By Betsy Phillips
Since it is very possible that all three authors of this blog will lose power due to Sandy for the next week, I’m posting my Halloween post a few days early.
Kinsey and I were discussing the blog, sort of roughing out upcoming posts, and I mentioned how I like to read something spooky in honor of Halloween, but that I couldn’t actually remember ever reading a book that truly scared me, like so scared I don’t want to turn out the lights. (After more thought, the story of “The Monkey’s Paw” made me very unhappy at the time of reading it, though didn’t interfere with my sleep at all, and Steinbeck’s The Pearl has given me a lifetime phobia of scorpions, so those seem to be as close as I get to scared.)
Anyway, Kinsey lent me A City of Ghosts, which is a collection of ghost stories set in Nashville, self-published by the author in 2010. I was somewhat dubious about this book for a couple of reasons: 1) I am a huge snob about self-published books; and 2) I am a huge skeptic; not only do I not believe in ghosts, I can’t even imagine any evidence that would make me believe in them, up to and including seeing one for myself.
However, it was really, really good! Not spooky, but just super interesting. It was a comfort to me that the author notes in several places at the beginning of the book that this is a work of fiction, since then I could just enjoy the stories without picking apart the possible truth behind them. Although, Phillips writes in such an easy, first-person, conversational style that I had to reconfirm for myself several times that she did indeed state upfront it is fiction.
I read it more like a book of poetry, especially since the stories were very short, mostly ranging between one to three pages long. Phillips uses the small vignettes to flesh out (so to speak) aspects of Southern society, like the shadow of slavery and the ongoing racism and classism, that are hard to encapsulate in concrete terms on their own. I interpreted the ghost stories as metaphors for how events can become permanently embedded in our social consciousness and dictate how our lives are led even decades later.
The book is dividing into two sections, the first titled “April,” and the second titled “October.” The stories in “April” are a bit lighter in tone, reading a bit more like traditional ghost stories and addressing more individual cases; “October” has several stories that include flood waters, very clearly dealing with post-Katrina recovery. Even while typing this, I can see how ghost stories about the victims of Katrina sounds like it could be incredibly insensitive, but the stories instead describe the hurricane as a specter itself that hangs over the survivors with nightmares of the flood waters and grief over the victims.
I just found it very poignant, and in that way, much more lastingly enjoyable that I would more traditional ghost stories.
I’m so glad you liked it! I have the same self-publishing skepticism, but I had read her blog (http://tinycatpants.wordpress.com/) for years so I felt pretty confident that the book wouldn’t suck.
And I absolutely agree that she does an amazing job using ghost stories to unravel all sorts of issues with Southern history and culture, which is probably why I liked it so much.
But I don’t agree that it wasn’t spooky. A few of those stories kept me up at night.
I seriously think my extreme skepticism gets in the way, which would also make sense in why I don’t find most supernatural stories scary. I do refuse to read stories about murderers and rapists because I would find those too scary, so I guess perhaps True Crime would be my horror stories, if I ever permitted myself to read them (and scorpions, of course).
Tom and I were watching an episode of MythBusters, where they were testing different myths about fear, and in order to make the busters sweat in fear (so that an odor specialist could smell the sweat), they covered one in scorpions, and I said that would be my fear, too. Tom said that he wasn’t scared of any of those because he isn’t scared of creepy-crawlies, but when I said that he would be covered in dirty kleenex, he had to go lie down for a little bit.
I only just finished this, but I really enjoyed it. It reminds me a bit of the Ernest Hemingway story: “For sale, Baby boots, Never worn.” Very short, but meaningful.
This book has a lot of layers. Each short story has both the past and the present, while the book as a whole as both the individuals and the city as a whole.