Ghostland, by Colin Dickey

Ghostland Colin DickeyGhostland: An American History in Haunted Places
by Colin Dickey
Pub Date: October 4, 2016

“If you want to understand a place, ignore the boastful monuments and landmarks, and go straight to the haunted houses.”

Just in time for Halloween, here’s a fun and intellectual pick not only full of some fascinating ghost stories, but also some fascinating history. The author traveled across the United States seeking out haunted places, and looking into not only the truth behind those stories, but also what those stories say about the people who tell them, the people who believe them, the people who seek them out, and the culture that reveres them. I found myself pretty riveted from the first chapter on. The author doesn’t claim to believe these stories, or convince you to believe them, here merely lays them out with other evidence gathered, and allows you to come to your own conclusions.

Personally, I love a good ghost story. And I think that most of them are made up for scares, many are based in fact, or have some facts in them, and a small margin may even be true, though likely embellished. Who am I to argue with someone’s experiences with the thin veil that separates the living from the dead? Dickey covers some well-known ghost stories, like that of the Salem Witch Trials and the Winchester Mystery House, and other more locally-relevant ghost stories. Some focus on a person, some on a house, some on a place. (The author also recently wrote this entertaining piece about the correlation between hauntings and McMansions.)

One chapter I found particularly interesting focused on Civil War ghosts. I am a total Civil War buff and collecting Civil War-era ghost stories is fun for me. It talked about some of the typical type of hauntings around Gettysburg and Shiloh battlefields, and slowly evolved into how the Ku Klux Klan used the idea of ghosts and fear of ghosts to enact their early reign of terror. They would claim to be ghosts of Confederate soldiers out to seek vengeance on hapless former slaves and perform some illusion to make it seem as though they were supernatural to get a scare out of their victims. The author does point out that it’s debatable whether or not the former slaves believed the “ghosts” — they could have been feigning fright to appease the men terrorizing them so they would go away sooner and with minimal damage or violence.

What I like about this book is it’s a fun history book. You’re learning history, just through a different (and entertaining) lens. It causes you to think about how we remember our dead, how we treat our ancestors, and what kind of impression we ourselves might leave one day. While you yourself may not believe in ghosts to the extent of others, you might start looking at ghost stories in a different light and discern new things about the people and places involved. (You might also try another book I reviewed last year called American Ghost.) This isn’t a book looking to give you a fright, but it is full of some great stories that could be fun around a campfire as well.

 

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Horrorstör, by Grady Hendrix

Horrorstor Grady HendrixHorrorstör
by Grady Hendrix
Pub Date: September 23, 2014

The first think I heard about this book was that it was formatted to look like an IKEA catalog. And it was about an IKEA-like store, called Orsk, that is. I’ve worked retail, though not at IKEA or any furniture store, and this sounded so ridiculous and weird I knew I would get a kick out of it.

Orsk, a popular low-price faux-European furniture superstore, has been experiencing some unnerving activity. Every morning the staff arrives to find merchandise broken or damaged, and the security cameras aren’t catching anything. The store manager is at his wits end, and “volun-tells” some of his employees that they will work the store overnight to figure out who or what is in the store and put a stop to it before any of the corporate higher-ups find out. So already this is a relateable story for anyone who’s worked retail and had to deal with a lot of things that should be above their pay grade.

So the Orsk employees embark on what they hope is a mostly quiet evening where they nab a shoplifter and can consider the case closed. Two of them intend to film a segment for a ghost hunters show. And naturally everyone is over their heads as other residents of the store make their presence known.

While this is definitely a ghost story, there’s enough humor in it you won’t feel like you can’t read this late at night (at least, that’s how I felt about it). You might end on a cliffhanger, but then there’s another catalog spread for Orsk – but they do get increasingly dark as you progress through the story. It’s gimmicky for sure, but that’s what makes this book fun. It pokes fun at familiar horror film tropes, and you do walk the line of “is it humor or is it horror?” the whole way through. Mostly you read this book for the experience of it, and not for a real scare. It moves at a fast clip with short chapters, so it would make a good read while you wait for the trick-or-treaters.

(The author’s next book is My Best Friend’s Exorcism out in May and will be formatted to look like a high school yearbook. That should be fun!)

 

American Ghost, by Hannah Nordhaus

American Ghost Hannah NordhausAmerican Ghost: A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest
by Hannah Nordhaus
Pub Date: March 10, 2015

I thought I’d start my October reviews with some kind of Halloween-themed book, but didn’t want to do full-on horror. This book seemed like a good fit for our purposes. There is a well-known ghost in a Santa Fe mansion-turned-hotel, a woman in Victorian dress who sometimes speaks with a German accent, and sightings of her have been documented since the 1970s. And this ghost is the author’s great-grandmother, Julia.

I didn’t think I believed in Julia’s ghost, but she was nonetheless starting to haunt me.

American Ghost is a memoir of the author’s journey to learn more about her great-grandmother Julia, and hopefully even the reason behind why she’s supposedly haunting her former house. Don’t be put off too much by the ghost factor — at it’s core, this is a book about family history, and even though I am not related to German Jews who settled the Southwest, I found the story the author uncovers quite compelling, and my history major self very much enjoyed learning about how she found her information and the different places it led her. I’m sure some readers may be drawn more to the paranormal aspects of the story, and it does give variety of the narrative to jump from 1870’s Santa Fe to modern-day ghost hunting.

Being a trained journalist and a skeptic, Nordhaus isn’t really all that convinced about the ghost of her ancestor, but visits with various spiritualists and mediums to allow them to help her fill in the cracks of Julia’s story. I’m not one to totally discredit experiences people have had with those beyond the veil. Some people are able to have that gift and it deserves some reverence. But I think most of us would roll our eyes at some of these mediums. The focus is not on trying to get the ghost of Julia to reveal herself, but on getting Julia’s story revealed through actual hardcore research.

Nordhaus goes to primary sources and hobby genealogists also fascinated by Julia’s story to try and verify family stories about her great-grandmother Julia that have been passed down in her family, which are varied and dramatic. Following marriage at a young age in Germany, Julia arrives in Santa Fe after rigorous travel (the railroad wasn’t completed yet), surrounded by English and Spanish speakers when she speaks neither. Her husband works hard to build a successful business, and she bears a number of children. Julia even develops a friendship (or more?) with the local Catholic archbishop, who in reality was the basis for Willa Cather’s title character of Death Comes For the Archbishop. But was her husband, who some later called “the Al Capone of the territory of New Mexico,” abusive? Did she go insane? What unfinished business does she have that allowed her to become a ghost?

Nordhaus dives into Julia’s family, learning what happened to her siblings and other relations, her children and her husband, and how the territory of New Mexico was settled and developed, hoping to find clues that will help her figure out Julia as a person, what happened to her, and if there is truth behind the tragic family stories. If you’re a person who binge-watches Who Do You Think You Are?, enjoys indexing, has an interest in the late Victorian period, and/or doesn’t mind a good ghost story, you may want to check out this book for a good armchair adventure.