Ghostland

Thanks to Septicemia’s post, I’ve been watching Ask a Mortician all afternoon. When I got to the episode on Open Eye Wakes and Body Farms, she plugged a friend’s book and I realized that Hot Damn I Read That One! We’re kindred spirits!
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I read Ghostland: an American History in Haunted Places last October, before I started this blog, so I didn’t think to write about it. I loved it, though, so I’m writing about it now. A lot of “haunted America” type books are just story collections, and while I like that, I loved that this book was so much more. It discusses what kinds of ghost stories we tell and why we tell them. It’s less ‘history of ghosts’ and more ‘how we use ghosts stories to deal with our history.’

It’s not a dry-but-thorough examination of American hauntings, but more a series of musings about famously haunted places and what the stories tell us about their history. It was a relaxing pre-Halloween read, and especially good for those who like a spooky atmosphere without too much blood and gore. Be warned, though, that it does have some discussion of slavery, and slavery is always hard to stomach.

If you know and like U.S. history and culture at all, this book is a fresh and interesting way of looking at it. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to get beyond the stories and look at why we tell them in the first place.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Summer always puts me in a Southern Gothic mood. Southern Gothic isn’t exactly goth, but the American deep south is full of beautiful cemetaries, haunted plantation houses, and its own special brand of spooky horror. In all this heat, it’s just hard to concentrate on windswept moors and drafty castles. For summer, give me overgrown cemeteries, farmhouses full of tragic ghosts, and Southern belles wilting in the sultry August evening.

I finished Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil a few weeks ago. (There’s also a movie version I saw long ago in my Kevin Spacey phase.) It’s sort of a “Southern gothic meets true crime” thing and it’s not written by a southerner so it didn’t quite work for me. But it did make me really want to see Savannah, Georgia. Next time I have money I just might take a long weekend, tour Mercer House, stroll through Bonaventure Cemetery, and read my next gothic novel under a tree in one of Savannah’s beautiful squares.

 

The Poe Toaster

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E. A. Poe, public domain via Wikipedia

Edgar Allan Poe is sort of the quintessential goth author. Not only did he write dark, romantic poetry and horror that holds up even today, but he also had a dark and tragic life and mysterious death. Talk about the whole gothic package.  Of course, some of his dark reputation is total slander, and some of his works have not worn well. (He may be the grandfather of sci fi, but his child has grown way beyond him.) But his writing style and his sheer inventiveness have left their mark not just on goths the world over, but on more general literary history as well.

I’ve read (more than) my fair share of Poe, but growing up it never occurred to me to carry him around for “goth points” or anything like that. I partly grew up about 20 minutes outside of Baltimore, a city so into Poe that we named our football team the Ravens. And dressed them in purple and black uniforms, because spooky. Where I grew up, it was weird if you didn’t read Poe for fun at least on Halloween.

Edgar Allan Poe isn’t really from Baltimore, but he died and was buried there so the city claims the hell out of him. He’s kind of got two headstones actually, both in the same churchyard. Poe’s grave was originally unmarked and not well tended, and eventually that sadness was kind of overcorrected–there’s a proper headstone at his grave and also a rather large monument stone at the corner of the churchyard.

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Poe Toaster, from Life Magazine. I think. 

The corner memorial was partly paid for by schoolchildren collecting pennies, and people still throw pennies in memory. But the more famous tradition is the Poe Toaster, who used to visit the grave on Poe’s birthday every year, toasting him with cognac and leaving three roses and the cognac’s remains in salute to the author. The original Toaster remains a mystery, and he (or his son–the tradition lasted a good 75 years) quit coming in 2010, but the Maryland Historical Society has recently started a sort of annual Poe Toaster reenactment.

I’ve been to Poe’s grave exactly once, ages ago, when my sister was sick in the hospital across the street. Appropriately sad circumstances for paying Poe a visit. My sister still lives near there and I’m planning to visit in June, so it might be time to once again pay my respects.

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Public Domain, Andrew Horne via Wikipedia

Lit Class with Spooky Schoolmarm, plus Fashion Challenge Day 10

IMG_3649Day 10 is a special item of clothing. I don’t get all that attached to my clothes. This Nightmare Before Christmas scarf is the most special thing I could think of–I like the movie fine, but more than that I love Disney Halloween Time. I’ve only been twice–once for Mr. Robot’s and my anniversary and once last year with the kids, which is when I bought this scarf.

And now for something completely different:

Since finishing Frankenstein I’ve been thinking about all the lit classes I’ve taken, all the dark genres out there to explore, all the great stories and authors I read only because some teacher made me. I don’t have time to reread them all, but I thought I’d take time to reminisce. Here are a few unexpected treasures from my school days.

  1. Shirley Jackson–she’s popular already with goths for The Haunting of Hill House, which has been made and remade, so I would have heard of her eventually. But my first taste of Jackson was The Lottery. My teacher made me read it, and I was too young to really understand it at the time, but that story’s the reason I went back to Jackson later. The Haunting is good, but I prefer We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
  2. Dorris Lessing–Lessing isn’t a gothic or darkly romantic writer at all. I had to read her in high school but I didn’t remember much but her name and her nice writing style when I picked up The Fifth Child looking for summer reading. I was not expecting subtle horror and fairy tale elements or the heartwrenching portrayal of mental health issues, but that’s what the book delivered. It only resonates more as I get older.
  3. Nathaniel Hawthorne–I’m haunted by an internet argument I once had about Hawthorne’s deep, dark genius. I was and still am of the opinion that some of his genius was totally unintended. Hawthorne wrote some great stuff–The Scarlet Letter and the House of Seven Gables were quite good, and Rappaccini’s Daughter is exactly as amazing as my internet opponent thought it was. But people tend not to read the complete works of Nathaniel Hawthorne because some of his works were really not good. He wrote an entire book of badly Christianized Greek myths for pete’s sake. His major theme was the evil within us that must be overcome, and sometimes that made for deep explorations of the human soul, but sometimes that made for boring morality tales. Still, when Hawthorne’s good, he’s really good.

I have no idea whether that was fun for you, but it was fun for me. Did you read and like any of these? Got any other dark-but-not-goth favorites I should add to my long, long list? Things you had to read for school that you didn’t appreciate until later?

 

Frankenstein and Channel Zero

I finally finished Frankenstein. It was no Wuthering Heights, but it was good. A lot of the themes wear well–the inhumanity of humanity, Dr. Frankenstein’s infuriating refusal to see his responsibility for this mess, the ups and downs of pushing science past its limits–those ideas and more are still compelling after all this time. The vagueness of the actual science wears less well, and I just couldn’t get behind the Monster learning French and pondering the nuances of Paradise Lost just by listening really hard. But this is forgivable. You don’t read Shelley or Poe for their scientific prescience.

You can’t really recommend or fail to recommend such a classic, so instead I’ll say this: it’s about as exciting-yet-flawed as Stoker’s Dracula, more focused than Ann Radcliffe’s work (but less focused than Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or The Invisible Man), and not as romantic and full of atmosphere as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. If you’re really into the foundations of goth you’re either already read it or really ought to. I can’t believe it took me so long to get to this.

And now, out of the past and into the TV present. While I was sick I found time to watch Channel Zero season one and I mostly liked it. Since this is a fairly recent show instead of a classic of Western Horror, I won’t spoil it with too many details. If you like creepypasta you’re probably familiar with the Candle Cove storyline, and for the most part the show did a great job with it. That tooth child (you may have seen it in the trailers) and various Candle Cove puppets are suitably creepy and the plot is interesting. I was totally sold for the first 4 episodes or so, and after that there were some hiccups but I still enjoyed it. Definitely worth a look if you like quirky, atmospheric horror.

Assorted Entertainments (Part 2)

As usual, one of my kids brought home germs and gave them right to me. She has terrible timing–I got sick right when our schedule got extra busy for a week or so–and without time to rest it took a while to recover.

So mostly I’ve been finishing some horror novels and spent a precious few hours of rest time binge watching the Santa Clarita Diet on Netflix. It was a fun show, by the way. I liked it for the same reason I loved Shaun of the Dead. They both set ordinary relationship issues against a fun background of blood and guts, and they both pull it off well. It might be hard for a second season to keep the right balance, what with TV shows always having to increase the drama to keep people watching, but I enjoyed this first season.

I also read The Red Queen (sequel to Alice) this week. It was short and very easy reading, but not as compelling as the first book. The first one, while hurtling toward a certain conclusion, had a real sense of growth for Alice. The second one talked a lot about continuing that growth, but action-wise Alice felt very much like a pawn. I know this is meant to mirror the chess game aspect of the original Through the Looking Glass, but it didn’t work for me. In the end, Alice comes into her own power and symbolically becomes a queen in her own right, but the way it was written didn’t really convey that. There were still no real choices for her to make, and it felt like Alice never really escaped being a pawn.

A week or so ago I finished but didn’t mention Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes. I liked it but didn’t love it. The basic plot, about dreams (nightmares maybe) trying to manifest in the waking world, was wonderful. Those parts of the book were grotesque and beautiful. They got lost a bit, though, in the long backstories of every character. I think the backstories were supposed to slowly explain each character’s role in bringing the nightmare to life (or ultimately, not), but they didn’t all fit in the end and some of them seemed unnecessary. The author seemed to have many themes she wanted to explore and they didn’t all fit into one coherent storyline. It’s a shame, because the main thread was perfect.

Now I’m getting around to Frankenstein, the one glaring gap in my classic horror knowledge. I suspect it’ll take longer than the books I’ve breezed through recently. I’ve love to hear what you’ve all been up to lately.