Incredibly scary and a perfect read for the month of October, Colin Dickey examines ghosts, haunted buildings, and other urban legends throughout the United States. But, it’s not just about ghost stories, he also delves into the true histories of everything from cemeteries to asylums. When I picked up Ghostland I thought: how creepy can the US be, it hasn’t been around all that long, comparatively speaking. And I found out: really, really creepy.
You don’t have to believe in ghosts to enjoy this book. Here’s what the author had to say in the intro: “Even if you don’t believe in the paranormal, ghost stories and legends of haunted places are a vital, dynamic means of confronting the past and those who have gone before us. Ultimately, this book is about the relationship between place and story: how the two depend on each other and how they bring each other alive.” loc 23, ebook.
I learned a lot of quirky, historical details about the United States. For example, did you know that Spiritualists were a huge part of the suffrage movement?: “Early suffrage meetings were heavily populated with mediums and trance speakers; in some places it was difficult to find suffragists who weren’t also Spiritualists. Spiritualism had given many of these women practice and confidence in speaking to groups with authority; by allowing others (the dead) to speak through them, American women began to speak for themselves in greater numbers. Spiritualism was only one of many factors and social movements that drove women’s suffrage, but it was a vital and important one.” loc 961-978, ebook.
One night, my ride home from work was late and I found myself alone in the library with all of the lights off and it was so spooky. I felt like I was being watched and jumped at every little creak in the stacks. In this passage, Dickey explains why: “Few things are more unsettling than being somewhere emptied out, after everyone else has left. If you’ve ever worked a closing shift, or as a security guard, you know the way a place can change after the doors are locked and the lights are dimmed, when the lighting so carefully designed to spotlight the latest gadgets goes slack, when the mood lighting gets moodier. It’s as though you don’t belong there.” loc 1250, ebook
The most disturbing moments, for me, were the true history portions of the narrative: “Early madhouses were often revealed to be nightmares of abuse and neglect. Reports of incontinent patients hosed down with icy water, naked women chained haphazardly to the walls, fleas and rats rampant, and other horrors gradually prompted a desire for something more sanitary and humane.”loc 2205, ebook. Eeeek. Is it any wonder that these places are haunted?
Dickey includes a poem by Goethe in his examination of the “ruins” of Detroit: “Goethe wrote in 1827: “America, you have it better Than our old continent, You have no ruined castles And no ancient basalt. Your inner life remains untroubled By useless memory And futile strife.” That was then. Now, almost two hundred years later, we’ve started to catch up to old Europe. We have plenty of ruined castles now, plenty of wasted strife to call our own.” loc 3217, ebook. I would have disagreed with that sentiment but then I readGhostland. Now, I know better.
Recommended for folks who are looking for a spooky, non-fiction read for Halloween or any other time that you’re looking for a good scare. Pick this one up with a hot drink and a warm blanket… you’re going to need it. Some read alikes: Hunt for the Skinwalker: Science Confronts the Unexplained at a Remote Ranch in Utah by Colm A. Kelleher (one of the scariest books I’ve ever read) or Mysteries and Monsters of the Sea by Fate Magazine (similar to Ghostland but nautically themed).
Thank you to Viking Publishing and NetGalley for a digital copy of this book for review purposes! And, thank you for reading.