Response to Philip Stone’s review in an online journal of my Atlas of Dark Destinations
First of all, here’s the link to that review
(external link – opens in a new tab), which is freely available, so you can take a look at the full text yourself.
This new review is basically a longer version of the shorter one-star review of my book
that Stone had posted on Amazon months earlier (in May) – here’s my response to that
. There is some overlap between both responses, but not everybody will have read the older one, so I deemed it necessary to repeat some important points here that I’ve already made there. It’s in the nature of a point-by-point defence, with quotations, examples and links, that the resultant text is actually much longer than the review that it is about (which is only about a page and a half short).
This newer, somewhat more elaborate review essentially has the same obvious aim: to belittle my Atlas of Dark Destinations
(and myself – see below
). But this time around the ulterior motive
behind this scathing review is not hidden but it’s there in plain sight: to publicize Stone’s own guidebook
to “111 Dark Places in England” (my separate review of that is here
), namely by rubbishing a perceived competitor.
His book is the only item in the “list” of references at the end of his review, and in the middle of the text he pitches his book directly against mine
“[d]ark tourism has also recently been brought to the public market with the first-ever tourist guidebook (Stone, 2021), published a week before Atlas of Dark Tourism
[sic!]”. I presume that was supposed to read “first ever dark-tourism guidebook” (otherwise the claim would be completely preposterous). The time difference of one week is true only for the UK and the US, but in continental Europe my book was actually released a month earlier. And I know that Stone knows this too (because I told him in a brief email exchange at the time). But that is ultimately nitpicking; I’d say “roughly at the same time”. Moreover, Stone also knows (for the same reason) that neither of us can lay claim on having made it first. There was already a bookzine kind of guide to dark tourism on the market (unfortunately I haven’t yet managed to obtain a copy), there are various dark-tourism guidebooks to specific regions/cities and the “public market” (i.e. for books outside the academic ivory tower) has also already seen some other books on the topic, mostly travelogues, but a couple with guidebook elements, some of which go back to as early as 2010 (see my reviews here
). So Stone’s insistence that his is the first dark-tourism book for the general public market rests on brittle foundations, to say the least.
Despite the time that has passed since his initial short review on Amazon
, this longer one still has the air of having been composed in great haste
– the fact that Stone gets
the very title
of the reviewed book wrong repeatedly
is another indicator for that (calling it erroneously “Atlas of Dark Tourism”, clearly without noticing it and/or caring about it – the announcement of the review on his mailing list contained the same error).
The place of publication
is a little odd: in a more or less obscure academic online journal called “Scientific Exploration”. This is strange because neither my Atlas
nor Stone’s guidebook are scientific works and both are aimed not at academics but at a ‘general readership’, and especially offbeat travellers. So it’s a bit like reviewing a classical music CD in a heavy-metal magazine. Very odd. But so is this journal – which on closer inspection turns out not to be mainstream scientific but about “Anomalistics and Frontier Science”, as its subtitle states. The Wikipedia page about the journal and the society behind it
(external link, opens in a new tab) quotes ample criticism about it being rather pseudoscientific and promoting myths such as paranormal activities, alien abductions, psychokinesis and suchlike. So not the most credible of outlets, it seems.
But let’s take a closer look at what the review has to say:
The review kicks off with an intro paragraph outlining Stone’s view of what dark tourism is
. I’ve read such accounts by Stone often in many other works of his, so nothing new for me here. Note that there is no single, generally accepted, clear-cut definition of ‘dark tourism’ and the concept
is necessarily very fuzzy on the edges, so it’s perhaps not surprising that our ideas of what constitutes dark tourism and where its limits lie do not fully match. Stone focuses a lot on expressions like “significant other death”, “memorializing our dead” and sees lots of “dilemmas” in doing so, dealing with “dissonant” and “difficult heritage”. I agree with dark tourism largely being about ‘difficult/dissonant heritage’, but I think his focus on death goes too far (if that was the sine qua non
, then we could have stuck with the term ‘thanatourism’ instead of ‘dark tourism’). There are dark-tourism sites where no deaths have occurred – e.g. disaster sites that caused a lot of damage but didn’t kill anybody (such as Heimaey
), ghost towns
(where people just left – alive) or many of the touristified sites of the Cold War
(where it was the threat of nuclear Armageddon that makes them dark – but no actual individual “significant other death” is associated with most of them).
The second paragraph is about popular perceptions of dark tourism as a subject and the “lay market” for Stone’s guidebook and my Atlas – as already discussed above
(about the “lay” bit see also below
In the third paragraph
, Stone then launches into properly rubbishing my Atlas
. He complains that it is neither a practical guidebook nor a scholarly publication
. Well it isn’t supposed to be a scholarly publication (just as his own guidebook isn’t!), it is an “Atlas
”! An atlas provides overviews
of locations, not scholarly analysis
. As for practicalities
, Stone conveniently omits
the note in my book’s introduction that such details for all places mentioned in the Atlas can be found on my associated website
dark-tourism.com – this site – together with more in-depth background info and personal first-hand accounts (for which in the Atlas there simply wasn’t the space). Actually, my publishers deliberately instructed me not to go into practicalities, especially not opening times and prices, because such details can change quickly so that by the time a book comes out many of these details are most likely already wrong. On a website, in contrast, you can always update at any point. And as for the lack of “site addresses”: in this day and age of the Internet these are hardly essential as they are never farther than a few mouse clicks away (e.g. on this website – which also gives exact map co-ordinates that can be used for navigation); and also: how would you even give a “site address” for places as vast as The Polygon
? That would be impossible.
The fact that Stone never mentions my website
is very telling
, especially when he accuses
me of subjectivism and being “a self-declared expert
and dark tourist”. I emphasize: I’ve never declared myself an *academic*
expert in dark-tourism research – though my publishers
, in the PR blurb for the Atlas, do refer to me as a “world authority” on dark tourism. And the reason
they do so is the same reason as why they commissioned the book from me
in the first place: my wide experience in dark tourism
, which has yielded this substantial website
, composed over the course of 15 years, and which by now covers over a thousand dark-tourism sites around the world, more than 90% of which I have personally visited, some repeatedly. That experience, and the thousands and thousands of pages of text on my website, is what made the publishers consider me a worthy expert to pen this Atlas
. Moreover, actual travellers regularly consult me
when it comes to planning dark-tourism trips – I wonder how many enquiries Stone gets with regard to how to visit places like Jonestown
(to name just the latest two places I had enquiries about). Journalists
, who’ve found my website, also
turn to me with some regularity – and the thing is: Stone must be aware of this, as we’ve repeatedly appeared together within the same media pieces, based on separate interviews (such as this one in National Geographic
– external link, opens in a new tab). And still, in this review Stone is trying to make out that I’ve come out of nowhere with no credibility. That’s almost a character assassination attempt, and I do take it personally.
Stone gets especially worked up about
” applied in my book – except: the book doesn’t even contain that word, not once! It’s used on this website, yes, but not in the book, where instead there are “dark ratings”. This terminological confusion suggests to me that Stone must be well aware of my website (while still refusing to ever mention it) and perhaps he simply didn’t notice the difference.
] Anyway, he moans that the “darkometer” was arbitrarily created by me for no reason at all, and that it’s “insensitive” and “confusing”. To clarify: in reality the term “darkometer
” was introduced not by myself
but by the Lonely Planet Blue List 2007
. I adopted
it from there and adapted
it – not to insensitively weigh up tragedies against each other
as such (that seems to be the misunderstanding), BUT
as an indicator to potential visitors of how palpable the dark history
in question is at the site today
, as to just how “difficult” the heritage represented there comes across (so rather *taking in* tourist sensitivities, actually). After all, it does make a difference whether at a given site there is plenty of gruesome place authenticity, for example, as opposed to a mere abstract memorial monument. Admittedly, the introduction in my book could have made this clearer, but if Stone is familiar with my website, which his very use of the term “darkometer” strongly suggests, then he could have looked up the explanation of this concept
that is on my website (linked to from every single destination chapter right at the top – so it’s hardly hidden). And this does make its actually intended function quite clear, but either Stone hasn’t looked this up or he deliberately keeps shtum about it.
But instead of portraying the ratings
] as what they are, Stone derides these relative evaluations as “sensationalism
” that turns the Atlas into a “tabloid manual”. Now this accusation is particularly hurtful as I have over the past decade fought many battles with the media, particularly the tabloids, against their typical sensationalist misrepresentations of dark tourism – and again Stone should know that (from the same joint appearances in non-tabloid articles – see above
). And he makes it all hinge entirely on those little categorizing symbols
], not the actual chapter texts. That the prose in my Atlas is anything but sensationalist and instead sober and objective, is not touched upon or hinted at in the review.
The fourth paragraph
of Stone’s review starts out a little more lenient, outlining the wide scope of the Atlas
and its value-for-money
price tag (though he gets the price slightly wrong, stating $31, when the actual RRP is $29.99), also given the “abundance of full-colour photos
”, which Stone notes too. He even concedes that my text is “readable
” and gives a list of some of the categories of dark tourism covered in it. He notes that some countries get more entries than others
, and it’s not clear whether that is meant as a criticism or not. I hope not, because it’s just a fact that a country like Germany
, due to its various dark phases of modern history, simply does have more dark sites than other countries. That’s just how it is and that is reflected in my Atlas, as clearly explained in the book’s intro chapters too.
Stone expresses surprise about
the inclusion of volcanoes
, which he somehow sees in conflict with the Atlas’ focus on modern history (as if there weren’t any volcanoes in contemporary times). What he doesn’t mention is that the feature text on volcanology is linked to quite contemporary volcanic disaster sites
covered in the book, such as Mount St Helens
, both of which are firmly entrenched in
the world of dark tourism
. So I find his surprise rather baffling.
] The feature text about volcanology explains some of the terminology used when talking about volcanoes as it cannot be assumed that every reader will be familiar with terms like ‘lahar’ or ‘pyroclastic surge’. So the feature adds background and substance. It’s again telling that Stone makes no mention of the various other feature texts
in the Atlas (e.g. about radiation, about the Cambodian genocide, about the background to the Falklands War, etc., etc.), presumably because that would counter the impression he is trying to convey that my Atlas was all superficial.
In the final paragraph
, Stone goes on to accuse the Atlas of lacking in “historical analysis and depth”
leaving it “rudimentary” so that it is “not a history book
either”. Again, deep academic analysis of history was never the purpose of this book
(and neither of Stone’s own guidebook
, by the way – a fact he seems to have overlooked), so it’s like accusing a cookbook of not being political enough or a philosophical treatise of not having enough colour pictures. Criticizing something for not being what it’s not supposed to be in the first place is an inappropriate twisting of arguments. As for historical depth, of course it’s not a history book
as such, but it does cover a lot of history
, and some of the coverage will be educational to the general readership the book is aimed at; e.g. how many people will know offhand what the Interahamwe
were in Rwanda
; or how many people can confidently distinguish between concentration camps
, extermination camps and death camps
, or how many people outside the nuclear industry know what μSv/h means? All that is clarified in these feature texts, which thus provide valuable background information
… so the Atlas is by no means as shallow
as Stone so desperately tries to make it out to be.
Stone repeats from his earlier short review
the criticism that “much
” of the book is about military sites
, when in actual fact only about 10%
of the sites covered are of that nature (at least “much” is one step down from the “mostly” in the Amazon review). He furthermore confuses the title font with “Gothic” (which it isn’t, although it looks vaguely similar perhaps) and bemoans the black cover, saying that the book therefore can’t be the “‘passport’ of discovery it purports to be” … as if fonts and colours could say anything about the content and its functions! (By the way, Stone’s own guidebook
has a black cover page too – and features a little image of an R.I.P. tombstone in the centre!) Incidentally, the “passport” expression is again not taken from the Atlas itself but from the publishers’ PR blurb for it, so not strictly speaking my claim.
Stone tries to make a concession by saying that “the tome may prove useful to students with limited historical knowledge who want a basic introduction” and suggests they “further their research [...] with case study approaches”. But why students?!? Why research? Why case studies? Is Stone so stuck in his academic ivory tower thinking that he cannot imagine a book about dark tourism not aimed at either scholars or students? But my book is aimed at travellers (real ones or the armchair variety), not students or academics. Is Stone not aware of the fact that there are people out there who may have a keen interest in dark tourism as such, but are totally uninterested in reading the academic writing about the subject? I know plenty of such fellow travellers, also some in the tourism industry, and it’s those people my publishers and I had in mind as the target audience. So all this criticism of the book lacking academic depth is totally beside the point.
His very final point is not so off the mark but its wording is slightly disturbing: Stone concedes that “in terms of the public market, this book will appeal to the lay person
who might wish to rudimentarily ‘dip into
’ the world of dark tourism.” But isn’t that the same market, the same target audience of Stone’s own guidebook
, who he somewhat condescendingly calls “lay persons”? The suggestion of “dipping into”, however, is actually spot on and intentional – essentially my Atlas is an elaborate coffee-table-style book
. And as such it is specifically designed not to be read cover to cover but indeed to be dipped in and out of (again, just like his own little guidebook for England too) – and several other reviewers
of my Atlas so far have described that as one of its key assets
In short: Stone’s review mixes unfair and inappropriate criteria and (personal) accusations, factual errors, deliberate omissions of crucial points, and misinterpretations of aspects he should (or actually does) know better – ultimately all in order to belittle my tome and to publicize his own guidebook, which he sees as a competitor. Not particularly professional.
However, as they say, even bad publicity is better than no publicity and I can only hope that some readers of this review will see through it, detect the ulterior motive, get sceptical of the damning verdict and curious enough to take a look at my Atlas
themselves, and then hopefully come to quite different conclusions.
: I’m not even so sure our two books are so directly in competition with each other. The overlap in content is pretty minimal: there’s only one chapter in both books about the same place (Bletchley Park
), two others that are in my book are mentioned in passing in Stone’s and two more featured in his book get a brief mention in mine. Even if counting all of those that’s 5 out of 111 for his and out of 300 for mine. Moreover, I see quite a difference in reader appeal: Stone’s book
is aimed more at people with a local interest in obscure small sites that often date back to ancient history, folklore myths, witch trials and the like (all of which are excluded from this website and the Atlas – for reasons explained here
). Mine, in contrast, is aimed at the international globetrotter (real or would-be) with an interest in contemporary history and its dark manifestations in reality, ranging from the top-flight “big five" (quote H. Sawyer
) sites of dark tourism (Auschwitz
, the Cambodian Killing Fields
, the 9/11 Museum
) to much less well-known and difficult to reach ‘exotic’ ones (e.g. the Polygon
, St Helena
, etc.), none of which naturally feature in Stone’s book with its much narrower focus on England only. [back
: At the same time he later criticizes the media’s “focus on death and dying” when dark tourism was really more “about life and living”. That doesn’t at all hang together with his own outline of the concept of dark tourism. [back
: Stone also alleges that the “darkometer” ratings come in “star and crossbones” symbols (he must have meant “skull and crossbones”); in reality they are simply numbers between 1 and 10 – however, the book’s designer indeed added a single little skull and crossbones symbol after each of these ratings, and in hindsight maybe that was unnecessary, but it’s not my fault; the remit I was given by the publishers was only writing the text and supplying photos, but not the book’s design. [back
: The star ratings (one to five) that each entry also comes with, and denounced by Stone as “inappropriate” too, follow a long tradition of guidebooks established by the Baedeker series from the mid-19th century onwards (and still widely in use today, also outside guidebooks, e.g. on Amazon, where Stone himself made deliberate use of it
). Their function with regard to tourist sites always is this: to evaluate the overall significance and quality of a site for a visitor, regardless of its subject matter (e.g. in terms of ease of access, facilities, services, design, multilingual coverage or not, etc., etc.). This is also made clear in my Atlas’s intro chapters and there is nothing sensational about this; instead it’s deeply rooted in guidebook conventions. The accusation that these ratings are “naïve” is in no way substantiated in the review and is probably just there to act as an insult. [back
: Stone’s outrage about such ratings of dark sites is somewhat hypocritical, as in several of his academic publications he himself has included categorizations of how dark different types of sites are, and his scale from light to dark has been widely adopted by other scholars and students (I know this from many an interview I’ve given to students and countless questionnaires I’ve filled in for them). And this does essentially the same as my darkometer
– to order sites into more or less dark categories. Yet he finds it outrageous if I do it but OK when he does it. Double standards, anyone? [back
, one of the very first attractions for the earliest development of tourism proper, namely the Grand Tour
, is probably the world’s best-known volcanic disaster site … and as such can be considered dark as well. [back