Book review: Ghostland by Colin Dickey

9781101980194

Title: Ghostland
An American History in Haunted Places
Author: Colin Dickey
ISBN: 9781101980194
Pages: 336
Release Date: October 4, 2016
Publisher: Viking
Genre: History, Paranormal

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.

— From Penguin Random House

Chances are that your hometown, no matter how large or small, has at least one haunted place. In mine there are about a dozen, and all of your standard haunts are represented. There is an abandoned hospital that I used to drive by every morning. With its hollow windows, crooked chain link fence, and a “no trespassing” sign, it gives you a sense of foreboding without a fail. Naturally, the building itself carries a legend of horrendous abuse, a lost mass grave, and a slew of wandering spirits. I saw a light once in one of the windows on a chilly winter night, and though my logic tried to convince me of homeless looking for shelter, some small, primeval part of me whispered of ghosts.

Looking for a haunted B&B? We have one of those too. The beautiful three-story house from the turn of last century is said to be inhabited by one eternal guest – a murdered wife of the former owner. It is said that in a fit of jealousy he killed her in one of the bedrooms upstairs, and then dragged her body to the basement, disposing of it in a large cast-iron coal furnace. To this day she is said to haunt the old suites, pulling on sheets of sleeping guests, flickering the lights, and appearing to some as a faint apparition. At least until recently. The last time I was in the area, the historical building was pulled apart to make room for a high-rise. Who knows if the ghostly lady finds peaceful abode in the unfamiliar monolith of glass walls and stainless steel appliances…

There is an old schoolhouse with a resident poltergeist, a converted military base whose new townhouses are being bothered by strange bumps in the night, and a grande hotel still occupied by a phantom horse that plummeted to its death when pulling construction materials to the top floor. Ghosts are everywhere. While those in my hometown all reflect its history and myth, the stories themselves are oddly familiar to those in other cities. They share the same themes of jealous rages, tragic accidents, epidemics, war, and human suffering. They occupy the same places of former glory, rich history, and communal gatherings. Whether it’s a haunted house or a haunted hotel, these stories can be found in every town and every country.

So what does that have to do with Colin Dickey’s Ghostland? Well, beyond a usual paranormal guide to most infamous haunted places in the United States, Colin undertakes the task of understanding how and why we believe we see ghosts and talk to spirits, and general connections haunted places have regardless of location. While the book’s goal is not to convince the reader of existence of paranormal, or debunk the notion altogether, the author does his best not to subscribe to the romanticism of ghosts, but to see the real picture. However, most of the time it means he completely busts the myths and legends surrounding these haunts. He researches real history and real people behind these stories, and draws his own conclusions as to how they evolve from everyday tragedies into fantastic tales of supernatural.

The author spends quite a bit of time discussing the psychological aspects of belief, and ethics of capitalizing on other people’s sorrow when perpetuating these myths to attract tourists. I think this is a book you will either love or get bored with, depending on what your expectations are. If you are looking for a sensationalist guide to give into a little spooky fantasy right around Halloween, you are not looking for the right book. Though the haunts themselves are spooky enough, they are not the main focus. But if you do prefer a well-written account of American paranormal history from a sociological and psychological point of view, with an emphasis on truth, then there is no better book than Ghostland.

This is seriously the best title on the subject I’ve ever read. I’ll be getting a copy for my personal library.

Purchase the book from: Book Depository
Author’s official website: Colin Dickey

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