Colin Dickey was looking for a bargain during the real-estate fire sale following the 2008 mortgage disaster when he came across a foreclosed house in Echo Park that creeped him out. The trees in the backyard were hung with rotted citrus, the interior was jigsawed with strange partitions and a curious legend was scrawled on a bedroom wall: a murderer lived here.
Even though the house — which Dickey and his wife fondly recall as “The Happy Murder Castle” — felt haunted, he didn’t perceive a supernatural pall as much as he did the former owner’s pique at having lost the house to the bank, “bitter and spiteful spirits, mingling with a sense of melancholy and regret.”
This spiritualization of corporeal feelings is the idea at the heart of “Ghostland,” a book that repeats this thesis over and over again, but does so in such creative and even ingenious ways that the reader pays no mind to that lingering echo in the basement.
From ruined factories in Detroit to abandoned slave markets outside Richmond, Va., Dickey takes an erudite tour of haunted America and tells us repeatedly that the meaning of ghost stories lies not in what they claim about the occult but in what they inadvertently say about the anxieties and prejudices of the teller and the larger society. Dickey rings this idea like a spoon on a wineglass.
When we talk about the moans from the gothic insane asylum on the hill, for example, it’s really about our discomfort with the segregation of the mentally ill. Spirits twitching inside Nevada brothels are unquiet reminders of the furtive trade of bodies for rent and how it damages the women. And entire cities that have made a profit stream of ghosts — New Orleans, for example — have not made peace with their racial inequalities of the past and present. Tales of the inhuman, in other words, are all too human.
“This book is not about the truth or falsity of any claim of ghosts,” Dickey writes, dispensing with any expectation that the reader has signed up for a tedious ride-along with the teams of paranormal investigators armed with electromagnetic detectors that populate cable shows like “Ghost Hunters” or “Fear.”
In fact, Dickey writes with contempt about such expeditions. He is not a spiritual sleuth but a literary one, preferring to hit libraries and newspaper archives for the origins of the stories we tell about the scuzzy Los Angeles hotel where a serial killer once stayed, or that house in St. Louis where we heard the insane husband forced his poor wife to kill herself. As it turns out, many of these local yarns are either exaggerating the bloodshed or placing the moral blame for atrocities on the wrong parties.
His analytical and reportorial talents are evident in the first chapter, which uncovers a bit of dirty laundry about the House of the Seven Gables, one of the faux-spooky landmarks of Salem, Mass., that played a role in the eponymous novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne. A hidden staircase to the side of the fireplace — ominously reputed by docents to have been a refuge from witch hunters — was actually added by 20th century promoters as an architectural puzzle to enchant tour groups; a little piece of “there” to represent the “not there.”
We need these shadowy places, it seems, as a physical catchment for what we try to repress in our own histories. California’s serpentine Winchester Mystery House — another haunted house with an admission price — is also guilty of bending its own origins as badly as its front staircase. According to the official folklore, Sarah Winchester — a New Englander who married into the Winchester rifle fortune and lost her daughter and husband to illness — was told by a medium that the spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles were plaguing her family. She was to appease them by building a house for them; as long as construction continued, she herself would be safe. But in her own letters, Sarah Winchester expresses far more wariness of her own family back East than of the supposed ghosts of Plains Indians slain by Winchester weaponry. The legend of her insistence that construction on her house be never-ending sprang from an anonymously penned story in a San Jose newspaper in 1895, which Dickey believes was a safe confirmation for readers’ anxieties that something must be dreadfully wrong with a rich woman who chose to live alone.
Part of the special delight of “Ghostland” is its many informed asides, revealing Dickey’s long hours of spading up obscure facts and quotes. These can be amusing, if trivial: We learn that policemen used to collect electrocuted ducks from the base of a giant electric tower in the heart of San Jose for later sale to restaurants, and that a Dutch movie about a haunted elevator called “The Lift” featured the unforgettable advertising tagline “Take the stairs, take the stairs. For God’s sake, take the stairs!!” But they are also thematically important, as in the case of the 1890s obsession with séances. Spiritualism, Dickey explains, was a social movement — with a curious relationship to telegraphy — that helped drive woman’s suffrage, earned the contempt of Ralph Waldo Emerson and did not so much die out as “simply went mainstream.”
The book is not entirely free of rattles in the attic. Just as many ghost stories must start with a death, Dickey makes the choice to start with a dense and viscous introduction, light on the empiricism at which he excels. A reader might wonder if this is an application for the endowed chair of the ghost studies department.
But the scholastic throat-clearing quickly gives way to a bravura performance of storytelling, in an elegant prose style throughout that does not sacrifice intelligence for readability. Dickey salts the narrative with vivid word-pictures. The Winchester Mystery House “sprawls and flops in a dozen different directions, moving like a coral reef.” A Monrovia hotel has to close its doors to ghost-seekers because of the “dual succubi” of money and fame.
Dickey also has a populist taste that mingles nicely with the high academic voice of the book. There are several well-chosen references to Stephen King’s use of the uncanny in his novels, as well as a fascinating story about a haunted Toys R Us amid the bland consumer tableau of Sunnyvale, Calif.
Things also get gory, as they must: a drug-scented 1979 murder at L.A.’s Bonaventure Hotel led to human remains being taken out in trash bags. A particularly brilliant chapter contrasts the multiple rapes and murders committed inside the basement of a gloomy West Virginia prison with a 2nd century BC aboriginal burial mound outside its gates.
“Americans live on haunted land because we have no other choice,” writes Dickey. The spirits of an older world surround us, lying restless in a tomb of memory, and this book challenges the reader not to make an easy hand-off to the paranormal and find better explanations for why these stories keep coming back, and back and back…
Zoellner is an associate professor of English at Chapman University.
Viking: 336 pp., $27