This is a rich, florid, funny history, with undertones of human grief. Knight plays it very straight. His prose is measured and measured again. It’s as if Strunk and White took the manuscript on vacation and made buffing it a competition ... Knight does seem to have his tongue in his cheek at moments, but that tongue is buried so deeply it would require an oral surgeon to locate and extract it ... The good news is that Knight is shrewd and perceptive, and his book is as good as his article. The bad news is that his book is not a great deal better than his article. The short version was enough for me ... Knight’s portraits of Barker and Fairley are lively ... Knight’s book is crisp, almost clinically so. It’s on the passionless side. The crooked timber of humanity is cut into two-by-fours. Photographs are employed to profound, poetic effect.
[Knight's] first book showcases the gifts that make him so endlessly readable. A richly researched feat of compression, it tells a tantalising tale of the unlikely interplay between the press, psychiatry and the paranormal in Britain during the late 1960s ... Knight’s account is soberly sympathetic and wholly serious, with any spookiness confined to the outsize black-and-white images dropped randomly into the text without captions; I swore I could hear Delia Derbyshire’s theremin when I turned a page to suddenly find Barker staring back at me from under devilish eyebrows. When it comes to the text itself, though, Knight mostly keeps out of the way, favouring out-and-out storytelling over talking-head commentary. His flair for synthesis and compression keeps the reader riveted, yet ultimately these strengths are also the source of faint niggles; the abrupt, rather too convenient ending supplied by Barker’s death from an aneurysm in 1968 makes it tricky to gauge the overall impact of a book that isn’t a biography, exactly, yet doesn’t propose any kind of thesis to stand it up as intellectual or social history ... You finish the book, perhaps aptly, with more questions than answers.
A strange and gripping account of Barker’s adventures in precognition ... Blends history and popular science with biography ... Knight tells Barker’s story in lucid, no-nonsense prose, portraying him as compassionate and progressive, with a clear stubborn streak and a taste for the limelight ... The book’s underlying inquiry – can the human mind really see into the future? – is yet to be put to bed ... Nonetheless, the most hardened sceptic can’t fail to be electrified by the stories of ordinary citizens assuaged by visions of earthquakes, tornadoes, collapsing buildings and planes falling out of the sky, and the eminent physician in their thrall. The final chapter brings a doozy of a plot twist that stretches all rational responses to breaking point.
The Premonitions Bureau, which oddly doesn't include a notes section so that it's sometimes unclear who or what is being quoted, is a sprawling book that takes many detours along the way, and Knight's arrangement of the main story and its admittedly fascinating tangents left me a little bit baffled. But ultimately, it's a thought-provoking and deeply researched book that presents readers with the oddity of realized premonitions but allows us to come to our own conclusions about what to believe.
The subtitles of nonfiction books often promise more than they deliver. Sam Knight's new one does the opposite...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 ... concise, cerebral ... Knight [is] a gifted scene-setter.
In a lesser narrator’s hands, the forgotten story of an eccentric Englishman who was devoured by his own compulsion might feel rather slight...But Knight spins a story that propels the reader gently but firmly to its ordained conclusion ... Much of it is in the telling. Knight’s amused scrutiny of postwar Britain, from sensational Fleet Street to rundown Victorian asylums filled with abandoned patients, layers detail on small detail to paint a powerful canvas. He immerses readers in the shadows of the Swinging Sixties, when all kinds of social experiments were breaking out.
... a story both elegant and eccentric, cleanly capturing that brief moment in the 1960s when extrasensory perception verged on mainstream acceptance. It is also quietly terrifying, a reminder that even those who can see the future have no hope of getting out of its way.
Knight shows a journalistic flair for the little details that buff up a story and make it shine...Similarly made vivid are the people ... Because of Knight’s factual style he doesn’t editorialise, but if premonitions were real it wouldn’t mean simply that some people are so supernaturally sensitive to echoes of distress that they feel them in advance; it would have world-shattering implications that the course of life is predetermined, that free will is not free, that time’s arrow is a fix ... Indeed, the book is clear on how the premonition business attracts those at the fringes, and I don’t just mean the percipients ... A book like this doesn’t really need an overarching plot; it’s held together with the force of our fascination for the eccentric ... Even the shifty monochrome photos that punctuate the book add an otherworldly air, somewhere between a ghost story and a WG Sebald novel ... Nonetheless it does all head in one direction: to the question of what happens when Middleton and Hencher predict that Barker is about to die. We get a good answer, albeit one stretched a little thin between interesting but irrelevant facts about things such as thalidomide and the reverse placebo effect. (The book began life as a magazine article, and sometimes you can see the joins) ... This is, therefore, less a story about the Premonitions Bureau than about John Barker and the strange undergrowth of the human mind. Best then to consider the title with what Knight reminds us is the motto of the Royal Society, the world’s oldest independent scientific academy: Nullius in verba. 'Take nobody’s word for it.'
Knight has one of those curious brains that flows into every last corner of his material. He quotes Kant on how our minds create our reality, Freud on the occult and Socrates on fate. Volumes of research breeze over the reader with a smooth and inconspicuous ease. He treats us to bizarro tales of Munchausen’s patients, hydroplane accidents and a cameo from the Bee Gee Robin Gibb. There are creepy black-and-white pictures inlaid into the text, WG Sebald-style, and unnervingly precise descriptions of dead bodies that feel slightly fetishistic ... while there is enough intrigue in Barker’s tale to hold attention, the book evaporates with its final page. No amount of style can compensate for the lack of substance — and gathering tragedies such as Aberfan under the concept of 'premonitions' trivialises them ... It reminded me of one of those stranger-than-fiction podcasts interspersed with ominous keyboards, the jangle of asylum keys and a rotary-dial telephone ringing in an empty room. The kind of series that investigates a paranormal event from every conceivable angle before suggesting, after 12 episodes, that it probably never happened.
... offers spine-tingling confluences and spooky occurrences in abundance ... Deeply researched and rich with historical illustrations, Knight’s inquiry into past visions of the future ultimately meditates on how we make sense of reality itself.