“If you want to understand a place, ignore the boasting monuments and landmarks, and go straight to the haunted houses.”
So begins Dickey’s (Creative Writing/National Univ.; Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith, 2012 etc.) exploration into the ghost stories of America and what they reveal about society. On his quest, the author examines every manner of haunted place, from houses like the Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts, which inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Gothic romance of the same name, to haunted cities like New Orleans as well as asylums, cemeteries, battlefields, and haunted hotels. While not a new concept, Dickey’s theme has been more extensively explored where fairy tales and general folklore are concerned. In each location, the author reveals not only the ghost stories of the site, but also, most importantly, the site’s true history. This allows us to see how ghost stories often say “more about the tellers than they do about the supernatural.” Throughout history, ghost stories have been used to make money, offer a moral, mark a location, and explain the unexplainable, among many other functions. Interwoven throughout the narrative are the voices of writers and thinkers including Nabokov, Freud, Poe, Dickens, and Stephen King. Most revealing is the author’s examination of the logical factors that contribute to hauntings—e.g., hotels feel eerie because they are uncannily not home, and homes often feel haunted because they have been abandoned. While the histories of the locations are well-expressed, Dickey’s personal experiences can feel flat. The investigation feels especially poignant when he connects the nature of ghost stories to issues like race. Places like Shockoe Bottom in Richmond, where hundreds of black men, women, and children were tortured and buried, should surely offer up their share of ghosts, but most of the spirits have been white. “What does it mean to whitewash the spirits of a city?” Dickey asks. “Does Virginia have ghosts that it is not yet ready to face?”
An intriguing but somewhat uneven exploration of things unseen.