Ghostland by Colin Dickey

Ghostland by Colin Dickey

3.71  ·  Rating details ·  2,166 Ratings  ·  465 Reviews
Ghostland by Colin Dickey download or read it online for free
Ghostland by Colin Dickey
An intellectual feast for fans of offbeat history, Ghostland takes readers on a road trip through some of the country's most infamously haunted places--and deep into the dark side of our history.

Colin Dickey is on the trail of America's ghosts. Crammed into old houses and hotels, abandoned prisons and empty hospitals, the spirits that linger continue to capture our collective imagination, but why? His own fascination piqued by a house hunt in Los Angeles that revealed derelict foreclosures and "zombie homes," Dickey embarks on a journey across the continental United States to decode and unpack the American history repressed in our most famous haunted places. Some have established reputations as "the most haunted mansion in America," or "the most haunted prison"; others, like the haunted Indian burial grounds in West Virginia, evoke memories from the past our collective nation tries to forget.    
       With boundless curiosity, Dickey conjures the dead by focusing on questions of the living--how do we, the living, deal with stories about ghosts, and how do we inhabit and move through spaces that have been deemed, for whatever reason, haunted? Paying attention not only to the true facts behind a ghost story, but also to the ways in which changes to those facts are made--and why those changes are made--Dickey paints a version of American history left out of the textbooks, one of things left undone, crimes left unsolved. Spellbinding, scary, and wickedly insightful, Ghostland discovers the past we're most afraid to speak of aloud in the bright light of day is the same past that tends to linger in the ghost stories we whisper in the dark.


“Do I believe in ghosts? No, but I am afraid of them.”
- Marie Anne de Vichy Chamrond, Marquise du Deffand

One summer, around the time I was in middle school, I spent a week at a friend’s family-farm in central Minnesota. The farmhouse was a familiar type, nestled in a copse of trees and surrounded by otherwise-treeless fields. The house was old and sprawling and had been subjected to several additions over the years, so that the interior was filled with odd nooks and corners, with shadows and strange sounds.

And it was haunted. Or so I was told before even setting a foot inside.

The ghost was a woman who – I believe; vagueness is essential to ghost stories – would have been my friend’s great-grandma. She’d died many years before. In the living room she had a tchotchke cabinet with glass doors that locked with a key. The key had disappeared at some point, and the doors were eternally locked. No one had touched those knickknacks in decades. They were as they’d been when the great-grandma died, frozen in time like Miss Havisham’s furniture.


Sometimes at night [cue a flash of lighting, a peal of thunder], if you listened closely, you could hear the metallic click of a key entering a lock, and the slow thin squeal of the locking mechanism as it turned…

I’d like to say I felt some otherworldly presence that night. That, perhaps, I heard a sound that might have, could have been, a key from a different dimension turning a lock on a cabinet filled with ridiculous figurines. I didn't though. Never heard a thing. That didn't stop me from being terrified. I didn’t leave my room all night, afraid I’d see something in that living room as I made my way to the bathroom. I came very near to peeing my pants.

I’m sure most people, whether open to the supernatural or not, have a story like this. We live in a haunted world and ghosts – or at least their stories – surround us.

Colin Dickey wanted to know why. In Ghostland, he embarks on a journey across the United States to give us “an American history in haunted places.” In doing so, he expounds on the reasons these stories exist, and why they have endured.

Dickey divides the book into four quadrants. The first covers haunted homes; the second haunted businesses (such hotels, restaurants, and brothels); the third haunted public places (such as prisons and cemeteries); and finally, haunted towns (where Dickey eschews classic ghost towns in favor of major metropolises). He explores places that are both well-known, such as the “House of Seven Gables” in Salem, Massachusetts, and the Cecil Hotel, in Los Angeles, as well as others that are less famous, like Cathedral Park in Portland, Oregon.

I venture that most readers will be familiar with many of the places Dickey visits. The restless spirits of the Stanley Hotel (aka the Overlook, from Stephen King’s The Shining) and the Queen Mary are no secret, especially if you have ever spent five minutes watching The Travel Channel. (For the record, I have spent more than five minutes, while drinking more than five wines).

Dickey, however, is not out to give you a typical ghost tour. He is – quite frankly – almost disinterested in the purported ghostly occurrences that drew him in the first place. There are times when he introduces a location without even bothering to relate the predicate ghostly tale. If you are fascinated by the supernatural, I suspect this might be a disappointment. Dickey is clearly a skeptic – by the end that skepticism has almost become impatience – but proving or disproving the paranormal in any methodical way is not his purpose.

In other words, this is not a literary version of Ghost Adventures. Instead, Dickey has a more cerebral goal. He is out to interpret the meanings behind each tale. To do so, he utilizes a multidisciplinary approach that encompasses history, psychology, sociology, architecture, and literature. Taken on these terms, this is a fascinating book. Dickey deftly segues between fields, mining insight and significance from anything from the construction of a house to the factual contours of an alleged haunting. Ghostland reads very smoothly. Dickey’s fluid prose, coupled with his boundless curiosity, makes this very engaging from beginning to end. (At less than 300 pages of text, it is not a huge investment of time in the first place).

There are weighty topics here, weightier than I expected from a book called Ghostland. In one chapter he talks about spiritualism and its role as a religion in which women were not placed in a subservient position. In another he discusses the role of race, specifically the absence of black ghosts, in the spook stories of the south. I enjoyed his handling of this material, which he presents briskly but intelligently. I appreciated his look at a familiar topic from a fresh viewpoint.

That said, I did not love this. Ghostland belongs to a genre I call the Historical Road Trip. The success of a book in this genre, like the success of an actual road trip, rests largely with the driver. Like any road trip, there are good stops and bad. (Dickey’s literary visit to Binghamton, NY, is as dispiriting to read as a literal visit to Binghamton, NY). As the driver, Dickey disappears for large stretches, writing mostly in an objective, third-person manner. That’s a shame, because some of the best parts (such as his visit to the Lemp Mansion in St. Louis) come when he relates his experiences in the first-person.

Dickey comes across as a bit of a pedant. He states that he’s not out to disprove paranormal activity, which is strictly true. However, he is out to undercut the historical premises that underlie the ghost stories themselves. This has the same effect, and sort of kneecaps his own topic. By the end, I thought of Dickey as that friend we all have, the one who is constantly correcting everyone else by saying, “Well, actually that’s not true…” (For the record, I’m that friend in my friend group).

This book is missing the vital element of fun. I like how Dickey engages some heavy topical issues, but that engagement doesn’t necessarily require the utter absence of joy. I mean, this is a book about ghosts! Reading this is a bit like signing up for a cakewalk college course, say Intro to Schwarzenegger Action Films, and then showing up to find out you’re in Organic Chemistry. Okay, this isn’t exactly Organic Chemistry. Still, there should be humor here. There should be interesting characters. Instead, everyone he interviews is dead (pun intended; this book could’ve used some puns) serious about whatever they’re saying. I can only imagine how a different writer, such as Sarah Vowell, might have handled this subject.

Because this book is so grave (another pun, again intended), Dickey’s conclusions as to why people believe in ghosts run the gamut from snarky (he posits that some folks have too much time on their hands) to farfetched (such as lingering guilt over taking this land from American Indians). The easy answer, and I think the right answer, is that belief in ghosts comes from the same place as faith in a god. It is the hope in life after death. Evidence of a ghost means there’s evidence that things don’t just end with our last gasping breath. That’s both comforting and terrifying.

We live in an old house with creaky wood floors and doors that don’t quite fit into their frames anymore. Thus, as day settles into night, there are noises galore. I’ve stopped counting how many times I’ve been sent downstairs by my wife (weapon-free, mind you), to see if anyone is breaking in. (It’s never been fully explained what I’m supposed to do if someone actually is breaking in).

Being something of a storyteller/bullshitter, I am fond of telling people that the house is haunted by the ghost of Charlie. Charlie lived in the house before us. I know this because we still get his mail. I also know that he died, though in a hospital. Like any good ghost story, this one combines a single thread of truth with a lot of outright fabrications. Sometimes, though, when I’m sent downstairs to make sure the front door is locked, and it’s late at night, and the lights are off, and the house is sighing and slouching in its foundation, I start to wonder if I’m going to run into Charlie in the hall, going about his business as he had in life.

I never do, because Charlie’s ghost is something that doesn’t exist. Just as ghosts don’t exist. I know this with my head. My heart, though, is giving me a more complicated message. One, that despite their nonexistence, ghosts are scary. And two, that part of me hopes my head is completely wrong. That ghosts are real. That life goes on, even after death.

Ghostland is a not-spooky, but thoroughly entertaining, examination of ghost stories and haunted locales throughout America with the express intent of debunking the paranormal and better understanding how ghost stories reflect on our past and present.

Given the book's dark cover and the timing of its release, it seems necessary to reiterate that there's nothing particularly creepy about this book. The author dug through family trees and historic records until he unearthed every inconsistency or blatant lie associated with famous ghost stories or well-known haunted locations. He actively debunks one ghost story after another.

The author posits that ghost stories are malleable, changing throughout the years to accommodate society's various needs:

Paying attention to the way ghost stories change through the years -- and why those changes are made -- can tell us a great deal about how we face our fears and our anxieties. Even when these stories have a basis in fact and history, there's often significant embellishment and fabrication before they catch on in our imagination, and teasing out these alterations is key to understanding how ghosts shape our relationship to the past.

In addition to stories of ghosts, the author examines several haunted locations, revealing details spanning from the evolution of their (sometimes) bizarre construction to their rise in popularity as a notorious haunt. The more unusual the house, the author states, the more likely it'll cause unease among its neighbors and the more we seem to require some kind of story to explain its construction. Additional locations explored include haunted bars and brothels, hotels and restaurants, asylums, graveyards, and more.

Though it doesn't detract from the overall enjoyment of the book, it sometimes feels as though the author drifts off on a tangent. For example, a chapter that begins by introducing a notoriously haunted house eventually segues to a discussion of Spiritualism, which ultimately leads to an examination of a woman's right to vote. These shifts in narrative are never a point of contention for the reader, because all of the information is well-researched and tied together seamlessly.

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.

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places is a skilfully crafted and compelling book that will appeal to fans of American history, trivia, haunted locales and ghosts.

GHOSTLAND is a stirring and expertly written historical account of our ghosts, the ones we celebrate and the ones we hide. 
This is not a cheesy ghost hunters TV show in book form. Dickey deconstructs the folklore and myth surrounding the US's most famous/notorious hauntings. This is a book about how ghost stories happen, how they are created, how they evolve, how they reflect our history and how they often bury the history we don't want to face. His chapter/essay on Salem is one of the most astute I've ever read. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Info source:

No comments:

Post a Comment