Real-life ghost story books: Wonderful and annoying

I’ve had a—well, not a love/hate relationship, but a love/annoyance relationship with real-life ghost stories for most of my life. In the small public library in the town I grew up, there was one of these books that I must have checked out a dozen times. It had a few of the most famous ghost pictures in it, like the one of the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, or the National Museum in Greenwich photo (what is it about ghosts and staircases?), and I read over and over about the Bell Witch and the ghost of Anne Boleyn and other fun stories. I loved that book. So as I grew older, I branched out and read other books of real-life ghost stories. I continued to love them. Even as they increasingly annoyed me.

The biggest problem I’ve had with these books is a simple one—way too often, the people writing them don’t know how to tell a story. There’s a whole lot of telling not showing in these books—you could probably start a drinking game for the number of times the word “eerie” is used in an attempt to create unearned atmosphere. And they often don’t know how to organize the information they’re presenting in an interesting way. Sometimes this seems like a little journalistic overzealousness—the writers of the books are so interested in showing that they are dealing in real information, not just made-up stuff, that they list what this person said and what that person said in a rush of information without taking the time to show why this information matters or assemble it into a coherent narrative. They coast too often on the inherent interest of ghost stories, feeling people don’t need to be brought into the story because, hey, it’s a ghost story—of course you’re interested! So they lay out the information and don’t bother to tell the story.

To be fair, there are some good reasons for this. Sometimes, the details of each ghost story aren’t known. The books present fragmented information because that’s all there is. No one really knows who the ghost is, why it’s appearing, or, in some cases, why it went away. Telling that story would often require a bit of invention, and that goes directly against the agenda of a true-story ghost book.

Which brings us to what I feel is the greatest true-life ghost story book of all time, The Field Guide to North American Hauntings. It’s not that the writing here towers about other real-life ghost story books—sometimes the author does a little better job of putting together a story, but other times his efforts fall flat—but the book provides something almost no other true-life ghost story book has, which is a compelling character. Sadly, this character is not a ghost, or someone who met a ghost, but the author himself. Combining an occasionally quasi-academic tone with utter credulity (he seems to have missed the piles of evidence indicating the fact that the Amityville Horror was a fake), and then throwing in things like ratings of how dangerous the ghost is and a survey you can present to ghosts you may encounter, the author regularly displays an interesting and unusual mind.

But the book is not perfect. The stories are still not as fully developed as they could be, and I kept wanting the one thing most true-life ghost books never provide—detailed, first-hand encounters with some of the ghosts encountered in the book. The book inspired me to try out some ghost stories of my own. They’re not scary—I’m not a horror writer—but I tried to capture some of the things I loved about these books while eliminating the things that annoyed me. It helped that, unlike other writers in this genre, I was totally unencumbered by fact when I wrote my accounts. I could make them as I liked. And so I ended up with a whole book, Dexter Prowley’s Ghosts of Abana (one story featuring ghost hunter Prowley appeared in Ghostbreakers: Sinister Sleuths, which does not seem to be available any longer). I’ve always enjoyed the stories of this book, and keep thinking I’d like to write more. This blog seems like a fine place for them, so in upcoming weeks look for stories from the work on this blog, and maybe a new one if I get around to it.

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