Halloween Read: “Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places” by Colin Dickey

ghostland

American history and haunted places are two of my favorite things!  What a treat to find them both together in one book.

Dickey has this to say in his introduction:

If you want to understand a place, ignore the boastful monuments and landmarks, and go straight to the haunted houses…Tune out the patriotic speeches and sanctioned narratives, and listen instead for the bumps in the night.

That is so true!  The haunted places in a town or city are where you find the dirty secrets, the underbelly, the stuff nobody wants you to know about.  Stories of ghosts are usually stories of some kind of trauma or betrayal or tragedy–and these stories also give these tragedies some meaning after the fact.  There can be justice or understanding where there wasn’t any in life.  A community can make sense of a terrible occurrence through weaving tales of hauntings.

Ghostland is a tour of haunted places which never delves into whether ghosts are real or not.  The fact that ghost stories endure is real enough, and that is what matters to Dickey.  The focus is on what ghosts do for the living, what purposes they serve to individuals, communities, and cultures.

The tour travels all across the United States, from houses to hotels to restaurants to prisons to graveyards to whole towns.   Dickey is a wonderful tour guide.  He’s informed and passionate and a great storyteller.  The atmosphere he creates makes you feel that you’re traveling along with him.

The book also addresses the fact that we live in a changed world.  What do the ghosts of the digital age look like, of the information age?  He mentions how digital lives on social media continue after death, and how that’s a kind of haunting.  But in the end, we’ll always need ghosts, because we’ll always need a way to deal with death and mortality.  The guises and trappings might change, but ghosts and haunted places will always be with us in one way or another, and they’ll always adapt to meet our needs.

Only four days to go until the big day!  Plenty of time for some ghostly armchair travel to get you in the mood.

 

Advertisements

“Audrey’s Door” by Sarah Langan

Sometimes all you want to curl up with is a good old-fashioned haunted house story brimming with creepy imagery, unsettling atmosphere, and a main character who’s not quite all there.  Audrey’s Door by Sarah Langan delivers.

audrey's doorAudrey Lucas, an architect with a lot of baggage, is on the hunt for a place to live in New York.  Apartment 14B in the historic Breviary building on the Upper West Side is available at an astonishingly low price.  Even though she thinks it must be too good to be true, Audrey can’t pass up the opportunity to live for cheap in such a unique building–it’s the last standing example of the Chaotic Naturalism school of architecture.  Never mind the fact that just recently a woman murdered all of her children in that same apartment, and then killed herself.  And never mind the fact that Audrey immediately begins to have strange, vivid nightmares, and hears a voice telling her to build a door.

Fans of The Shining and The Haunting of Hill House will find a lot to like in Audrey’s Door.  In fact, Langan gives those works and a few others their due in a note at the beginning of the book.  Gloomy corridors, a protagonist on a downward spiral that’s seemingly impossible to stop, a building with a mind of its own, and when the terrifying insanity ramps up, it ramps up.

Like the Overlook Hotel and Hill House, the Breviary is a character, complete with motivations and personality.  It’s such a strong entity that it can’t help but overcome any human beings who come into contact with it.  Langan takes the time and care to give the Breviary’s backstory just as much attention as she does Audrey’s, which works to build the connection between the building and its chosen favorite.

That’s what separates the good haunted house stories from the so-so ones–the good ones make sure the house has a personality and a history, a reason for being the way that it is.  A haunted house doesn’t just have ghosts or ghoulies in it.  A haunted house has an energy, a force, one that turns our cozy idea of hearth and home on its head.  That’s why they’re scary, after all.  You’re supposed to feel safe in your home.  When your home is insane, there’s nowhere to hide.

As much as Langan might owe to haunted house classics, she has a style all her own.  She has a great talent for writing compelling protagonists and for truly disturbing and creepy imagery.  Her writing is very character-driven, and everyone has a strong voice and personality.  Audrey’s descent into madness is a chilling one to witness.  Langan is also darkly funny at times, too, which always makes a welcome counterpoint to the scary.  There are also some very well-placed New York City references and nods, which add a nice sense of place.

If you’re after a cozy, old-fashioned spook house book for Halloween this year, Audrey’s Door might be a good one to try.

–Marie