ON GHOST STORIES, PART III: 5 GREAT GHOST READS
Nothing tops hearing a great ghost story in person, but if any medium comes close to replicating the experience, it’s the printed word. The greatest advantage written ghost stories have over spoken ones is that they can be experienced alone. If a scary story is really cooking for me, there usually comes a moment when I have to get up to turn on an extra light or double-check that the front door is locked. These are fun little private moments you don’t have in a group setting (unless you want to be ridiculed; the cat’s the only one who witnesses me chicken out at home, but he’s not saying anything).
Finding great collections of ghost stories is tough, though. Ghost books roughly break down into two categories: regional ghost stories and the classic chestnuts that everyone’s heard some version of, like “Bloody Mary” or that story of the railroad crossing where the ghosts of dead children push a stalled car out of the way of an oncoming train. The regional books are usually slapped-together affairs with subpar writing and badly Photoshopped covers. Collections of classic ghost stories often fare no better in those categories and face the additional challenge of remaining fresh to readers who have heard multiple versions of them. The Weird U.S. series is a good exception for both types; they’re written well and their design is consistent, if decidedly kitschy. Those big, mass-marketed tomes are like the Applebee’s of ghost books though. It’s hard to be transported by something that’s typically displayed on one of those discount racks you pass as you enter a Barnes and Noble. It’s the old, beat-up books with yellowed pages and maybe a missing cover that truly convey that forbidden, esoteric feeling lovers of ghost stories crave.
With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of five excellent collections that deserve a look. Most can be found on Amazon, which, while not being quite as evocative as a dimly-let used bookstore, is nevertheless convenient.
Passport to the Supernatural
Bernhardt J. Hurwood
I first learned of this interesting “Occult Compendium from All Ages and Many Lands” while reading an interview with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who cited it as a major influence. Del Toro, whose knowledge of folklore is damn near encyclopedic, is famous for the great Spanish films Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, and Pan’s Labyrinth. His English language films include Pacific Rim and the Hellboy series. When I learned Passport to the Supernatural was also a source of inspiration for Hellboy’s comic book creator Mike Mignola, I knew I had to track it down.
The slim, weathered paperback I obtained features a charmingly literal cover illustration of a passport with monsters and skeletons printed on its pages. The book itself is a concise, well-researched survey of legends and folklore from around the globe, from spirits and demons of biblical antiquity to Russian vampire tales to the modern shenanigans of India’s Thuggee cult (a real gang of vicious highway robbers that existed in India for over six hundred years, but didn’t rip people’s hearts out like in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). These legends are retold in a frank, earnest fashion, but what sets Passport to the Supernatural apart is the historical context provided before and after many of the stories. Hurwood isn’t interested in veracity of these tales, but does an excellent job illustrating their evolution, often comparing and contrasting multiple versions of the same story and analyzing their variations. It’s a terrific read for those interested in the anthropology of ghost stories as much as the tales themselves.
New England Legends and Folklore
Samuel Adams Drake
Illustrations by F.T. Merrill
I frequently mention the excited, yet fearful feelings I experience listening to a particularly chilling story. Reading New England Legends and Folklore, written by Boston writer Samuel Adams Drake in 1884, one gets the sense that the denizens of early New England lived every moment of their lives in this frame of mind. Everything was an omen, the devil lurked behind every door, and all of your neighbors could be in league with him. Drake writes from an interesting point of history; his disdain for the superstitions of the Puritan era is palpable, yet he accepts the supernatural in a way that few serious writers today would dare.
Many of the tales presented in this collection were old even in 1884, and reading them I’m struck by how much of our own history is an empty timeline for many of us. This is a book that paints a vivid picture of life between the historical milestones of New England. There are feuds and spectacles and entire towns being sent into hysterics at every turn, and much of it is downright hilarious. Recounting the tale of “The Quaker Prophetess”, Drake contextualizes this story of a mad woman of the Friends by citing past incidents where Quaker women, fed up with all the repressive social bullshit of their day, basically streaked through their towns to let off steam.
Even the ghost stories have moments of pure, grim hilarity. When a recently-constructed ship departs New Haven on its maiden voyage in “The Phantom Ship”, one sensitive onlooker knows just what to say:
“Lord, if it be thy pleasure to bury these our friends in the bottom of the sea, take them; they are thine: save them!”
The good Lord graciously takes the speaker up on his suggestion, but is kind enough to send the titular phantom ship back to them the following season as a courtesy. The book is filled with many such moments, and plenty of chills to accompany them.
Spooky Campfire Stories
S. E. Schlosser
Illustrations by Paul F. Hoffman
The tales presented in the Spooky series are as old as the hills, but are brought to life with style and deceptive simplicity by S.E. Schlosser. Comprised of over twenty books featuring classic tales from different states and regions of the U.S., this modern series is unique among local haunting books. Not content to merely report old legends, Schlosser gives each a fresh spin, writing ostensibly fictional versions of classic yarns such as “The Hook” and “The Birth of the Jersey Devil”. The tales are often told in the first person while the rural settings fluctuate between the present and a distant, vague past. The effect is very much like listening to tales around a campfire; it’s not that the line between fact and fiction is blurry– it’s completely irrelevant.
Schlosser’s writing owes much to the brothers Grimm, and like them she’s not afraid of venturing into morbid and gristly territory. Despite this, the Spooky series is perfect for children and easily superior to Alvin Schwartz’s popular Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark. Like that series, the Spooky books feature gorgeous, evocative illustrations. Paul G. Hoffman’s scratchboard artwork is eerie, melancholy, otherworldly, and beautiful, often all at once, and really elevates the already excellent presentation.
Schlosser’s website, Americanfolklore.net, is an excellent resource for studying and comparing myths, legends, and folklore.
Boston Bay Mysteries and Other Tales; Ghosts, Gales and Gold; Supernatural Mysteries and Other Tales; Mysteries and Adventures Along the Atlantic Coast; and many more books
Edward Rowe Snow
Edward Rowe Snow was a major figure in Boston and New England who is all but forgotten by the generations following the Baby Boomers. High school teacher, World War II veteran, journalist, historian, preservationist, adventurer, treasure hunter, and supreme raconteur, this is the type of guy you don’t see very much of anymore. I’ve always thought of him as New England’s own Chester Copperpot. When he wasn’t busy endeavoring to save Fort Warren on Georges Island during the ‘50s, he was hard at work writing histories of Castle Island, shipwrecks, lighthouses, the islands of Boston Harbor, and famous storms. He was also fond of ghost stories, especially ones featuring pirates.
When I was little I was frequently read passages from his Boston Bay Mysteries and Other Tales. This first introduced me to the tale of the famous pirate ship Whydah and its accompanying ghost story of Goodie Hallett, the pirate’s widow who is still said to walk the beaches of Cape Cod waiting for her beloved Sam “Black” Bellamy to return. Snow’s books are filled with great stories of the supernatural, all told with the warmth and skill of a great uncle sitting by the fire sipping whiskey.
William Peter Blatty on The Exorcist: from Novel to Film
There have been plenty of books and articles written about the allegedly true story that inspired William Peter Blatty’s landmark 1971 novel The Exorcist. I first became obsessed with the story behind the story after I saw the film adaptation (not sure what age I was, but it was definitely single digits). My dad had casually mentioned that the film was based on a true story, which I later discovered concerned a boy from Maryland who was supposedly possessed in 1949. This only served to lengthen the already months-long period of sleepless nights I faced following that initial viewing of the film, but I was soon seeking out every available piece of material on the original case.
The most obvious place to start is with the Washington Post articles that originally reported the phenomena. The very first article, with its astonishingly straightforward reporting, can be found here http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/movies/features/dcmovies/exorcism1949.htm
There have been numerous nonfiction books about the case over the years, the most popular being Thomas Allen’s 1993 account, Possessed. Allen, a contributing editor for National Geographic, had the benefit of interviewing the last surviving member of the ’49 exorcist team, Father Walter Halloran. Intriguingly, a copy of the diary kept by the lead exorcist in the case, Father William S. Bowdern, is included in its entirety at the end of the book. This is said to be the same diary that Blatty was entrusted with when researching his novel. Possessed certainly has moments of creepiness, and it’s definitely worth a read for those interested in this stuff, but I found both book and diary to be incredibly dry.
For my money, the most chilling account of the 1949 possession can be found in Blatty’s own 1974 book William Peter Blatty on ‘The Exorcist’: From Novel to Screen. As the title suggests, this is more a chronicle of the novel’s adaptation into a film, but Blatty does spend a fair amount of time discussing the original case. The author had some contact with Father Bowdern, the aforementioned head exorcist, and the first mention of the diary presented in Thomas Allen’s book is made here. Unlike Allen, however, Blatty is not concerned with presenting the facts in such a dry, sober manner. Despite his repeated claims over the years that he never meant his novel to be scary, the guy has a real knack for framing the tale, in all its forms– fictional, non-fictional and otherwise– in such a way as to inspire serious goosebumps.
There’s plenty of intrigue to be mined from Blatty’s inquiries into the case during his time as a student at Georgetown University (the Jesuit institution where part of the ’49 exorcism took place), but I found some of his insights into the novel’s creation to be equally haunting. One such anecdote concerning his secretary and proof-reader during the time of the novel’s composition particularly raised the hair on my neck. She’d been working late into the night typing up the manuscript when a stark realization dawned on her. She immediately picked up the phone and dialed the writer.
“They’re not after the little girl at all!” she said breathlessly. “They’re after him.”
“Him who?” the flabbergasted author responded.
I’ve never quite decided what is more unsettling here; the woman’s obviously correct assertion that Father Karras was the true target of the story’s antagonist, or the fact that she referred to this antagonist as “they” rather than “he” or “it”. After all, when the entity possessing the man from Gergesa was commanded by Jesus to identify itself in Synoptic Gospels, it responded, “I am Legion.”