The Premonitions Bureau: A True Account of Death Foretold (Hardcover)
John Barker was a highly respected British doctor whose work was changed by a tragedy. In 1966 in South Wales, a 111-foot tower of coal waste collapsed and cascaded down a mountain toward the village of Aberfan. It slammed into a primary school, and 147 people died that day, most of them children. Barker heard of village children whose dreams and drawings in the days leading up to the disaster seemed to predict the coming tragedy. He wondered if predictions could be recorded and prevent other disasters. With the help of a London newspaper, Barker created a “Premonitions Bureau" to catalog people’s dreams and forebodings and monitor them for accuracy.
Sam Knight, author of The Premonitions Bureau: A True Account of Death Foretold, said of his approach to the subject, “I had a kind of working definition of what a premonition was when I was writing this book, which is: It's not just a feeling. It's not just a hunch. It's just not like a sense in the air. It's like, you know. You know, and you don't even want to know because you can't know and no one's going to believe you that you know, but you know. And what are you going to do about it? It's a horrible feeling.”
The book’s final chapter contains a plot twist that is a shocking climax to an already engrossing and quirky debut work of nonfiction. It’s full of regular people, a few who are earnest in their desire to use their premonitions to help people, and a small percentage of them were correct.— Patricia
"[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.
“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
“In this hugely enjoyable book . . . Sam Knight is careful to neither poke fun at the Premonitions Bureau nor to treat it as holy writ. Keeping editorializing to a minimum, Knight sticks close to his main characters as they navigate a postwar world where 'science' is revealing itself in all its mixed capacities, able to wipe out a whole city in a mushroom cloud and to put a man on the moon . . . Knight paints a carefully textured picture of London in the swinging Sixties that also serves as a reminder of how patchy the new social and political freedoms really were.” —The New York Review of Books
“[A] thought-provoking and deeply researched book . . . Knight probes the space between coincidence and the ineffable mystery of supernatural possibilities.” —NPR Books
“A stunning piece of work. Brimming with mystery and suffused with haunting atmosphere, The Premonitions Bureau is the tale of a team of midcentury investigators who set out to answer some of life's most imponderable questions. With calm rationality and a keen sense of pacing, Sam Knight relates the extraordinary story of this initiative to study those among us who appear to be able to predict the future—and in particular, to predict disaster. An enveloping, unsettling book, gorgeously written and profound.” —Patrick Radden Keefe, New York Times bestselling author of Say Nothing and Empire of Pain
“A fluent and enticing book, skillfully navigating the tricky and marginal subject of the paranormal; it is beautifully ordered, humane, capacious.” —Hilary Mantel, two-time winner of the Booker Prize
“The Premonitions Bureau is an eerie and amazing account of coincidence and fate, and the impossibility of knowing the difference. I loved this fascinating book.” —Emma Cline, New York Times bestselling author of The Girls
“[A] mesmerizing debut . . . Knight interweaves intriguing episodes of precognition from history and literature. The result is a captivating study of the uncanny.” —Publishers Weekly
“With uncommon insight and sharp storytelling flair, Sam Knight’s The Premonitions Bureau takes hold of readers with a revealing, thoroughly well-reasoned exploration into the hidden corners of human consciousness. Prepare for amazements on nearly every page.” —Robert Kolker, New York Times bestselling author of Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family
“This propulsively written, tremendously researched, playfully bizarre tale about the power of predictions is one of the most wildly unpredictable books that I have ever read. I adored The Premonitions Bureau.” —Michael Finkel, New York Times bestselling author of The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit
“I loved this book. Sam Knight is a writer of uncommon breadth, clarity, and control, and in The Premonitions Bureau those gifts are on scintillating display. Here are all the satisfactions of a pacey thriller—dramatic plane crashes, over-zealous psychiatrists, scoop-seeking journalists, vision-haunted seers, and a cameo from Sigmund Freud—combined with nothing less than a deft investigation of time, happenstance, and fate. Knight has written a narrative as uncanny and insistent as the previsions it chronicles.” —Rebecca Mead, New York Times bestselling author of My Life in Middlemarch and Home/Land
“Enthralling: a work of inspired, tireless and deeply compassionate curiosity.” —Helen Garner, author of Monkey Grip and The Spare Room
“Sam Knight is a master of trenchant detail. He also has the uncanny talent Joan Didion associated with self-respect: the ability to love and remain indifferent. In The Premonitions Bureau, he writes with both intelligent sympathy and also equanimity about people who may be cranks, hoaxers, or even, perhaps, real-life prophets.” —Salvatore Scibona, author of The End and The Volunteer
“A terrifically insightful book, unusual in all its aspects. Readers will love it for its brilliant sense of storytelling and its fierce interest in character. I was knocked out by the precision and drama of it all, by the book’s comprehension of our deepest dreads and our relentless bid to control them.” —Andrew O'Hagan, author of The Secret Life and The Illuminations
“The Premonitions Bureau is a remarkable book, telling the story of a remarkable man—John Barker—through a unique blend of history, biography, and the modern science of how the brain's predictions shape our worlds and control our bodies. Occasionally disconcerting, completely compelling and beautifully written—Sam Knight will take you an unforgettable journey into a history of predicting the future.” —Anil Seth, Science
“Fascinating . . . A reasonable, readable excursion into realms of unreason—and good evidence to pay attention to dreams and hunches.” —Kirkus (starred review)
“Spine-tingling . . . 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.” —Booklist
“Knight’s book proceeds episodically. We wander the streets of tragedy and the parlors of eccentric seers, witness the dismal conditions of Shelton’s sanitorium and the busy newsroom of the Evening Standard. The author’s prose delights, offering perfect pictures . . . Barker operates as the book’s center. It’s Barker’s tireless quest in the face of opposition, even failure, that strings everything together from the book’s first calamity to its later observations on fear and unexplained death.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Sam Knight is driven by intrepid curiosity in his fast-paced and fascinating nonfiction debut.” —Philadelphia Inquirer
“Knight enlarges and enriches our understanding of peering into the future.” —Psychology Today
“I had a strong feeling this book would be good—and it was better.” —Lauren Oyler
“An engrossing, multifaceted portrait of a skilled British doctor who embraced supernatural ideas . . .” —Minneapolis Star Tribune