Colin Dickey’s “Ghostland” as a Reflection of American History and Experience
Stories about ghosts have always interested people. Some are excited whereas others are scared, but it is a rare occasion that a ghost story should leave a person indifferent. In his book, Colin Dickey describes some of the most exquisite ghost stories. However, he does so not with the aim of making the readers’ blood run cold because of the monstrous details of the ghosts’ past. *In his book, Dickey is trying to depict the American history, society, and family values through the prism of haunted places and ghosts inhabiting them. *
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The author divides his book into four parts, the first one being about haunted houses and mansions. Here, Dickey gives an account of some of the most well-known haunted houses in the country. While describing the haunted house at Salem, Massachusetts, the author calls the place “home to the most famous miscarriages of justice” in the country’s early history (21). Dickey pays much attention to the historical period in which the house was built and the events which took place in it. The writer says that this house, whose only significant outer feature is color (“it’s painted entirely in matte black”), was a witness of the late seventeenth-century events when many people underwent execution after witchcraft trials (21). Dickey spends some time retelling the visitors’ experiences, but he is more attentive to depicting the atmosphere of the period in the country’s life. He mentions that Salem has been a personification of a “contradiction in the bedrock of American consciousness,” in which religiousness was combined with hypocrisy (25). The author notes that the house bears a “stain of the past” which is difficult to remove (26).
The second part of the book is about haunted business places such as hotels and restaurants. In these chapters, Dickey is explaining what tremendous impact society roles have on people. What is more important, he draws the audience’s attention to racial issues by raising a question about black ghosts (115). Dickey emphasizes that ghost narrations sometimes are the only way to speak about things from history which “people don’t want to hear” (115). The author mentions that in spite of our belief in ghosts, “the dead are watching” us, and there is no way of escaping punishment for our evil deeds (117). According to Dickey, narrations about ghosts are a part of the nation’s “oral tradition” which reflects “the knowledge and the folklore” (110). Hotels and restaurants are frequently haunted because due to the nature of such establishments, many people visit them, each having a different story and personal secrets.
In the third part, Dickey describes haunted public places such as cemeteries and prisons. These places, by their nature, are inhabited by many dead people and even more stories about them. There is not much need to create a sinister feeling about the places of burial or torture since they have always been associated with tragic and sad events. In his book, Dickey is depicting the atmosphere of Moundsville prison to explain to the audience how not only the inmates’ freedom was taken away from them. The prison’s “faceless cells and corridors,” as described by Dickey, suggest “strange, elliptical” stories of those who served their sentence there (166). The author says it is no wonder that ghosts should like to pick such place for their habitat: is it so “claustrophobic and endless, forlorn and merciless” that the impression of the country’s penitentiary system is rather sad. Taking into consideration that some inmates spend many years there and some are even sentenced by mistake, Dickey claims that it is unacceptable to keep the people in such conditions. The impact produced by the prison on its visitors is “particularly impressive, solemn, and instructive” (165). Even nowadays, as the author remarks, Moundsville gives people “a pervasive sense of unease” (166). For people staying there and not just visiting, the place must have been more than freedom deprivation: they were deprived of a possibility to think of anything positive or optimistic, being closed in tiny dark cells whose interior was too gloomy to be considered a place for living beings. Thus, along with giving an account of some chilling ghost stories connected with the prison, the author puts emphasis on the fact that such places should be given more attention from the government. As Dickey puts it, prisons should be more humane to give people a chance for a future change instead of simply punishing them for their past.
The final part of the book is concentrated on whole haunted towns. When telling the story about New Orleans, Dickey drives the audience to the point that too many sad happenings concentrated in one place are capable of enveloping whole cities in the midst of an ominous reputation. As the author puts it, a haunted city is “weighted down” by the “conflicted” past occurrences (232). Areas with such reputation leave an impression “close to melancholy” (232). Haunted cities bear a “weight” they are not able to “let go of” and are filled with deep-rooted sadness (232). While talking about haunted towns, Dickey emphasizes that the countries (America in particular) do not tend to admit such a reputation of some of their administrative regions. However, he mentions, the “melancholy” is as significant in the formation of any country’s history as its triumphs are (232). No matter how we wish to hide the sad and unpleasant pages of our history, they will inevitably be revealed and known to the public. What Dickey is trying to say in the last part of his book is that we should not try to hide our past, in spite of how unattractive some moments are.
Colin Dickey’s book might be disappointing for the readers who crave for scary stories and excitement lurking from every page. However, this fact does not make the book less interesting for real history overs. The author raises many crucial topics in his stories: he discusses race, social inequality, psychological treatment of people by the governmental organizations, and other issues. Dickey emphasizes the significance of being humane and understanding and encourages the readers to seek for meaning in things surrounding them. The division of the book into four major topics gives a notion about the stories’ main themes. However, the author surprises the audience every time by suggesting a different insight into what they might have considered well-known facts. Though the book’s title presupposes talking about ghosts, the author neglects the keyword in some stories paying attention to the time, places, and environments rather than ghosts inhabiting these areas. Therefore, through the lens of ghosts, Dickey manages to depict the history of the US in fascinating and provocative details.
Dickey, Colin. Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places. Viking, 2016.