26 November 2017


Colin Dickey. Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places. Penguin, 2017.
For Colin Dickey ghosts and hauntings are not about the dead but the living, he is not concerned with the question as to whether ghosts exist or not, but what such stories tell us about places, their history and our reaction to them. He selects a number of places and locations around which ghost stories have accrued and uses these as springboards for discussions of the history of that place and the wider narrative that such places tell about the USA.
In the process the reader learns about a number of often obscure topics such as the rise and fall of the insane asylum, the transition from churchyard to cemetery, the development of memorialisation of the dead of the Civil War, the decline of the city, and even the place of the brothel in American history.

For Dickey the essence of haunting is what Freud called the unheimlich, usually translated as ‘uncanny’ but more literally as ‘unhomely’. He uses this in connection with a number of houses he and his wife visited when looking for a new home, places that seemed somehow wrong and disquieting, often because of their, to say the least, eccentric architecture as previous owners had adapted and expanded in various ad hoc ways.

The ultimate expression of such ad hoc architecture may well be the so-called Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, the home of Sarah Pardee Winchester, the widow of William Wirt Winchester, the inventor of the Winchester repeating rifle. With its 160 rooms and sprawling architecture, Dickey suggests that the house had simply morphed into a perpetual project, with Sara constantly experimenting and changing her mind.

Popular folklore had a different idea. In the folk stories Sarah built the house on the advice of a medium named as Adam Coons (there is no evidence any such person ever existed) in expiation of the lives lost to the Winchester rifle, the victims of which were haunting her. In the myth it is a building of dead end staircases, trapdoors, false rooms, labyrinthine corridors and the like, in an exaggerated version of the real place. Dickey notes that although the true story is readily available, the myth is constantly repeated. This is perhaps because myths can be ‘truer than true’, for the mad, blind futile haunted house is an entirely apposite symbol of the madness, chaos and futility of war. The endless task is part of a long folk tradition of the endless Sisyphean task, such as emptying a bottomless pool with a cockle shell.

Of the dark, disturbing and unhomely places that Dickey takes us to, arguably the worst is the Devils Half Acre in Shockoe Bottom, Richmond, Virginia. This was the place of the slave auctions and the notorious Lumpkin’s Jail where ‘recalcitrant’ slaves were beaten and tortured. Surely a place for ghosts, yet Dickey noted that in the popular accounts of Richmond’s ghosts all the ghosts are white! Perhaps there are horrors too great for ghost stories to deal with; they can handle small domestic tragedies, but death and terror on an industrial scale is beyond comprehension. Or the ghosts are sanitised for commercial exploitation in books, ghost tours and ever more competitive TV ghost hunts.

But perhaps the image from this book that will remain with many readers is that of the corpse of the woman left to rot in the streets of New Orleans after Katrina, who the authorities did not think was a priority, but was unwilling to allow anyone else to move her.

This is an interesting and haunting book, and obviously of chief interest to US residents and visitors, however many of the insights will apply to the UK and other places. Dickey borrows terms from the Kiswahili culture, that divides the dead between those who remembered as living people by the currently living, the sasha; and those where the last person who remembered them as a person has died, the zamani, the deep ancestors. We in Britain have plenty of ghost stories of the latter reduced to heritage industry cliches. The ghosts come when it becomes seemly to talk of them. -- Peter Rogerson.

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