The author of this rather unusual book is a writer who was trained for a Catholic priesthood for seven years but left the seminar abruptly when he was 21. He became an agnostic and remained so until, a quarter of a century later, he had a recurrent dream while travelling in the United States. The dream related to his time in the seminary and he found it profoundly disturbing. The dream sequence came to an end after he was chased by muggers and made a promise to God that, if he escaped, he would become a believer. Shortly after this he visited a Benedictine abbey and recognized it as the setting of his dream. As a result of these experiences he underwent a midlife crisis and obtained permission from the paper he worked for to take a year's unpaid leave to research the supernatural. The book describes his quest and what he found, and also explains the effect that undertaking had on him. The book is thus a narrative of a personal spiritual journey as well as a physical one.
Cornwell's first destination was Medjugorje in Croatia, where three young girls were claiming to see visions of the Virgin Mary. Cornwell witnessed one of these episodes and was simultaneously baffled and impressed, being particularly struck by the way in which the three young people synchronised their movements. He also had an interview with one of them, a girl called Marija, who neatly turned the tables on him by asking if he had any particular request he wanted her to transmit to the Virgin. He avoided answering this question.
Next he went to Dublin to meet a middle-aged nun called Briege McKenna, who was credited with the gift of healing and also with a special ability to counsel priests. He was considerably impressed with Briege, with whom he struck up a curiously intense relationship that seems to have verged on the erotic, on his part at least; her lifeline and his crossed again several times during the course of his year's journey, and he attributes these coincidences to a form of Jungian synchronicity.
From Ireland Cornwell went in search of more visionaries, this time to Garabandal in northern Spain, where in the early 1960s four young girls had reportedly seen visions of the Virgin and had also exhibited all kinds of paranormal phenomena. Cornwell was shown a video in which the girls leant backwards until their heads almost touched their waists, and in these astonishing postures they rushed about the village and over rocks and ditches at enormous speed, so that they seemed to be flying. As at Medjugorje, these feats were performed in perfect synchrony. The leading visionary was a girl of remarkable beauty called Conchita Gonzalez, who appeared to be fully aware of the impact she was making on the camera.
In Garabandal Cornwell was able to interview Conchita's eldest brother (Conchita herself now lived in the USA where she had married). He confirmed the reality of the phenomena shown on the video and allowed Cornwell to read his sister's diary of the events leading up to the visions. Another man, a brigadier in the Guardia Civil, talked about the investigations he had carried out and concluded by describing an episode he had witnessed in which Conchita had levitated. Cornwell was deeply impressed by what he heard in Garabandal and was convinced that the children had not been hoaxers, yet the phenomena, he thought, lacked any obvious sense of spirituality. He resolved to visit Conchita in America if at all possible.
When he did finally meet Conchita he found her somewhat uncertain about her visions. She had been told by numerous Church dignitaries that she was a liar and a fake; nevertheless, she insisted, over a four-year period she had seen a beautiful lady who told her she was the Blessed Mother; if this wasn't true, nothing was true. Cornwell questioned her about the lady's prophecy of a miracle that would occur; Cornwell thought that Conchita was beginning to be afraid that the miracle wouldn't happen, in which case her whole faith in religion would be called into question. One gets the impression of a deeply unhappy woman. As Cornwell was leaving, Conchita asked him to pray for her.
It has often been remarked that there are resemblances between overtly religious visions of the kind that Cornwell deals with and other classes of anomalous events of a secular nature, such as some UFO encounters. Reports of poltergeist phenomena, similarly, sometimes include claims of levitation, and these often involve young girls. The resemblance is surely not accidental, although there is a clear difference in emotional tone: the Marian visions are beneficent, whereas the poltergeists are mocking or hostile. Cornwell does not discuss poltergeists, but he does describe, relatively briefly, interviews with a priest who conducted exorcisms and a man who had become involved for a time with Satanism. These represent the 'powers of darkness' in the title of Cornwell's book. He appears, understandably, to be uncomfortable with this material and I found this part of the book to be less interesting than the rest, probably because he couldn't come to terms with it emotionally and imaginatively. He is also less effective when he is dealing with matters of which he has knowledge only quite indirectly, as in his discussion of Padre Pio, Lourdes, and the Shroud. Undoubtedly the most interesting part of his research concerns the Marian visionaries, but here one must ask how objective and reliable he appears to be as an observer. This is likely to be the central question for most readers.
Up to a point, I think he is reliable. He asks himself the right questions, or most of them, and tries to find the answers. For example, he discusses the impressive synchronisation of actions among the visionaries with a neurologist who suggests, quite plausibly, that this could be explained by the occurrence of subtle clues in the girls' behaviour such as changes in breathing. Cornwell does not seem to be fully convinced that there were genuine paranormal phenomena in these cases (although he is ambivalent about this, for he does seem to accept the reality of levitation in some of the cases), but he takes the question to be of secondary importance. His position is that to think about these things too literally is to miss the main point: they should be seen as symbolic, self-authenticating in their own terms. He finds the ecstasies of the Garabandal visionaries to be 'something primitive, sacred and real', and regards the whole affair as somewhat analogous to an art form. But staged by whom, and for what reason? This is left somewhat unclear.
Ultimately, this is not a book about parapsychology, it is a spiritual autobiography. Perhaps not surprisingly, the effect of Cornwell's quest for the supernatural was to restore his belief in God. In part this seems to have been triggered by a final rather dramatic encounter with Sister McKenna, but it was probably inevitable from the beginning. The change in his outlook seems to have been due, not to having encountered any incontrovertible evidence of the supernatural, but rather to psychological shifts occurring within his own mind. I suspect that the dream which apparently started the process of investigation was itself a marker of these psychological changes and that the outcome of his quest was already implicit at the outset. In other words, he found what he was always destined to find from the start, and the effect of his search was not to change his thinking so much as to clarify it. This is therefore a very personal book and it's unlikely that reading it will change anyone's views unless those views are ripe for change anyway, but I don't think Cornwell would expect it to do so. As an agnostic ex-Catholic myself, I wouldn't say that it convinced me that I should make such a change, but I certainly found it interesting.