Friday, July 28, 2017

Booknote: Ghostland

Colin  Dickey, Ghostland: an American History in Haunted Places. New York: Viking, 2016. ISBN: 978-1-101-98019-4.

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: travel, ghosts, hauntings, history, paranormal
Format: hardcover
Source: Berea branch of the Madison County (KY) Public Library.

The book does have history, but it also offers a bit of pop culture and trivia. I think some fans of the ghost hunter shows may find it of interest, but keep in mind this is not about ghost hunters. What the book really presents is a  look at various haunted places in the United States and what those places say about us as people and society. Dickey's claim is that hauntings and stories about hauntings are really about people, about a need to cope with an event, or fill gaps of information.

The book is organized in four parts, and each part contains three to five chapters. Each chapter looks at a specific place, but it also continues the overall discussion of hauntings and how they work. Keep in mind, as Dickey states in his author's note, "this book is not about truth or falsity of any claims of ghosts" (xiii). His book does discuss the stories, but he looks at them more in terms of the living. He looks at how people deal with stories and places and the dead and their ghosts. He tells the stories and then discusses what the stories do for people today. Some stories become popular, and their locations make money from tourist and ghost tours. Others are barely remembered.

Overall, the book is a very interesting read. Anyone interested in a ghosts, hauntings, and how such stories are generated will find it interesting. The chapters are not too long, making the book an easy read. It is much like reading a good travel book with the author as your guide. This is one I really liked.

4 out of 5 stars.

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Additional reading notes:

As I mentioned, the book does not seek to make claims on truth or falsehood of ghosts. On this, the author writes,

"There is no amount of proof that will convince a skeptic of spirits, just as no amount of skeptical debunking will disabuse a believer. As [Samuel] Johnson remarked regarding the paranormal, 'All argument is against it; but all belief is for it'" (xiii).

What the book is truly about:

"This book instead focuses on question of the living: how do we deal with stories about the dead and their ghosts, and how do we inhabit and move through spaces that have been deemed haunted?" (xiii).

On the persistence of believing in ghosts:

"Spend enough time debunking the legends associated with haunted places, trying to see past it all-- the marketing, the dubious electronic devices, and all the other trappings-- and you sometimes forget how real, and how persistent, the belief in ghosts is for many of us. A belief that in various ways, and for various people, gives an explanation and meaning to experiences that can't be explained away easily. A belief that can help us mourn and give us hope" (92).

How ghost stories are born:

"This is how ghost stories are born, after all: not from a complete story so much as from bits and pieces that don't quite add up, a kaleidoscope of menace and unease that coalesce in unpredictable ways" (139).

On ghost stories and cities:

"Ghost stories, for good or ill, are how cities make sense of themselves: how they narrate the tragedies of their past, weave cautionary tales for the future" (248). 

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This book qualifies for the following 2017 Reading Challenges:

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