Book Review – Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey

If you want to read ghost stories, read something besides this book. Certainly, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places contains ghost stories, but if you’re looking for titillating tales of terror for an autumn evening, you won’t find it here. Colin Dickey’s Ghostland isn’t about scaring its readers; rather, it’s a smartly eclectic work of history that looks to examine the whole ghost story phenomenon. Why do we tell ghost stories? Whose stories get told? What do these stories tell us about the places and people with which they’re associated? What do these stories say about the ways in which we, as a society, interact with death and with history? How do ghost stories help us connect with our past—and in what ways do they help us disconnect from aspects of the past that are unpleasant? If Dickey isn’t entirely successful in answering all these questions, he’s nonetheless crafted an engaging work of popular history that does a great job of introducing these ideas to the reader and encouraging further inquiry.

Ghostland is at its strongest early on, and Dickey’s exploration of the Winchester house in San Jose, California remains my favorite part of the book. Born and raised in Ohio, myself, I’d only heard the sensationalized story of the house and its unusual history, so it was wonderful to read such a thorough and well-researched counterpoint to the more mystical narrative. I appreciate the more feminist interpretation of Sarah Winchester’s life, although I must admit that I sometimes think Dickey’s conclusions about her motives are a bit of a stretch. Even if this is the case, however, the story and the way that it’s been embroidered and exploited over the years still serves as a perfect illustration of the points Dickey is trying to make about the way that female eccentricity is peculiarly pathologized. I tweeted early on while reading the book that the read would be worth it for this chapter alone, which is still true, but the whole book is packed full of these sorts of fresh looks at old stories.

Dickey’s thoughtful analysis touches on issues of gender but also includes issues of race and delves into some of the uglier episodes of U.S. history. Some of his chapters, such as those dealing with the slave trade and plantation culture of the South could easily be developed into whole books on their own, and I sincerely hope to see someone take these ideas and run with them. Ditto for Dickey’s look at some of the legends and ghost stories surrounding Native Americans. Throughout Ghostland, I often felt as if there was an enormous body of material and research that this book, ambitious as it is, was only capable of skimming the surface of. It would be great to see some of Dickey’s bigger ideas—especially about the ways in which ghost stories serve to erase and whitewash history—given more space to breathe. Here, the treatment of these concepts is necessarily brief (this isn’t that long a book) and sometimes shallow, and there are sometimes jarring shifts in tone and subject between chapters, particularly in the back half of the book.

Also evident in Ghostland is the author’s love of architecture and literature, and both of these things figure largely in Dickey’s historical analysis. Sadly, there are no photos in the book, which would have been a great addition to the stories it contains. Dickey dwells often on unusual architecture as being sort of inherently predisposed to being perceived as “haunted,” and it would have been nice to see some illustrative examples. Similarly, while the book is meticulously footnoted, it could have benefited from a bibliography or other section with suggestions for further reading or even just a list of literary works mentioned in the text. These lacks wouldn’t be felt so keenly in a more focused book, but in a history so wide-ranging, offering so many glimpses into little-known and lesser understood topics, some further guidance on where to look for more of the same would be much appreciated. That said, if you don’t mind digging through the notes at the back of the book, there are a wealth of resources, just not organized in the most useful possible way.

Ghostland is, on the whole, an excellent primer for the subjects that it covers. It’s full of interesting and entertaining information, and Dickey puts forward a lot of thought-provoking ideas that make this book a perfect reference for writers as well as readers. The questions that Dickey sets out to answer here are worthy ones, and there’s a lot to think about regarding the way we produce and consume ghost stories. With genre conversations often focused these days on issues of diversity and representation, Ghostland is a potentially very valuable conversation starter. I only hope that it is treated as the beginning of the conversation and not the end of it.

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