—yet appealingly empathetic—hearing. One of the deaths in the subtitle is Barker’s own of him — two of his bureau correspondents had visions about his premature demise of him.

As it happened, he didn’t live to old age. Was Barker’s death “foretold”? Sure, but then, so are all deaths.

Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.

The Premonitions Bureau: A True Account of Death Foretold

By: Sam Knight.

Publisher: Penguin, 256 pages, $28.

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