The House Next Door: A Ghost Story – Review of a Darcy Coates Novel

HouseNextDoorCoates2The House Next Door: A Ghost Story – a novel by Darcy Coates. Of course I would have guessed that this was a ghost story even if the last phrase of the title was omitted. This house, the one next door, would it be haunted? Of course it would. For you see, Coates just happens to be the amazon.com queen of modern day haunted house fiction in my opinion. She understands this genre well,  knowing when the stairs should creak and the shadows will creep.

It’s been a while since I last visited the works of Coates. I was surprised  to see that her bibliography has doubled. I knew her as an author that wrote novellas with repetitive titles  such as “The Haunting  of (*Insert name of house here*) House” books. A short catalog of short stories. Her bibliography has since expanded and The House Next Door: A Ghost Story is the first full length novel that I have read from her. (It didn’t disappoint) Search engines yield a lot more info on her than when I last researched her and her DarcyCoatesworks. I have since found interviews (https://redadeptediting.com/darcy-coates/),many positive reviews, and finally, her picture is available!  As Virginia Slims once said- “You’ve come a long way, baby!

For those new to Coates, her stories are admittingly formulaic, but they are page-turning. They are modern gothics that feature a mansion-like house, often with an old-world  flavor. The atmosphere is what is expected and desired –  the layout of the house is creatively detailed and the rooms and corridors  have the descriptive power to ensnare readers within their walls.  Unsettled spirits roam about these corridors, interacting creepily with certain pieces of furniture or decorative objects.   But these are modern tales, so the house might be on the outskirts  of the suburbs or the edge of a cosmopolitan  town. They feature  a female protagonist that is fleeing a former life. It could be a bad marriage, a complicated relationship with her immediate  family  or any a number of things. Alone, she moves to a new location  and buys or rents  one of these large , haunted  abodes. After several brushes with supernatural  phenomena, she finds herself entwined in the mystery that caused the haunting in the first place and it becomes her task to solve such a mystery. In the end she will succeed and live happily  ever after with her cats. She will  always have cats. Coates  loves cats and so do her protagonists.

So, does House Next  Door follow this formula? Mostly. After years of living in a  strained relationship with her ailing mother, Jo is now on her own. With money she has inherited, she purchases a house in new neighborhood. But  guess what? It’s not haunted! However, the house next door is! (Hmm, maybe that’s why the book is called  “The House Next Door? Ya think?) Jo has watched residents of the house come and go. One family in particular fled the house in the middle of the night, leaving all their possessions behind. Never  had she gotten to know any of these  former residents. This changes when Anna moves in. Anna, a maker and seller of dolls, is hiding from her abusive ex, with whom she is keeping her new place of residence a secret. The two  women become friends, but – can two women with troubled  pasts be together without driving themselves  crazy? Scratch that last question, which belongs in the intro for the sitcom  The Odd Couple, albeit slightly  different wording. The real question is – can these two women  work together  to thwart the evil spirit that dwells in the house  without going crazy? Answer – negative. Both will experience bouts of insanity. But they will carry  on. They must.

There aren’t many twists in this book. If there is a slight air  of mystery about an unexplained phenomenon in the house that hints at the activity of a spirit, then the spirit  is probably to blame. If Jo becomes paranoid that her friend’s  ex is driving by her house  to stalk her, then he is probably  doing just that. There is an exception; the women will do something dark and serious. I didn’t see this coming.

I do not read Darcy  Coates’ books for twists. Of these, unfortunately she seems to be in short supply. I do read her books  for her writing style, for her flair  for immersing me in a haunted house where ghosts might be hiding in any corner; a corner that has already been brought  to life by means of descriptive  storytelling. In The House Next Door – A Ghost Story, I love the way the ghost makes its presence known, seen by characters who look up the stairwell, past the stairs, then down the upstairs  hallway. I love the forms that come into being inside the dancing curtains in the wind-deprived rooms. I love the way  she describes the sad  music that manifests mysteriously from the living room piano.

Darcy Coates knows how to haunt a house. This is why I  read her books.  There are so many I haven’t  read. And I’m willing to bet her list will only get longer.

Let it be known – There are several other books out their in reading land with the title “The House Next Door.” James Patterson has such a book. Is it about a haunted house? Probably not. I have only read one of his books, but as far as I can tell, he’s a crime thriller kind of author, not a teller of ghost stories. But – the most famous haunted house book with that title is perhaps Anne River Siddons’ 1978 novel.  And guess what? I am reading that now. Expect an upcoming review. But I will not compare these two stories, or do any kind of Coates Vs. Siddons. Apples and oranges my friends!  The house to my left is an apple, the house to my right is an orange, and I’m just a nut in the middle!

 

Waiting Spirits – From the Dark Forces Teen Horror Series of the Early ’80s

Here’s to the kids of not too long ago yesterday. Growing up, they had all kinds of options when it came to reading young adult stories about the supernatural. They had books that featured ghosts, witches, vampires  and other cool and creepy things. I didn’t have Harry Potter when I was growing up, only Colonel  Potter on M*A*S*H reruns.. Being that the early 80s were the dawning of my young adult years, Twilight  had not yet set in (And from what I’ve heard about the series, that’s a good thing.), While adolescence  was a time of strong emotions, I never got the Goosebumps over the whole thing. In order for me to get my fix of the spookies , I had to turn to – The Dark Forces! Oh no! (Ohhh yes!)

What are the Dark Forces?

DarkForcesCollection

The Dark Forces is a series of teen horror novels that was published by Bantam Books in the early 1980s. The series consists of roughly fifteen book written by various authors. Each book is a stand-alone story and to the best of my knowledge there are no overlaps or crossovers between books. All of them consist of supernatural tales that feature teenage protagonists who go toe-to-toe with ghosts, demons and other magical entities. The series averages about 150 pages per book. These are not timeless classics; they are not on par with one Harry Potter. While The Harry Potter novels thrilled fans of all ages, I doubt that the Dark Forces series had any following from adult readers.  They just didn’t have the breadth of topics or the simple yet sophisticated kind of storytelling that went into creating the Hogwarts culture. Today these books are largely forgotten. In fact they are hard to come by,, at least when it comes to paperbacks. I’m sure some can be found on Amazon, Ebay, etc. As mediocre as they are in terms of popularity and content, I enjoyed reading them when I was thirteen. They certainly had cool looking covers. I didn’t read them all. Maybe half?

For a few years now, I had been wondering about these books. Alas, I couldn’t remember the title of the series nor any specific book title. But thanks to some references from Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction, I was able to gather enough information to conduct a search for the right, proper, and fitting book from this series.  Of course, that would be a haunted house book. Did this series feature any such thing? Gosh, I didn’t know! But if it did, by golly, I was determined to find it, read it and review it.  The results of this determination are toward the end of this piece. But for now, read on to learn even more about The Dark Forces series.

Going Deeper into the Dark Forces

Were  things really that drastic in the early 80s that I had to succumb to “dark forces” to get my reading kicks? Was there no other reading outlet to save my precious soul? I suppose there was. There were The Hardy Boys and The Nancy Drew Mystery  series, but those were already on the way out and besides, from my understanding,  they were more mystery than fantasy. Maybe there was some other book series  that I simply neglected. No matter because The Dark Forces worked for me. Ha ha ha ha ha! (Go back and read the “ha ha’s” with a sinister sounding laugh).

Truth be told, this series was all about warning impressionable youngsters like  myself about the dangers of messing around with dark forces. If memory  serves me correctly, the books I read had lessons for us , the misdirected sheep that followed those  evil, soul-corrupting trends that struck like a plague  back there in the early  80s. Created by evil masterminds, targeted against us – the precious  children of America – such trends included role-playing  games such as Dungeons and Dragons, heavy metal music, and video  games. For you see, demons were liable  to take over  the games and music, and that’s bad and stuff.

I’m only half joking about the things I wrote in the previous paragraph. I never had to worry about demons infesting my pastimes. And there  ain’t nothing wrong with Dungeons  and Dragons, video games and heavy metal  music! Like anything  else, so long as they are used  and not misused, it’s all good. But back in them there  days (early 80s), adults were worried about  these sort of activities  and the ill-effects they might have on their sons and daughters.

There were stories , real or fabricated I never knew, about “that one boy” that lost all touch with reality on account of his addiction to Dungeons and Dragons.  I remember how freaked out a certain religious  fanatic relative became when I was gifted the game at Christmas. Since the game calls for spell casting, even though it’s all make-believe, this person had real concerns about treating magic playfully. In regards to heavy metal music and rock and roll in general, certain religious  leaders and politicians reacted quite  unfavorably to the explicit lyrics of certain songs. They insisted that albums with such songs have warning labels. Others  claimed that certain  songs had “backwards, Satanic messages.”  The leaders of my Sunday School youth group hauled us all off to a seminar on the  Satanic influences of rock and roll. The pastor leading  the seminar  explained to us that backward messages come though all to clear in our subconscious. Therefore, rock music is, in effect, hypnotizing youth into worshipping  Satan. He actually  believed this. As far as video games go, a common concern among parents is the graphic violence that is portrayed. But in the early  80s  video games were in their infancy and graphics were laughable by today’s standards. Still parents found reasons to get all in an uproar. Video games were stealing time away  from homework. They were seen as addictive  and, as with Dungeons  and  Dragons, parents worried that  their children would  lose touch with reality as they give themselves  up to the fantasy worlds portrayed  in the games.

Now, what does all this have to do with the Dark Forces series? To refresh, I had written “the books I read had lessons for us , the misdirected sheep that followed those  evil, soul-corrupting trends that struck like a plague  back there in the early  80s.” How so, you might  be asking?

The first book of the series is The Game by Les Logan. I don’t remember reading this one,DarkForcesTheGame but according to some Goodreads reviews , it seems to serve as a warning against the use of Ouija boards. So kids, even though such a game is sold on the same shelf as Monopoly and Scrabble, don’t buy it!  The Ashton Horror (#12 in the series)  by Laurie Bridges ,is another book that I missed. But according to the synopsis on Goodreads, young Dennis gets some attention from the prettiest girl in town. She invites him to join a “fantasy game club”. No, no Dennis, fantasizing is the Devil’s work, don’t do it…Dennis? And wouldn’t you DarkForcesTheAshtonHorrorknow it, the club members are trying to free an imprisoned demon. Bad club members!

 

I do remember owning Beat the Devil  (#10 in the series) by Scott Siegel. DarkForcesBeatTheDevilWho could forget that cover? Anyway, Doug is an expert at arcade video games. He becomes obsessed by a game called “Beat the Devil.” This game takes precedence over the important things in his life; his school work, his girlfriend, even his own sanity. And guess who it is that is sucking away at Doug’s life? Why, it’s the Devil himself! So you see kids, even though it may be far-fetched to think that the Devil is controlling  you via Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, video games can make your life “Hell” if you become addicted to them.

DarkForcesTheBargainThe book I remember the most is The Bargain (#5 in the series) by Rex Sparger. I remember the story featured a teenaged (or maybe they were in their early  20s, I don’t know) rock band called The Coastals, or something  like that. Anyway, a shady promoter approaches them, m promises them fame and riches, and soon thereafter  he is their manager. He convinces them to change their  name to Sabbat and change to a heavy metal sound and image. I guess they had a more pop-oriented style before (I hate pop!) If you haven’t  already guessed, this manager is secretly an agent of Satan. The band as, in effect, signed a contact  with the Devil, but somehow they get out of it and defeat the evil forces. By the book’s end, a pastor helps the band and as it turns out, the pastor can play a mean guitar. Isn’t that precious?

So in sum, with current synopses to backup my memory, I describe these books as simple stories (easy to read) that are warning manuals in disguise. They are saturated with warnings against games and trends that are marketed as harmless pastimes when if fact they are gateways to the dangerous world of “dark forces”.  Even as a teen, as I enjoyed reading these books, I became annoyed with the not-too-subtle warnings.

Now here is a question: Was each and every book of the series like this? I don’t know. As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t read the series in its entirety. Alas, my impressions are largely based on memories  from thirty-five years ago. Being that it has been such  a long time since I  had read any of these books, is it possible that  my impressions are flawed, my memories imperfect? This is very possible. So I decided that I needed to read one of these books and review the material from a more current mindset.  Once again, I wanted to take a trip down memory  lane as I did  when I reread Ghost House Revenge, as I  did when I  took in the various book descriptions in Paperbacks  from  Hell. Were there any books in the Dark Forces series that featured  haunted houses? Yes, I found one. Waiting Spirits (#11 in the series) by Bruce Coville. This is not one of the books I had read as a youngster. This would be my first reading.

Would this book serve as yet another lesson about avoiding the lure of “dark forces”?

Would I feel differently reading one of these books as an adult? Are there story elements that anyone, both young and old, could enjoy? I  would find out. And I did find out. You can read all about it in the following  paragraphs.

Wait No Longer, The Waiting Spirits are Here

A family spends a summer at a house by the beach. It’s a nice summer home, although  Lisa doesn’t  want to be there. She has her life back home, which includes a chance at dating a guy she likes. Before the summer’s  end, she’ll find a boyfriend  right there by the beach. See Lisa , now that it’s all over, wasn’t it good for you to spend the summer at that house? You found a boyfriend, You learned a lot of family history. You got possessed and tried to kill your younger sister. Good times!

Who is all in the household? Well there’s Lisa’s ten year old sister Carrie. They get along quite well. There’s mom and dad. Dad is trying to write a book, so everyone  just please leave him alone. Mom just does mom stuff . Grandma  is there. She is a retired professor and it is her house. She grew up in it. She’ll behave a little mysteriously now and then, so readers should watch out for her. And of course, there are some ghosts inside the house. They always help to make a summer eventful.

For a novel directed  at young teens, his book is surprisingly dark. Yes I know, this is from the Dark  Forces series, so wouldn’t  that be a no-brainer? I guess what I mean is, yeah of course any subject  matter concerning  ghosts or demons  is by definition  “dark.”  But the story doesn’t just leave the darkness to the  mere presence  of supernatural  entities but this book. Instead it  clinches  it with a darkness that lurks in the backstory and manifests in the behavior of the spirits and the havoc they cause. In various places in the book, there is the death of a child, the terror of an insane ghost, and the startling repercussions of a teen possessed.

I had serious reservations at the beginning. After the prologue, Author Coville  wastes no time “RUSHering” in the story. This rush is was most likely  geared at teen readers that are in no mood for prolonged  setups. It is raining everyday during the family’s first week at the summer home. The girls  are bored out of their minds. The grandma comes to the rescue with an idea to pass the time: they should “play a game” where they can try to communicate with spirits. Grandma is referring  to “automatic  writing”, the process where the one with the paper and a pencil becomes a medium while the spirit  will take control of the pencil and write out a message. So haphazardly  Grandma  suggests this and with a mere shrug, the girls  and their mother agree. One their very first attempt, with Lisa acting as the medium, they make contact  with a spirit. All that was needed was some kind of mundane utterance, something like, “Are there any spirits here, please respond”. This did the trick because right away, Lisa becomes temporarily  possessed and the spirit  uses her hand to  write a message. After this, all the “game” participants  had an attitude like “huh. That was  weird. Oh well, what should we do next?”

Despite that weak beginning, the story does mature a bit. There is some pretty scary ghost stuff going on and the story  slows down so that it can take it all in. Mind you, I’m not saying his piece is a candidate  for The Pulitzer  Prize of haunted house  novels. It’s rather  juvenile, but it’s better than I  thought  it would be. And guess what?? It didn’t smack me over the head with lessons and warnings. Coville, thank you for not doing that. Ironically  it’s an adult that starts the trouble  by initiating the automatic  writing game.

Bruce Coville is a prolific children’s author with an extensive bibliography. His books are divided into several series of his own, including Magic Shop Books (five books), My Teacher is an Alien (four books), I Was a Sixth Grade Alien (twelve books), and many more (From Wikipedia). His series Bruce Coville’s Chamber of Horrors (four books) includes Waiting Spirits. Will I  read any of these? Probably  not. I read Waiting Spirits to experience  a quick dive into the sea of Dark Forces nostalgia while  adding to my collection of Haunted house book reviews. I have done this.  Waiting Spirits is not a bad book, so these other Coville books probably won’t be bad either. But I’m not it’s intended  audience. I was once, back when these books were published. I am not anymore. Time to move on. And besides, I’m a haunted house guy and just because these are “horror” books, it doesn’t mean that any of the remaining three feature haunted houses and….oh wait…..I now see that the second book of his “Chamber of Horrors” series Spirits and Spells does feature a haunted house. Ohhh and it seems interesting:

Trying out their new haunted house game, Spirits and Spells, in the creaky old Gulbrandsen place seemed like a cool idea to Travis, Tansy and their friends.

That was before they found out what was in the attic…and the basement…and everywhere in between.

 

Am I going to be sucked into yet another book meant for a young reader? We’ll see. We shall see

 

 

 

 

Review of Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction – With Special Attention to Its Chapter on Haunted Houses

In 1936, Bing Crosby introduced Pennies from Heaven to the world. Such an invaluable gift this holy coinage was! Is there anyone else that could gift the world similar treasures? If so, what might these treasures be! How about Paperbacks from Hell, with a gifter by the name of Grady Hendrix (Is he a relative of Jimi?)  Okay, so he didn’t write any of these infernal paperbacks, buy hey, Crosby didn’t mint the coins, so there! What Hendrix did do was compile a collection of book titles, authors, and cover artists in a book dedicated to horror novels of the 70s and 80s, which features bios, pictures and a whole lot of fun analysis. The complete title of his work is Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction.

So just what “in the hell” is this book about? Read on and find out. (But first, admire “Pennies from Heaven” please!)

 

Hi there! I’ve been on a short hiatus. I was vacationing in The Philippines, and then I was sick, and blah blah blah. Well let me pick up where I left off. The last time I wrote was back in mid-March. Let’s see, I was writing about something….something about ghosts…and haunted houses…(Me write about those things? No way!)….hmmmm…Ah ha! The subject/s was Ghost House! And Ghost House Revenge, two books by Clare McNally. I must refer back to this review, because it was these two books that led me to Paperbacks from Hell.. I had remembered these two books from my childhood and I searched the Internet to see if they still existed in some format today. But I couldn’t remember the titles or the name of the author, so I had to comb through the various search results that came from my search words “Haunted house and horror books of the 70s and 80s.”  I eventually found what I was looking for, and so much more. Among the search items, I found Hendrix’s book, which had in its title the keywords “70s/80s/horror/” I discovered that these two decades were the heydays for  horror paperback novels, that never before had there been so many fictional works on such horrific subjects: Satan, Creepy Kids, When Animals Attack, Real Estate Nightmares, Weird Science, Gothic and Romantic, Inhumanoids, Splatterpunks, Serial Killers And Super Creeps! These are the chapters and category names for Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell. The book sounded interesting so I downloaded it and read much of it on the plane to and from the Philippines.. A fitting book for such turbulent times (turbulence shook the plane as I read).

I am including this review in my anthology of haunted house novel reviews on account of one chapter only: Real Estate Nightmares. Yes, this is the section of the book devoted to haunted house paperback novels. Likewise I will be devoting a section of this review to this one chapter. But first, an summary of the book as a whole.

In my review of Ghost House/Ghost House Revenge, I speculate that perhaps it was the works of Stephen King that ignited this horror paperback boom of the 70s and 80s. While his contribution to phenomenon is most certainly great, he did not begin it. How stupid of me, because I knew that works such as Rosemary’s Baby (Ira Levin) and The Exorcist (William Peter Blatty) predate King’s novels. These two, along with The Other (Thomas Tryton), revived the horror literature tradition that had been dormant for a while, Hendrix says.  Even in the days or yore, horror mostly came in short stories, novellas, and then later in graphic pulp books and magazines. There were very few novel length books devoted to horror until the three aforementioned books came on the scene. “Satan Sells”, publishers realized, and soon there were hundreds of satan-spawned paperbacks.

After Satan, along came killer animals and insects, demonic toys, possessed robots, medical nightmares.  So many books, and so we had The Good, The Bad and The Delightfully Cheesy.

I equate many of these books referenced by Hendrix to “B horror” films. So these are B-books?  Some are. Sure, why not?  Often they were goofy, but as Hendrix mentions “never boring.”  Many of these “gems” are out-of-print. I’m guessing that the advent of digital media have revived some of these books, but unfortunately not all.  Hendrix devotes significant attention to the book covers. Resting on the shelves of supermarkets, it was the cover that lured customers to reach for the item. The more vivid the better, much like the days of the video store, with box covers showing an awesome depiction of what just had to be a good, creepy movie – and…often the films failed to live up to the promising pictures on the box. As for the covers of paperbacks, Hendrix shows readers many interesting examples. Colorful, artful, graphic and of course – horrific.

TheStuff TheStuff

 

 

 

 

 

     (First Picture – What “The Stuff” appeared to do to is victims, according to  the box.  Second Picture – How “The Stuff” actually preyed on people, according to the movie)

 

 

In Paperbacks From Hell, Hendrix follows the careers of several cover artists, noting the publishing houses they worked for, mentioning that a certain artist went on to design album covers, etc. Interesting stuff.(Better than “The Stuff” of the film).

 

PaperBacks.jpg2

 

Hendrix writes humorously about his subject. He is often satirical. In the chapter Creepy Kids, on describing a reoccurring theme, he writes “As long as they belong to someone else, homicidal children can be a joy.” That’s funny! But sometimes his writing style is overbearing. But like his book, and like the books he is writing about, it’s/they’re not boring. At the same time, he possesses keen insight. He ties trends within the horror market to topical events that were occurring in the culture at large. The surge of attacking animal books he attributes to environmental disasters of the early 70s. For the rise in popularity of vampire books, he notes the AIDS scare of the early 80s and the fear of being infected. All in all, a reflective guy that Hendrix is. And what an interesting book!

Haunted Houses – or as Hendrix calls them – “Real Estate Nightmares”

 

Ahhh! This is MY area! Yeah, Boy!!  Here we are! “This” section.

Truthfully I was somewhat disappointed. To be clear, my disappointment is not the fault of Hendrix. He did his job covering this subgenre of horror. It’s just that I was hoping to be introduced to a slew of obscure works. Sadly I  already knew about the novels to which he devotes the most attention. He briefly covers  The Sentinel,  and I have read and reviewed that book. Burnt Offerings and The Amityville Horror both of which I have read/reviewed. I did, however, find his insights on Burnt Offerings rather intriguing and his rants about The Amityville Horror humorous.

While Hendrix correctly acknowledges The Haunting of Hill House and Hell House as its predecessors, he singles our Burnt Offerings as being a first when it comes to the economics of home purchases and the whole buyer beware motif.  I…had never thought about this. “Hell” and “Hill” House were  gargantuan gothic mansions that had visiting  characters investigating the spooky happenings within. The characters of Burnt Offerings leased and lived in the deadly place. They invested their money in it. Therefore, they were trapped.

In true form, Hendrix ties the haunted house paperback phenomenon to the economic issues of the 1970s. High interest rates, inflation, the dawning of the suburbs, the cash-strapped and their search for the best home that they could afford. According to him, these are the reasons “the haunted-house novel reached critical mass.”   As a student of haunted houses of fictional literature, I am constantly hungry for information like this. Thank you Hendrix, you feed me well.

Hendrix doesn’t think much of The Amityville Horror book series. I only read the one, and for me it was alright, not the greatest, but enjoyable. But I see his point. “Amityville” became the definitive haunted house book of the 70s, while Burnt Offerings, a much better read, is largely forgotten.  He goes on to criticize the series as “crass, commercial-minded, grandiose, ridiculous, this carnival-barker’s idea of a haunted house is a shame-train of stupid.”  The carnival barker I guess would be George Lutz, the real life protagonist of what is supposed to be a true story. Suffice it to say, Hendrix doesn’t believe that this is a true story (and neither do !!)

A couple of times, Hendrix mentions The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons and refers to it as a classic. I am well aware of this book but I have yet to read it. I am relishing in this virginity and I’m looking forward to my “wedding night” when I take this book to bed with me. But like a good virgin, I am saving it for the right time. Then there are those book he footnotes here and there, books with creepy covers, that I do not know. Some are The Intruders (Pat Montandon), The Architecture of Fear (Various Authors) and Walls of Fear (various authors again). But for these he has only little tidbits of information.

 

The rest of the chapter is devoted to horrific towns as a whole, cities as a whole, and strange cultish communities. While this is some interesting stuff, it goes beyond the haunted house, so I am not mentioning these books in this review.

Following the trail of “Haunted Paperbacks” to – What Comes Next?

 

If you are a fan of old horror novels, this book is for you. If you have ever owned or read an old obscure horror paperback, definitely check out this work by Grady Hendrix. You won’t be disappointed.

I’m glad my search for Ghost House/Ghost House Revenge led me to this book. Too bad he doesn’t mention these books in his Real Estate Nightmares chapter. Oh well. But I continue on – Ghost Houses begot Paperbacks from Hell and Paperbacks from Hell begets….a Dark Forces book. What the heck is a Dark Forces book?  I couldn’t remember what the series was called, and this Paperbacks from Hell book had the answer (hint: the series was called Dark Forces). This is yet another nostalgic reading memory from my pre-teen years. Horror books directed at young teens. I read several. Were there any Dark Forces books about haunted houses? Yes!  Well at least one. This will be my next review. Stay tuned for more details!

 

 

Ghost House/Ghost House Revenge – Two Books from that Horror Fiction Paperback Boom of the ’80s.

GhostHouse2One dark and not so stormy night (most nights it doesn’t storm), I found two books on the Internet for which I had been searching for some time.  I owned this two-part series when I was a kid.  Two paperbacks; both were about haunted houses (what a surprise!). The problem was – I couldn’t remember the titles of these novels nor the name of the author who wrote them .  It took many searches before I finally hit the jackpot. Not only did I find the books I was looking for, but I uncovered a phenomenon I didn’t know about. It might be called “the horror paperback boom of the 70s/80s.”

I participated in the later days of this horror paperback boom, and I didn’t even know  it!  Back then, I only knew it as “reading”. At the age of fourteen, in 1985, I sat at my school desk and read one of the two of these paperbacks that I owned , unaware that I was making history.

Okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating a wee bit here with my “making history” comments. I  encourage you to blame the Internet for this. This “Internet” thing forced upon me such articles as Vintage Chillers: ‘80s Horror Novels You Need to Read  and ordered me to look into books such Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror, all because I  innocently typed the words “80s horror novels” into a search engine. From the list of articles and book synopses that the search engine returned,    I learned of this horror paperback  phenomenon.

After skimming through some of these articles, I learned that there were many successful   horror paperback writers in the 70s and 80s. For some reason, horror novels flooded the bookstores, and mainstream  publishers were more than happy  to churn them out by the millions. The more the merrier. Perhaps  it had something to do with the success of the novels by Stephen  King, who rose  to fame in the early  70s? Were  publishers looking for the next King, hoping to find this needle in a haystack  by creating the pile of hay? I’d have to read the sources more thoroughly to get these answers. Another takeaway is that many of these books did not withstand the test of time. Best sellers one day, forgotten the next. Expired copyrights, not available  for print anymore, never converted  to digital format. Sadness.

Somehow, by combing through the various articles and lists, I was able to discover the identities of the two books I sought after.  They are, respectively, Ghost House (1980) and Ghost House Revenge (1981) by Clare McNally.  These two books seem to fall into the category of “books that history has forgotten”. Thankfully, they were both available in Kindle format on Amazon, both selling for $2.99. Needless to say, I bought and read them. Stripping away my nostalgia-based bias, these might not be the best haunted house books out there, but they are decent enough reads, especially  for that low price. I do believe that all print copies are used books

At this time, I would like to share what I remembered about the overall reading experience of these books. I will be going back thirty-four years or so.  Here I go!!

I don’t know how I acquired my paperback of Ghost House Revenge. But there it was GhostHouseRevenge2inside my lift-top desk, my one desk for the entire  school year (same teacher/classroom all year round too). In between lessons, there was free time, where a student could do homework ,  draw, or read. Do middle schools still offer this kind of free time? Well that’s besides the point. Anyway it was during this free time that I did most of my Ghost House Revenge reading.

I had remembered bits of the story. I mostly recalled a physical therapist guy named Derek and his socially awkward pre-teen daughter, who’s name had escaped me. (Her name is Alicen). Father and daughter lived temporarily  in the house of one of his clients who needed therapy on a daily basis. The client had fallen out of a window and needed help learning how to walk again. The client  had a family; a spouse and several children. I couldn’t remember whether  it was the father or mother that needed therapy  (It was the father  – Gary). I couldn’t  remember  his wife’s name (Melanie) or the names and number of children they had (Three – Gina , age 13, Kyle 9 or 10, Nancy 5?).

I remembered that the house was haunted but I didn’t remember the details (the spirit of a vengeful woman terrorizes them). I recalled that Derek wasn’t always nice to Alicen, and I remembered there was something  a bit off about her.  And then, I remember Steven U. No, he’s not a character from the book, he was my best friend in the 8th Grade. I had put the book aside for awhile and he borrowed it from me. He read faster than I did. In a matter of days,  he got further into the book than I did, and he had to go and tell me “So and So got ripped to shreds!”  This is what I remembered most! I remembered who it was that got “torn to shreds” (I’m not telling ya!) and I used these words in my searches (*name* torn to shreds). And….nothing came of these searches. Sadness! This is because, I learned, that the book never describes the fate of this character in those exact terms. These were Steven’s word’s, not McNally’s. But it’s obvious that is what had happened to the character.

The book was (and is) a relatively simple read. It served as a welcoming  pastime for such a young and blossoming mind, not to mention some blossoming hormones. For instance, the other night, when I got to a part in the book where the ghost woman grabs Derek’s crotch, I suddenly remembered stumbling upon this scene way back when. Another brick in the puberty Wall!  Um..let’s move on to another paragraph.

The thing about my initial reading of this book, either I didn’t realize that Ghost House Revenge was a sequel or I simply didn’t care. As an inexperienced reader, I guess it didn’t click that one is supposed to read the original novel first. Throughout the book, there is backstory that pertains to the first novel Ghost House. This happens when Gary tells Derek how he fell out the window (his fall occurs in the first novel), or when both Melanie and Gary explain to Derek about how the house had once been haunted, but isn’t anymore (They are wrong, it still is haunted, but by a different ghost). Once I got into the meat and guts of the story, I must have then known that this was the second of two books. I certainly knew after I acquired  Ghost House at a garage sale. This acquisition came months after reading its successor.

Excited, I opened the book and read how the family was moving into a big house. I remembered that Gary was giving Melanie the cold shoulder. She had recently been having an affair, but she broke off the fling. The couple was trying to reconcile. I remember how Gary kept imagining his wife’s legs wrapped around another man’s legs, and this thought bothered him. It didn’t bother the young me, though. This description excited me. That puberty thing again.

So what happens next? I didn’t find out. I put the book down. Summer vacation was at hand and what person brand new to his teenage years wants to spend the summer reading a book? I put it down after the first few pages and never went back….until a few weeks ago. It wasn’t until then that I learned that the ghost of some 1792 dude dwelled in the house and that he would go onto to develop a thing for Melanie. Very powerful this ghost. He had his way with Melanie many times both sexually and mentally.

After all these years bits and pieces of these books stuck with me. I wanted to finally read the first book and then revisit the second. But this task was difficult, since I couldn’t even remember the names of these books or the name of the author. “Torn to shreds” was not a viable query, oh what was I to do?  And so, after stumbling onto articles pertaining to the yesteryears phenomenon of  “all these horror paperbacks everywhere; good ones, bad ones, ugly ones,” I somehow found these two books once again. I read them and enjoyed them. They aren’t the greatest; there’s some very literal storytelling going on (no symbolism, etc.,). But the books are page turners.

So, this whole post turned out to be more of a piece on the history of my early days of reading and on the horror-themed paperback boom. Not much of a review, is this? Should I describe the “Ghost House” some more? It’s a colonial bay house in New England, built in the 18th century. Should I go into more detail about the ghostly encounters? Both books feature powerful, malicious ghosts. They wreak havoc on this peaceful family. Children are locked up on the roof, locked down in the cellar, tied to posts on the connecting beach.  Gary is injured multiple times when going toe-to-toe with these spirits. Certain characters become possessed. Some characters die.

Still not enough details for you? If this is the case, then you should just go ahead and read the books for yourselves. Below are the buy links. Enjoy!

Ghost House

Ghost House Revenge

 

 

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

Review of Ju-On: The Grudge

Hey all, Happy New Year! A very timely  wish if I do say so myself!

(Hypothetical Reader: Um, New Years Day was like, four weeks ago. We are too far into the year for that kind of greeting. You’re late, bro!)

Never too late to fulfill a resolution! Remember that time I reviewed the short two movies from Japanese  TV, Ju-On: The Curse and Ju-On: The Curse 2  and I promised to review the full-length  film that  continued the Ju-On series?  Lately, I’ve been getting several hits for those reviews at this blog. Since that is the case, I’m going to review the feature length film that arose from these “Curse” movies. So… resolution  fulfilled!

(Hypothetical Reader: Dude, that was two years ago when you wrote those reviews and made that pledge. How long does it take you to make good on your promises?)

It does take me a while , doesn’t  it? I hope you don’t hold a “Grudge” on me! (Get it? Ha Ha Ha!) But I’ll  tell ya, the kind of grudge  at work in the 2002 Japanese  film Ju-On the Grudge is not to be trifled with. It is scary  and deadly. It affects the innocent – people that had nothing to do with whatever offense it was that spawned such a grudge, those unfortunate ones that happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. That “wrong” place is a house in Nerima, Tokyo. grudgehouseThe “wrong” time is anytime after a certain murderous tragedy took place on the premise. See readers, this affliction that haunts and claims the victims  of this  movie is more of a “curse” than a “grudge”, although I’m told the English translation of “Ju-On” is “Curse/Grudge”. A “grudge” , as per the movie, is negative  energy  in action; or, in reaction. Let’s assume there are scientific laws governing a body of supernatural physics. There is a steady harmony of body and spirit, life and death. The living go about their business and the dead stay dead, their spirits at peace in whatever plane of afterlife existence there happens to be. A horrific tragedy perpetuated with evil intentions can upset this balance. Evil and horror beget  evil and horror. In the film, the negative energy is attached to a house, where a mother, her little boy, and the family cat had been savagely  murdered by a jealous husband/father. Those who enter the house are susceptible  to the negative  energy that exists in the wake  of this tragedy. It attaches  to them. Can they rid themselves  of this negative  energy  by leaving the house? Fat chance! “The Grudge” is part of them now  and it follows them wherever they go. Go to work and it will haunt the office.  Go to school and it will be there too. Go home? That home will now be haunted.

How do you know if you’ve been affected  by this grudge? Well, if suddenly, there just happens to be this strange, creepy little boy with bluish skin running in the halls of your home, then the grudge is imminent. This creepy boy might open his mouth in a circle  and release a disorientating  creaking sound. Or he might mew like a cat. You might also  encounter  a young, undead woman crawling down the stairs, bending her  limbs in unnatural ways. The boy would be Toshio, the  woman Kayako, the ones murdered  by their father/husband. The murdered cat  is there too, mewing  from Toshio’s  mouth, or from the phone. Be careful of the calls you accept. If these crawling, creeping undead things catch you, you are toast. Your body will become theirs and will disappear from mainstream  life. You will become such an abomination.

 

 

We the viewers of this film witness such an unfortunate  scenario play out near the film’s  beginning. A family owns/occupies the house that once belonged  to the murdered family. The aging mother-in-law is no longer mentally  fit to care for herself. She sits on the floor  and mostly does nothing but stare vacantly.. This is what “The Grudge” did to her. A woman from social services pays her a visit , checks on her well-bring. Where  is the old woman’s son and daughter-in-law? “The Grudge” has already claimed them. And the poor lady from social services, she will  be taking a ghost or two home with her.

Ju-On: The Grudge is divided into several segments. Each segment, each story, focuses on a different character; all are victims of “The Grudge”. Every story is named after the character that receives the focus. Ju-On: The Curse 1 & 2 follow the same format but mercifully, Ju-On: The Grudge presents these stories (mostly) in chronological order. “The Curse” movies don’t, and it’s a real pain in the you know what trying to figure out what’s going on. I do admit, however, that this out-of-sequence story telling adds an unsettling element to what are intentionally disturbing films, so in this way they provide a continuity of mood.

Is it necessary to watch Ju-On: The Curse 1 & 2 before watching Ju-On: The Grudge?  I say no.  Ju-On: The Grudge does a quick rehash of some of the events in the previous two films, enough to keep viewers up to speed. But the earlier films devote more detail to story of the tragedy that began this whole curse/grudge business. They are most certainly worth viewing, but Ju-On: The Grudge is the best of the three. It is the culmination of “The Curse” films. The effects are better, the undead things are creepier, and it just seems the most confident of the three. I believe “The Curse” movies were accidental hits for director/creator Takashi Shimizu. Because of this, perhaps he had more of a budget, studio cooperation, etc. when it came to making Ju-On: The Grudge.

Ju-On: The Grudge makes my list for top 50 horror movies of all time. I believe it’s either in the teens or the twenties, I’d have to recheck. Oh fine, I’ll check right now. I’ll find the link to the list and….here it is – Top 50 horror Films. Oh! I see now that I have it at #32.  Well, it makes the list and that’s what’s important.  It’s a great film and like other Japanese or Korean Horror films, it achieves scares in a way that Hollywood horror films grudgepicturestruggle with. This film (like several other Asian horror movies) has a built-in flair for all things creepy. Maybe it’s the detail devoted to the ghosts, or maybe it’s the wise abandonment of cliché plots and over-hyped character types. Perhaps it’s the balance of mood and in-your-face scares. Whatever it is, Ju-On: The Grudge works well.

 


 

Ta da! I have finished my review of Ju-On: The Grudge.  Did I do good?

(Hypothetical Reader: You do know there are more movies to the series, like Ju-On: The Grudge 2, and several others. Are you going to review them?)

Yes I know of these. I didn’t watch them, so probably no.

(Hypothetical Reader:  Also, there is the American version, also directed by Takashi Shimizu, simply called “The Grudge.” Shall we expect a compare and contrast article soon?)

Sigh! I didn’t see the American version. I should watch it and…will I write about it? Oh I don’t know! I really don’t. Oh please, for now, just let me be!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ghosts of Christmas Past – A Review of a Collection of Christmas Haunted House Stories

Ghosts-of-Christmas-Past-1163062Stop the holiday press! (Is there such a thing?) Put those  ornaments  back on the tree right now. Return those vines of ivy to the banister. Rehang  those stockings  and regurgitate some of those “Ho Ho Ho”’s  you swallowed  on the 25th, cause I  got one more Christmas-themed  post for you!  It is a book of Christmas  ghost stories – Ghosts of Christmas Past – A chilling collection of modern and classic Christmas ghost stories.

Published in 2017 in Great Britain, the stories within are from various years. Some date  back to the 1800s. The book includes  a story from M.R. James,  whose name is synonymous with  “The Christmas ghost story.” His stories were published in the early part of the 20th Century.  Other stories in this collection are as recent as 2014. It is refreshing  to see that the traditional Christmas  ghost story lives on. I thought it was a thing of the past, as the book’s title  suggests. (Not really!)

Telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve – I didn’t know there was such a tradition until 2015 when I saw an article floating around on Facebook (floating like a ghost – Booooooo!) A year later I wrote my own article on the subject. Now in 2018, I see the subject  of “The Christmas  ghost story”  all over social media. Yay Internet! Still, I didn’t know there were  modern stories; I thought that “Christmas  ghosts” were phantoms of a bygone era.  I’m glad that I  was wrong.

In my 2016 article Christmas Ghosts and Haunted Houses I briefly  describe  the evolution of the Christmas  ghost story, then go on to make a case for “The Christmas Haunted  House”. A Christmas  haunted house is usually   haunted  on Christmas  Eve. It is the setting of festivities; friends and family gather there. The haunting  takes place after the feasting and frolicking, or in some cases, it interrupts these activities. The haunting is symbolic of the cold and dreary  winter that exists outside the window. If it is not symbolic of the cold and darkness, it is at least  a reminder of these conditions. End of the year holidays, with all the lights  and cheer, are there to counteract the harshness and darkness of  winter. This was most certainly true in the ancient  yuletide  tradition of winter solstice. Winters were harsher, darker, and more deadly.  When the lights go out, when the festivities come to an end, the darkness remains. Scary “winter’s tales” emerged from this, and the telling of such tales evolved into the telling  of ghost stories on Christmas  Eve. Safe inside a house, beside a warm and blazing fireplace, the ghost stories are fun….but…even today, darkness is right outside. So close….so….what if a real ghost joins the party, escaping from its prison inside these fanciful tales?

Much of the literature  revolving around Christmas  ghosts are stories within stories. A group  gathers in a house on Christmas  Eve to tell fanciful ghost stories to pass the time on such a cold winter night. Often one of the storytellers relays a “true” ghost story. Fantasy  becomes reality. And “reality” has always been there, lurking outside of their  protective indoor setting. Now it is inside.

For the record, not all Christmas ghost stories involve haunted  houses. But many do and I love it, because if you haven’t  noticed , I’m a haunted house kind of guy!  Are there any Christmas  haunted house stories in the book that is up for review, Ghosts  of  Christmas  Past? Answer: Of course! What a silly question, for this is a haunted house kinda blog! And it is these stories that I will single out , not that they are better than the “houseless” stories but because they fit the theme  of this blog. However , do they conform to my criteria of what makes a “Christmas  haunted house” story? Sometimes they do.

To my dismay, authors both past  and present  never said, “Hey, there is or will be this Daniel Cheely guy, and he says  Christmas  haunted houses have to be written such-and- such  a way, and I must write my story accordingly.” In other words, the specific details of my “Christmas  haunted  house”  criteria  will not always play  out in every story. I know, awww! But I will say  this; most of the haunted house stories in this book that I am about describe feature a noticeable  dichotomy: the happenings  inside the house vs. the happenings  outside the house. To go from one to another, from out to in or in to out, is to transcend into the supernatural  in someway. Things outside peer in, spirits in the home vanish when exiting  the house.  To some extent, these observations  reflect the themes of  1) warm/cozy inside – 2) cold, dark and scary outside, and the convergence of these two states. Don’t you agree? Maybe you will be able to answer this question when I go into more details about the stories. And I  will do that. Right now!

Warning! There will be spoilers!

 


 

Dinner for One – by Jenn Ashworth  – first published 2014

This story is told from the ghost’s perspective. The ghost haunts his/her wife/partner  on Christmas. The gender of the ghost is not revealed and the official status of the relationship  is unclear, although it is assumed these two were once lovers, back when the ghost inhabited  a living body.

The ghost rearranges things in the house, sets the table for dinner, and gets irate when the former lover fails to acknowledge  the ghost’s  efforts. The angry spirit throws the plates/glasses on the floor. See, the ghost doesn’t realize that it is dead.  The doings of the ghost – this troubles the lady of the house, understandably  so.

Meanwhile, the surviving lover spends much time outside the house. She stands over a bed of rocks.  It will be revealed  that the body of her former partner lies there. She had killed him. Poor ghost, it’s body thrown out of the house, buried under the earth. Poor former person – tossed out of the world  of the living. All it wants is to live, to spend Christmas with its  former lover. And so, it returns to the house and, unknowingly, haunts it.

The Shadow by E Nesbit – first published  in 1905

Ah, a classic Christmas  ghost story! It fits the classic is formula. A group of a young girls, on Christmas  Eve, gather in a sleeping chamber in a house  they occupy to share fanciful ghost stories. They invite one of the household  maids into the room and ask her to tell a ghost story. She is shy, somewhat reluctant to share her story. But she gives in.

The maid’s tale is a true one. She once visited the house of two friends, a married couple. The wife is sick in bed, so she spends most of her time in the company  of the male friend. All the while both are haunted by a presence, a shadow. This shadow is symbolic  of…something. Something that hides underneath. Underneath  what? Just underneath.

By the time the maid finishes the story, the presence is inside the chamber. A tragedy occurs, a tragedy that ties one of the girls to the accounts described by the maid.

In their protective  environment on Christmas  Eve, the girls had shared made-up stories. Then a horrid, truthful tale penetrates  their security. The safe house has been haunted.

This Beautiful House – by Louis De Bernieres – first published 2004

A man returns to his childhood home every Christmas  Eve. He always stands on the grounds, observing the outdoor setting, reflecting, taking in the serenity. He likes to remember  the past Christmases that took place inside the house and relive all the cherished memories he had with his family.  Often, the man can see them in the house, through the windows, he witnesses activity inside.

One by one, various family members come out to greet him. Mother and father, sisters or brothers, uncles. They plead with him, but whether their pleas  are for him to come inside or for him to just go away,  it is not clear. But the man never enters the house and he doesn’t  go away until he is ready.

A tragedy caused all these family members to perish  inside the  house many years ago on Christmas  Eve. Even so, the man knows where to find them, every year  on the anniversary of their deaths, he sees their ghosts. Is he a ghost as well? A ghost that is unwilling to join his family in death where he belongs? Is he reluctant to attend an eternal Christmas  party inside the house?

Inside. Outside. The meeting of these two sides and what happens or doesn’t happen on the crossroads. This is what this story  is about.

The Ghost in the Blue Chamber – by Jerome K. Jerome – first published  in 1891

Another classic story adhering to the classic formula. This is somewhat  of a humorous  tale. A man tells a ghost story to a group of people that are gathered at his house on Christmas  Eve night. It is a true story. He claims the blue chamber  of his house is haunted  by a murderer and his victims. When he was alive, the murderer  had a pastime of killing musicians (See, I told you this was humorous . Laugh! Ha ha ha!). He tells the group the details of all the murders.

After  the telling, the man’s nephew insists  in sleeping  in the blue chamber. That night, the ghost of the murderer visits the nephew. Both men, nephew and ghost, pass the night with chitchat  and pipe smoking. Soon it is time for the ghost  to leave. All ghosts must return  to the cosmos before  dawn, after all. The nephew walks the ghost out the door and down the sidewalk. Soon he confronts two truths: 1)the ghost is no longer by his side 2) The nephew  forgot to put on his pants before going outside.

There is not much more to this story. I can’t find any symbolism within. So, how about my whole “inside/outside” dynamic? Does it play out in this story? Well, the ghost is there  in the house. When he leaves the house ,  when he goes outside , he disappears. So there’s  that. And…that’s all I got.

The Lady and the Fox – by Kelly Link – First published in 2014

This is my favorite of the bunch. It is more a story of fantasy and wonder, though it is a little creepy  and somewhat ghostly. It is a modern fairy tale. Young Miranda, a little girl, enjoys spending Christmases with The Honeywell family. Elspeth  Honeywell  is her godmother. Her son Daniel is like a step-brother to Miranda. Over the years he will become more than that, off and on.

Miranda lives with an  aunt. Her mother is in prison and probably  will be for life. It seems  as though the Honeywells have custody of her only at Christmas  time. One Christmas Eve, while a large gathering of Honeywells party it up at the house, Miranda sees a strange man peering into the windows  from outside. She goes out to meet him. She discovers he is a Honeywell…from a different time period. He dresses in 17th century  outfits. No, he is not a ghost, he insists. His name is Fenny, an no, he can’t go inside the house. This isn’t allowed. He wishes the little girl would just go away and leave him alone.

Year after year, Miranda meets  Fenny  outside the house on Christmas  Eve. He eventually warms up to her. He comes  with the snow. She ages, he does not.  Never does he come inside.

Miranda is a young woman now. She grows to love him. To want him. And he her. She will literally hang on to him to prevent him from disappearing.

Who is Fenny if he’s not a ghost? He is, after all, solid. I failed to mention  that before. I am mentioning it now. Perhaps  Miranda craves that which is “solid”, a solid relationship , a solid understanding  of how she fits into the Honeywell family.  Her relationship  with her mother is  far from solid. The prison system  does not allow  her to see her. Her relationship with Daniel is confusing. She feels more at home with the Honeywells than she does at her aunt’s  place. Is Fenny the physical incarnation of Miranda ’ s desire to belong?  And will Fenny ever come inside? Will Miranda ever rid herself of the feeling that she is always on the outside,  looking in? Outside. Inside.

 


 

Outside the Christmas  house. Inside the Christmas  house. The places in between  the inside and outside, the places that fuel the supernatural. These are the themes I have noticed in these stories. These themes relate to my observations  concerning  Christmas  haunted houses in literature – fragile safety  zones that are in no way impermeable  to the dark forces  that lurk outside in the darkened night of winter.

As a reminder, these are not the only stories in the book. I have covered  less than half. But these are the Christmas  haunted house stories. I recommend buying the book and reading all the stories. Some are better than others, but this is always the case with anthologies.

Thank you for reading  this article about Ghosts  of Christmas  Past, especially  since Christmas  has passed (See what I did there?). I wish you a happy post-Christmas. May your home receive the leftovers of the  Christmas ghost. May they haunt your house – inside and out.