Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era – Fourth Book Review for Black History Month Series

TAlesHauntedSouthWhen I tell people about this blog and my love for the haunted houses of  film and literature, quite often they say something like, “Cool. So I take it you’re a fan of  * Insert – the name of the trendiest cable show that boasts of “real” encounters with  the paranormal – here *.  When I tell them, “No I don’t find value in those kind of shows” and that for me, ghosts are fictional entities , I get blank stares. I might go on to explain that I view haunted house stories through the same analytical lens that a student might use when assessing feminist themes in classic and modern literature , or that I embark upon a similar path that a historian of cinema might follow when studying the evolution of a certain  film technique. And STILL they might reply, “You know, there are several houses here in the U.S. that are supposed to be haunted. Have you ever gone on a ghost tour?” Sigh! These folks just don’t get it.

To answer that last question, no, I’ve never been on a ghost tour, though I’ve been to places where they are offered (Galena, Illinois for instance). I’d like to go on one, just to see what they’re all about. Thankfully, someone has given me a glimpse into what has been coined as “dark tourism”. Her name is Tiya Miles. She has written a book about some of the most popular  ghost tours in The American  south. And wouldn’t  you know it, this book Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era  is the subject  of this review. Imagine that! And it is the fourth and final review of my Black History Month Series.

In her book, Miles seeks  out ghosts. Despite  what I said above about my skepticism concerning translucent specters that go bump in the night, I believe in the ghosts Miles seeks. Please, read on.

Tiya Miles went on several ghost tours. She toured many “haunted houses” across the south, from former plantation mansions to carriage houses that once served as slaves quarters. But she is not writing as a “survivor” who lived to tell about her frightful experiences. She is not billing herself as an eyewitness to  floating specters or poltergeist activity (although one the photos she took at a cemetery picked up a mysterious orb!). But, as I mentioned in the last paragraph ,  she was indeed searching for “ghosts”. Alas, for the most part, they did not come – and I’m not referring to translucent figures that moan and groan. These kinds of ghosts she was not expecting (though they did “appear”, at the very least, inside the tales that were told by the tour guides, taking the form of “Right where you are standing now, the ghost of such-and-such appeared to one visitor). What kind of ghosts was she hoping to find?

Paraphrasing, Miles defines “ghosts” as a vehicle to the past. In order to come to terms with the past, in order to “see” the events that have transpired long ago, we must have an honest confrontation with the ghosts that history has conjured. Quite the figurative definition, huh?  But think – if there is any entity that is made up of figurative elements, it would be “the ghost.”

In particular, Miles took in these ghost tours to see if they would relay the authentic tragedies of real people that experienced the horrors of slavery. True, “dark tourists” want to hear the tales of spirits of former slaves or slave owners haunting the premise on ghost tours. They go in with the expectations of learning about the lives of the deceased, of the tragic circumstances that surrounded their deaths, tragedies that caused their souls to remain here on the earth, searching for some kind of peace before being able to pass on to the other side. Miles expected these kind of tales as well. And she got them. But before embarking upon these ghost tours, she wanted to see if the sponsors of these tours exploited the lives of the deceased in anyway, either with misinformation or exaggerated distortions. And exploit they did.  They presented slave ghosts to the customers as caricatures; ghostly voodoo priestesses, promiscuous phantoms, etc. etc. Only now and then did they allow for the true “ghosts” to take form: tales of the true cruelty and oppression that the black enslaved Americans experienced.

Tiya Miles toured several cities in the American South, where dark tourism flourishes.  Why does this industry flourish in the American South? Well, to quote from the book:

The US South, with its history  of Indian removal, slavery, and bloody Civil War battles, together with its regional particularity, and atmospheric  setting  of simmering heat and shroud like Spanish  moss, is a place easily  associated  with a dark past and haunted present.

She went on  ghost tours in Savannah, Georgia, a city that boasts of being the “ghost tour capital” of the United States, beating out both New Orleans, known for all its Voodoo and other paranormal attraction, and Salem, with its notorious history of burning innocent women on stakes to “eradicate witchcraft”.  But Miles also visited “haunted places” in New Orleans and at preserved plantations that stand on the southern end of the Mississippi River, which were known for their “even more horrid conditions” for the enslaved, giving rise to the term “sold down the river.”  The eerie tales surrounding these visited sites, Miles argues, sugarcoat the real tragedies and injustices of slavery with romantic stories filled with ghostly hyperbole.

The Sorrel-Weed House in Savannah, Georgia

Miles begins her quest at the  Sorrel-Weed House  in Savannah, Georgia. Francis Sorrel, original owner, was allegedly  having an affair with his slave “Molly”, who lived in the carriage  house that is adjoined to the main residence. This carriage  house is said to be haunted by Molly’s ghost. Allegedly, she was murdered in this house, probably  by Francis Sorrel  himself, who needed to terminate any evidence  of the affair. His wife, Matilda, does find out about the affair, so the story goes that she committed suicide, throwing herself out the window. It is said that her ghost  haunts the Sorrel-Weed  House as well.

SorrelWeedHouse

(Above photo: The Sorrel-Weed House)

Miles does some  checking. While she uncovers documents that state that Matilda died “in an accident,” there is no historical record of Molly, at least none pertaining  to the property  holdings of one Francis Sorrel. Neither are there any documents listing slave names similar to Molly.

Is Molly a “figment  of human imagination?” (quote from book as a possible  explanation  of Molly). If so, she exists as the fabricated ghost, the packaged legend,  indeed  a ghostly “figment” of some not-so-creative imaginations, (the lack of creativity attributed to her story’s reliance on the typical  tropes of found in “real” southern  slave ghost stories.) Whether real or not, Molly sets Miles off on a journey  to find “her ghost”. Her ghost will represent the untold stories of an enslaved  people, their perspectives  within the context  of an the inhumane institution of slavery.

There were several things wrong with the telling of Molly’s story, Miles believed. These wrongs, these fabrications would materialize again and again  throughout  her tours of haunted houses. Oh where are the ghosts? And what are these fabrications that stand in place of the ghost and its  hauntings?  Let’s move on.

The Myrtles Plantation – Louisiana – Ghosts of Chloe and Cleo

Tiya Miles visits the Myrtles Plantation, located off the River Road (this would be the Mississippi River, folks!) in  rural Louisiana. The plantation house is supposedly a legendary  haunted house.  It also serves as a bed and breakfast for your average “dark tourist”, or your simple Southern  history  enthusiast. Miles stays in a room that was formerly  a nursery. Her room, she is told, is the most haunted room in the place. It is haunted by the ghost of Cleo, a former slave that once turned  the nursery into a Voodoo  sanctuary. Cleo, a Voodoo priestess, tried her best to heal her master’s  sick child using her “skills of the craft”. Her master allowed this, so long as the child would heal. All night Cleo worked her magic. In the morning, she proclaimed the child to be healed. Sadly the child died soon after, and Cleo ’ s Master had her hanged for her lies regarding the health of the child.

MyrtlesPlantation

(Above Photo: The Myrtles Plantation House)

Myrtles is also supposedly haunted by Chloé, a young slave girl in her early teens who was involved in a sexual relationship  with her master. Although the master liked having Chloe around for sexual company , he didn’t like it when she listened  in on his private affairs. When he found her with her ear to his office door, he cut off  that ear. Still, Chloe was devoted to him and she cherished  their sexual relationship. But she was jealous of her master’s  family so one night she poisoned the kids, killing them. For this crime, her master  hanged her from a tree. Tourists who stay overnight are warned to lock up any earrings they might remove from their lobes before going to bed, although only one of the pair is in danger of being stolen. Stolen by whom? That would be the ghost of Chloé. She only needs one earring  because  she only has one ear.

So, what’s going on with these “phantoms?” A whole lot of stereotyping. Chloé  is portrayed  as a “Jezebel”, a biblical feminine persona that is  amoral, has an insatiable  sex drive, and is seen as an evil temptress toward men. Although some sympathy is granted to Chloe, as the story admits that she was treated cruelly (losing her ear, being a slave in general), she plays a key role in her own demise. She is the one in the story that bears the most evil (killing innocent  little children!)

The story of Cleo with its imagery of “ primitive  rituals” invokes another stereotype – the wild witch woman. Imagine – inside the wholesome confines of a white man’s nursery a black woman is performing ancient witchcraft from the jungle, only to result in the death of an innocent child. Such horrors!

It should be noted that Voodoo was a real religion among various  slaves. However as Miles notes, “Voodoo lends an exotic quality to these stories, calling to mind the notion of the African primitive. Voodoo also portends spiritual danger for non-adherents who see the religion as strange and dangerous, thereby enhancing the taboo-breaking, fear-inspiring elements of dark tourism”.

Within the tales of Chloe and Cleo arises what I again call the “figments” of treacherous, exotic, sex-starved, and witchy women that are responsible for deaths of white children. Then there is Chloe as a thief, a prankster that has nothing better to do with her afterlife  than to steal earrings. To the author’s  dismay, the “ghosts” of Chloé and Cleo do not appear in these tales. These would be the ghosts of two suffering women, suffering through no fault of their own. Victims of horrendous  abuse at the hands of controlling men. In all these tales of sexual  relationships between black slave women and their white masters, are we do believe that the women had an equal status in the relationship? There were no power dynamics  perpetuated  by the men? Could many if not all of these “relationships” really be cases of non-consensual sex and  perpetual  rape? If “ghosts” were conjured from these tales instead of “figments”, then perhaps we might see a clearer  image of the truth. Ghosts don’t lie.

Better Uses of the Supernatural in African American Experience

Returning now to Molly, the slave ghost from the Savannah Sorrel-Weed House, we see again a slave complicit in an adulterous act, not the victim of power play and subjugation. Figments abound in this tale. Ghosts do not. What Miles came to realize during her quest to find “Molly’s ghost” was, in her own words:

I also came away with an alarming sense that the representation of slaves as ghosts reproduces intersectional racial and gender norms from the antebellum era, often without context, caution, or critique. As a result, the narratives on these tours reinforce retrograde interpretations of power, race, gender, sexuality, and identity. These stories turn on the abuse of the socially weak, often African American women, but do nothing to contextualize the experiences of black women or hold accountable the perpetrators of violence against them. In short, ghost tours featuring spectral slaves often uphold the ideas of an antebellum social order by replaying antebellum plots that repopularize antiquated race and gender hierarchies.

The goal of Miles’s work is not to discredit the supernatural (She did see that orb on her photo). Rather, it is to allow for ghost stories to capture the true cruelty of slavery while providing dignity to the black slave ghosts. She says:

Black slaves do not fare well in the genre of the southern ghost tour. But we need not rely on ghost tours and haunted sites to gain historical understanding about the supernatural in African American experience.

As an example, Miles refers to a project conducted by the Georgia WPA. In the 1930s, The WPA conducted a series of interviews with former slaves and ancestors of slaves. One woman relayed a story her mother had told her. Her mother, a former slave, saw and heard a phantom machine made up of chains and wheels. It was as big as a house, very loud and extremely terrifying.  At this spot, back in history, a slave master would whip his slaves to death. Here in this tale, the evil of slavery is pronounced and takes form, representing the “ugly machinery” of slavery.

Also, Miles mentions Toni Morrison’s book Beloved, where a slave child returns from the dead. She, according to Miles, represents the history of slavery (I mention this in my review of Beloved. )

Beloved is a work of fiction. As for the story about the massive conglomeration of chains, well, supposedly the storyteller  believed it to be true. But this doesn’t matter. What matters is that the “ghosts” in both of these tales “speak of truth”. They do their job of communicating with the living as to the reality of our nation’s yesteryears. Often times this truth is ugly. But ghosts do not exist as contestants in a beauty contest. They exist as messengers of the past and don whatever appearance is necessary to relay the spirit of its time.

Madame  Lalaurie – Remember “Coven” in American Horror Story?

Are you a fan of the TV series American Horror Story? I can’t say that I have a love affair with this show, but I found some episodes enjoyable. Anyway, there was one season, the third season I believe, which was titled “Coven”. It was a story about modern day witches in New Orleans. However there were several flashback scenes set in the antebellum south, at the house of a cruel mistress named Madame  Lalaurie, played by Kathy Bates. She kept slaves in chains in the attic. She branded them, dissected them. Well did you know that Madame Lalaurie was a real person? Tiya Miles visits her “haunted house” in New Orleans (where she really did keep slaves locked in an attic), which is purportedly haunted by the cruel Madame herself.

Miles places the story of Lalaurie within the context of her theories. The stories conveyed by tour guides once again contain figments rather than ghosts.  But I won’t get into all that here. For details, buy the book!

And so….

I thank Tiya Miles for writing this book. It taught  me a lot about slavery and black history, much of which I did not detail in this review. I believe that I now have the necessary mental tools to prepare myself for a ghost tour, if I should ever decide to go on one. Yes, the romantic in me will hope to see an actual specter (though I won’t expect such a thing). But the analytic side of my personality will now be looking for the “unseen” ghosts. Depending on the historical context, I might never come to now the true nature of the “once-was-a living-person” that is presented to me as a ghost in these tales, but I can step back, think independently, and ask myself questions such as, “Do these tales seem antiquated in nature? Does the business (i.e. the ones hosting the tour) have anything to gain by preserving some kind of preconceived notion of the past? Are these tales haunted by obvious clichés and caricatures? I must go back to Galena ,Illinois, a town where the once many antique shops have been converted to cafes and other trendy kinds of storefronts . Ah but the historical town, home of Ulysses Grant, still has “antiques” to sell, only now, they come in the form of ghosts. This small down boasts several ghost tours and a few haunted houses. I must return and see whether they are peddling figments or trying to tell true “ghost” stories.

Peace Out!

About the Author

TiyaMilesTiya Miles is a professor of history at Harvard University. She is the author of five books. One of her research specialties is African and Native American comparative histories.  She is the winner of several awards including the Frederick Douglass Prize.

 

 

 

*** information above was gathered from the following links:

https://history.fas.harvard.edu/people/tiya-miles

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiya_Alicia_Miles

 

 

Beloved – Third Book Review for Black History Month Series

beloved-by-toni-morrisonIt is 1873. The Civil War is over. Slaves are freed. Sethe, a former slave, lives as a free woman in rural Ohio. She had been a runaway slave, fleeing the South and finding freedom back when such actions were illegal by law. But all that is over now, she is no longer a wanted woman. Nothing left but the best of times…right? No. Not true.

Sethe raises her daughter Denver (age = 11? 12?) in a haunted house. Ghostly handprints appear in a cake. Mirrors shatter, a kettle of chickpeas is tossed on the floor. Sethe has other children besides Denver, but they are gone. Howard and Buglar, in particular, ran away at the young age of thirteen. Two young boys off on their own, never heard from again. They fled the ghost that haunted their home.

Sethe and Denver live a reclusive, dreary life. They are lonely. Along comes Paul D, a former slave from Sweet Home, the plantation to which both he and Sethe were enslaved. He too notices the ghost at Sethe’s place. It shines as a pool of red light.

“Good God. What kind of evil you got here?” Paul D asks.

“It’s not evil, just sad. Come on, Just step through.”

 

And Paul D listens. He steps through.

Paul D takes up residence at the house. He and Sethe begin a romantic relationship.  Whereas Denver has her misgivings about Paul D, Sethe seems happier than she has been in a long time. For you see, Paul D has chased the ghost away.  According to Sethe, the ghost = sadness. Has Paul D eradicated sadness from her life? Maybe temporarily.

The past haunts us all. Mostly in stories about the supernatural, the haunting past makes its presence known in the form of a ghost, as it does here in Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer  prize winning novel Beloved. But a past such as Sethe’s is so troubling that its haunting demands a far more substantive expression than that of an ethereal phantom.  The ghost is gone but the past returns again, this time in flesh and bones.  It comes back in the form of a young girl/woman with the brain of a child. This woman appears to Sethe, Denver and Paul D on the road, looking and smelling as if she had just risen from the swamp.

Sethe takes pity on her and invites her into her home and welcomes her into her family. This mystery girl/woman is name is Beloved. Soon Sethe will realize  who she is and…what she is. She is both the precious past and the putrid.  She is love. She is guilt. She is beautiful. She is the ugliest  of realities. She is whole, not minced.

Who is Beloved? I will not answer that question directly. From a very simple and literal perspective, the answer to that question is unveiled very early on in the novel. This “literal” answer might even be found in the book’s synopsis on Amazon or on any other platform that sells the book. Even so, these answers will not explain the depths of Beloved’s identity. Perhaps there is no one true explanation.  I will be presenting some of my thoughts about this. But as for the surface explanation  concerning her identity and why she comes packaged with a tragedy that eats away at Sethe’s soul, you will have to read the book to understand these things.

Beloved is much more than a ghost story. There are several back stories that serve as case studies for some very interesting characters. Following these characters back in time, the novel  transports us to the harsh days before  the Civil War came to an end. Toni Morrison gives readers a glimpse into plantation life and it isn’t pretty to say the least. The book details the lives of these characters as slaves and shows us the great lengths to which they go in their quests for freedom. Considering  such hardships, it is understandable  that authors such as Tiya Miles  believe  that Beloved represents  the physical embodiment of “the history of slavery”. (From her book “Tales of the Haunted South – Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era” This is up next for review!) There is merit to this view. Certainly the inhumane past Sethe and her family  endured continues to haunt her and disrupt their daily  living. The damage inflicted by slavery does not simply fade upon its cessation. Its takes generations to fully  eradicate.

To me, Beloved represents an extension of Sethe.  Let me explain. Much of the novel explores the  building and destruction of self boundaries.  One of the book’s characters, an elderly black woman that goes by the name “Baby Suggs,” preaches to congregants, telling them to “Look at your hands. They are yours. They are beautiful”.  Former slaves needed reminders that their bodies no longer belonged to some master or mistress. They needed to know that even when they were in captivity, their thoughts, their feelings, their very “selves” had been theirs all along. This sense of self is not so easily  apparent when one is shackled like an animal, sold like livestock, and forcibly separated from family.

At one point in the story, Sethe is violated, held down and robbed of the milk in her breasts by the nephews of the plantation owner. With experiences such as this, it can be difficult to not only feel a sense of self worth but to have a healthy understanding of the concept of “the self” at all.  Without this understanding, one’s sense of self can be projected onto others.

In another part of the book, we learn that Sethe herself had committed an unspeakable act. Unable to come to terms with what she had done, her guilt manifests into another person, into Beloved.  To quote from Beloved herself , “I am not separate from her. There is no place where I stop…her face is my own.”

Who is Beloved? She is so many things. When all is said and done, she is the genius that is Toni Morrison. Morrison’s book is a patchwork of keen psychological insights, layers upon layers of them. She writes dialogue in the vernacular of her subjects and composes her concepts with thoughtful depth. She uncovers the abstract and makes it real, painfully real.

Beloved may not make my top ten list of  favorite haunted house novels. This does not matter, for you see, Beloved has earned its rightful place on my list of top ten novels overall, regardless of genre. The haunted house is but one concept in a sea of themes that Morrison touches upon. Nevertheless, her novel features a haunted house and therefore, Beloved is a most welcomed addition to my collection of reviews.   It is a brilliant piece of literature.


 

About the Author

 

BelovedToniMorrisonToni Morrison is a professor emeritus from Princeton University. She is the author of several novels and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for her novel Beloved.

*** The information above was taken from Wikipedia.com

White is for Witching – Second Book Review for Black History Month Series

 

WhiteisForWitching2

I don’t even know how to begin. This book, White is for Witching, stumps  me. For sure this will be one of  the more challenging  reviews because I really don’t know what to say about it. I’m not certain  what the book us getting at it. I still haven’t  made my mind up on whether I like  this novel or not. So, I guess this  is it then. Buy it here if you wish. Good luck  with it. Peace out my friends!

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Fine, I’ll try to do better than that! Maybe a list of the multiple themes would be a good start. If this book is about anything, it’s about several things. It’s about a college-aged young woman named Miranda Silver. The very first chapter leaves readers with the impression that “Miri” (Miranda  for short) is either dead and buried, off on her own  somewhere, a runaway without  any shoes, or just hiding underneath some strands of symbolism that the author has spun.  Three competing entities are trying to assess her whereabouts; three different  perspectives; perspectives for which we the readers will come to know the story. (I’ll  explain  why I am using the term  “entities” momentarily ) First there is Ore, Miri’s  friend from college. She says that Miri is “in the ground underneath  her mother’s  house”. Eliot , Miri’s  brother, states that she just ran off somewhere  one dark and windy night. Finally, an entity known as 29 Barton Road insists that Miri is a home, inside its  confines  someplace. “29 Barton Road” is the haunted house. It’s also the Bed and Breakfast that Miri’s  family operates. It too shares is perspective with us. Since it is not human, I refer to the four that share their perspectives as entities. Four? Who is the fourth? That would be Miri herself. She too shares her side of things. A rather skewed  perspective it is! Or is it? We learn early on that Miri is not entirely mentally  stable. Is this a case  of an unreliable  narrator? More than that, the whole book is an unreliable  narrative – no matter what you think this story is about, it’s probably about something  else.

More topics, more things  this book is about (or isn’t – you know, that whole “unreliable  narrative” thing.)  It’s about grieving. The family at center  of the story, The Silver  family,  lost its Matriarch, Lily. She was a journalist who was murdered  on assignment in Haiti. Eliot blames his sister  Miri for this, for she wouldn’t  stay awake over there in England  while the murder was happening  in Haiti. How does this make sense? I don’t know, some kind of symbolism that’s lost on me  I guess. But after  the fact, Miri wears her mother’s watch that is always  set at Haitian  time. Speaking  of Miri, she suffers from pica, a psychological  disease that causes one to consume non-edible  objects. Chalk is her favorite snack. Readers also learn that Miri was institutionalized  sometime after her mother’s  death. So the book is about battling mental illness  as well.

The book is also about the politics  of group identity, nativism, and immigration. A group  of Kosovan girls have it in for Miri on account of something she said or did to one of the girl’s  boyfriends. Miri insists  it’s a case of mistaken identity. She never did such a thing!  Or did she? Who is “she” anyway? Who are any of us?

Move over Miri, Ore is taking over the story!  The novel dedicates several chapters to her perspective. She is of African  descent, adopted by a white British family. She is the butt of “good natured (really?)” ridicule from her white, conservative male cousins. She attends Cambridge  with Miri. She and Miri will become lovers. She will visit Miri over the holidays, at her home, at the haunted house. Weird things will happen.

Apparently, this haunted house is objectively  haunted  and not depended on Miri’s warped mind. Early on in the story, the domestic  help quits on account of the haunting. The children of the help have a frightful experience on the lift. The replacement maid, an African  woman partial to Voodoo, notices the spiritual nature of this house, but she’s not all that freaked out by it. It’s a voodoo thing, you know. Then there’s  Miri and her meetings with her deceased mother, grandmother, great grandmother, etc. in a special room of the house. This same house  has claimed to have trapped  one of these female ancestors  within the walls and has kept her hidden for untold years. It’s a weird house. It’s a weird book. There are allusions  to vampirism  in this book as well. And witchcraft. The Silver family is white. Hey, what do ya know, white is for witching!

White is for Witching is what I might label a postmodern haunted house novel. Others might be House of Leaves and The Grip of It,  both of which I have reviewed (click on them to read these reviews). I’ll assign some characteristics of what I perceive is postmodern: lacking  a center, non-linear, rich in symbolism, and experimental. Traits such as these can make for a highly intriguing book, but I  must say that White is for Witching  is too much of these things. Did I like the book? To a certain  extent. Helen Oyeyemi  is skilled  at prose and her sentences  flow artfully. In this way it is an interesting  read. But overall  this novel doesn’t  do a whole lot for me.

I include this book in the Black History  Month theme solely on account of the author being a black woman. While this book deals with issues that blacks as a race face  (social  prejudice), there’s not a whole lot of history  going on here. But include  it I did, and to that I say “Oh well.”


About the Author

 

HelenOyeyemiHelen Oyeyemi is a British novelist originally from Nigeria. She is the recipient of numerous literary awards. She has written several books, short stories, and plays.

(The above information is taken from the following sites:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Oyeyemi

https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writer/helen-oyeyemi )

The Good House – First Book Review for Black History Month Series

GoodHouseTo the house that belongs to the Vodou priestess the locals brought  the possessed girl. Hopefully Marie Toussaint would cleanse her.

To the house that once belonged to her grandmother, Angela Toussaint returns. It’s hers now. Here she will jump start her life ,  take care of her  teenaged son and perhaps rekindle her love for her ex-husband . All this falls apart. Things go very wrong.

At this legendary house, Fifteen year old Corey Toussaint, curious by nature, finds magical relics that once belonged to his great grandmother. He uncovers secrets that the house hides, deadly secrets

This is a story of a terror plaguing multiple  generations, a story about a  stretch of land with strong connections to the spirit world. On this land the “The Good House” stands, home to four recipient  generations of horror.

Hi there!  In honor of Black History Month, I welcome you to the first review in this series of haunted house novels written by black women. I begin with Tananarive  Due’s acclaimed novel The Good House.  “Good House” is haunted, but it is not the epicenter of the haunting. The trigger for the haunting lies within the lineage of the Toussaint family and on the spirit-laden lands upon which the house rests. It is the combination of a family sensitive to the magic of Vodou positioned in an environment that is receptive to other-worldly forces that stirs up the ghosts, or more appropriately, the demons. Or most appropriately – the “baka”.

The story unfolds from multiple perspectives.  At the heart of the story is Angela Toussaint. I suppose she would be the central character. If this were made into a movie, whoever played Angela would be the actress in a leading role.  The year is 2001 (approximately) and Angela, a successful lawyer from California, is temporarily residing in her second home in Sacajawea, Washington for the summer. This is “Good House”  (also “Goode House”), her childhood home, where she was raised by her grandmother, Marie Toussaint, now deceased. Angela ’ s own mother was unfit to raise her due to mental health issues (or perhaps  her soul was “infected”.)

The townsfolk  of Sacajawea warmly welcome Angela’s return. Her family, her house, it’s all part of the town’s history, all woven into the fabric of the community, though the weaving process , from a historical perspective, was quote contentious. She is one of the few black members of the community. Mostly, race is not an issue, although the town  has pockets of redneck racists. (Her son Corey will learn this) She is highly respected. But when her grandmother  was young woman living in Good House.it was a different  story.

Angela  is seeking  to  refresh  her life.  Having only partial custody of her teenaged  son, her experiences with him have been limited  as of late and she wishes to change that. Corey  seems to favor his father, and so she tries to rebond  with him one fateful summer at Good House. At the same time, her relationship  with her ex-husband is not lost. He visits  the house, and there is a rekindling.

So far I am describing a rebuilding of family and community. But this will not happen. Instead everything falls apart. Neighbors go insane. Some kill their loved ones. Others kill themselves. Her friends suffer horrific calamities   Her own family meets tragedy  head on. Something unspeakable  has been unleashed.

As previously mentioned, Angela’s story is the central  narrative. And yet, it is my least favorite of the various perspectives. At times, it gets too bogged down in mundane things such as the tasks involving  her career and the details  of her exercise routine. Even the attention focused on her love life was too much for me. For my tastes. But then again, I’m a guy and romance dramas don’t do a whole lot for me. However, Angela’s story ties together the stories from the perspectives of other characters, so her tale is an important  one. And it is these other perspectives that I  will now focus on. For me, they capture the intrigue of the book. These would be the perspectives  of Corey the teenager  and Marie the grandmother. WARNING: there will be spoilers  ahead. I don’t know how else to discuss the themes I’m   about to delve into without them.


 

Spoilers  Section

Marie Toussaint

 

Why is the house at the center of the story a “good house”? Because once upon a time, people  came to the house to be healed. Because the former owner, Elijah Goode, a pharmacist in the early 1900s, dispensed medicines, specially brewed with natural  herbs and a little bit of magic. The herbs grew on blessed grounds, on land populated with spirits. These special medicines were concocted by his maid Marie Toussaint, later to be his wife, a voodoo priestess. Marie will inherit the house upon Elijah ’ s death, marry an Indian man, be the recipient of much hatred and racism. Still, she will exorcise a demon from one of the daughters of the townsfolk. It is “a good house”. It was a “good”  thing for her to do, especially since she was the one to summons the demon  in the first place.

What if you were a black woman of Creole  descent in the 1920s,  and your life was turned  upside-down by murderous racists, and you had the power to extract revenge on them with an act that was as simple as snapping your fingers? Would you go in for the  kill? Marie Toussaint showed restraint when her first husband was murdered by racists in New Orleans. When she moved across  the country to Washington with her young daughter and married a white pharmacist, Elijah Goode (His house = Goode/Good House), racism would rear its ugly head again, even after she helped the nearby communities by using magic to extract the healing power within the herbs that grew on this enchanted land.   When she, a black woman, inherited the house of her husband, a white man, people in the nearby town of Sacajawea sought out lawyers to get her out. To further piss-off this community of racists, she took Red John as a common law  husband. He was formerly viewed as “the good Indian who knew his place”. Red John had been “the white man’s pet”, but this new arrangement might cause him to step “out of his place”.  Both Marie and Red John were stepping out of their places, so the people of the town  shot bullets through her windows and front door.

It was all Marie could stand. She gave into anger. A kind of momentary  anger that all  of us fall victim  to now and again. An anger that might elicit a curse word or two from ordinary people. Marie is not an ordinary person. She utters a curse. But the thing is, her words are packed with much more power than your average “God damn you!” Chances are, God won’t sent a person to Hell based upon one person’s idle request. Marie remembered  a word that was stolen from the gods. A powerful  word. She spoke it, unleashing a powerful baka. Her words, so simple to say, so deadly the consequences. Mudslides ravage  the down. A demon is summoned  and it does what demons do – it possesses the living.

This is the backstory – the history.  But as all of us amateur historians know, history repeats itself. Some eighty years later, the baka will once again be summoned and ravage the community. Who is it that calls upon the baka? Her great grandson Corey.

 

Corey Toussaint

 

Corey, fifteen, an aspiring poet and rap artist, is having trouble adjusting to his new environment in the rural northwest.  For a whole summer, he must live with his mother Angela at Good House in  Sacajawea, Washington.  He is used to his urban environment in Los Angeles, where he has many friends and lives under the lax supervision of his father. He had no friends in Sacajawea. His mother is naggy and strict. He is the only black kid in the community.

Eventually, he forms a friendship with a white kid named Sean. They share a love for rap music. However, not all of the kids in this community are friendly to him. Some are downright hostile, such as the town bully Bo Cryer , proud of his confederate flag t-shirts, ready to beat “sense” into this new “gangster kid”.   And beat him he does.

Corey is a bright and curious kid. He finds items of his great grandmother  hidden away in the house. He finds her diaries, reads her  journals. He learns Vodou  spells. At first, he uses these spells for innocent things, such as reclaiming lost items. But even this kind of tampering  has its costs. And when he speaks the forbidden word to get back at the bully ,  all hell breaks loose.

Here Ends the Spoilers Sections

 


 

So, are there any, shall we say, “Haunted  House  happenings” in the story?  There are some. A piano plays by itself, a presence or two are felt at times, a mysterious ”friend” of Corey’s defies physics by the way she sits on a tree branch and talks to him through his upstairs  window. Sometimes the plumbing churns out foul black slush through the faucets. Then there is the night that every  room in the house is blanketed with leaves, turning the floors of Good House into a forest’s  bed. As previously mentioned, the house is not necessarily the “ epicenter of the haunting.”  But the house itself is important to the story, so much so that author Tananarive  Due devotes attention to describing the rooms, the attic and cellar, the furnishings and portraits on the wall.  The modern day characters that populate the Sacajawea community (Sacajawea is a fictional town, BTW) have great respect for the Goode House. For them it is not only an historical landmark, but it’s a history that continues on.  The townsfolk cling to the stories of the past that that focus on the generosity of Angela’s grandmother, Marie Toussaint. She is spoken of as a town healer. When Angela returns to her property and hosts a Fourth of July party at Goode House, many prominent people of the town show up. They have warm affections for Angela and the house and its history of “goodness”.

The people of Sacajawea have either forgotten the darker history of Goode House or have chosen not to confront it. Some still remember, or at least know of the cruel accounts of racism directed toward Marie Toussaint and her house (details of this are in the spoiler section above), but they either don’t speak of these things or do so in a “hush-hush” tone. But such a darkness cannot be extinguished by modern lights. Maybe this is one of the many messages of the book?

Is there anything to say about this book concerning the subject of black history? Well, this is a work of fiction, for sure. Even when it comes to the subject of Vodou, Due admits that while she utilized real concepts associated within that religion (i.e. “lwas”, spirits  of Haitian  Vodou or “baka”, evil spirits), she creatively improvised when it came to creating the spells, prayers, and magic that take place in story. But Vodou is a real  religion and it was practiced by many African slaves

From Britannica.com 

“Vodou is a creolized religion forged by descendants of Dahomean, Kongo, Yoruba, and other African ethnic groups who had been enslaved and brought to colonial Saint-Domingue (as Haiti was known then) and Christianized by Roman Catholic missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries.”

While fictional and fanciful, Good House does point to many historical circumstances on the subject of black history. It teaches the importance of family and the value of heritage, especially for a people that were so cruelly uprooted. It reminds us of the prevalence of racism toward African Americans in the early part of the twentieth century, and lets us not forget the ongoing prejudice and discrimination that still occurs today. On this last note, maybe I should repeat a phrase I used earlier that gets to the heart of this…and more. I will do that. Here I go:

“ But such a darkness cannot be extinguished by modern lights.”

In other words, our country’s racist past cannot be erased. The ghosts of history will not allow for this. Nor should they.

 


 

About the Author

 

GoodHouseTananariveDueTananarive Due is a an educator, former journalist and author. She is the daughter of civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due, who as a member of CORE, (Congress of Racial Equity) and participated in several marches and a jail-in. Tananarive is the author of several books on the subject of  black history/speculative fiction. Her novel “Black Rose” is based upon the research of Alex Haley.

***The above information was taken from Wikipedia.com