I’ve been reading ghost stories.
Partly because it’s October, Halloween, Dia de Muertos, spooky time.
Partly because, if you read enough and regularly, it’s hard to avoid bumping into a ghost story. Nearly everything, read in the proper light, is a ghost story. In fact, “the best ghost stories don’t have ghosts,” Roald Dahl wrote, in the introduction to his 1983 anthology of ghost stories. Instead, the finest ghost stories often scare with social critique, metaphor, atmosphere. Not ectoplasm. “What the ghost really needs is not echoing passages and hidden doors behind tapestry but continuity and silence.” Or so wrote Edith Wharton in “Ghosts,” her own collection, just reissued by New York Review of Books Classics.
You have an idea of what a ghost story looks like. Cobwebs. Cold rushes of air.
Maybe you think of a ghost story as the work of hacks and adolescent minds. But the ghost story knows no heavy chains. It floats across genre, talent and ambition like so many walls. Before I wrote this column I read a bunch of new ghost stories and they were courtroom dramas, stories about technology, parenting novels, tales of identity in the 21st century Upper Midwest. Any list of great authors — Dickens, Shakespeare, Toni Morrison, George Saunders — is probably also a list of purveyors of Caspers. Henry James, Shirley Jackson — they found their truest voices with ghosts. Because we are all surrounded by the past, malevolent and harmless. Every place you live, and every room you sleep in tonight, has carried the traces of the people who once passed through it.
America is filthy with ghosts, haunted lands, legacies good and bad, the spirit of ideals rarely lived up to, lingering memories of people who were hurt, trampled on, cast aside.
Of course those are ghost stories.
Fittingly for 2021, literature, the award-winning stuff and cheap crap alike, is a haven of haunts. But then the ghost story couldn’t vanish if you wanted it to. The ghost story is a changeling, and less a reflection of who we are than a projection of what we are worried about — in the broadest existential sense. We’re all spooked by ghosts of what might have been. Ghost children, taken too soon, become excellent specters because “what might have been” is what they offer. Ghosts rattle at limitations; ghosts nurse trauma; free of repercussions, ghosts float above injustice and question norms. Ghosts, conservative by the nature of being super dead, are progressive in action, often protesting the thing that made them invisible and hard to get in touch with.
Chicago, though, never short on ghosts, has been a weak conduit for ghost lit.
Which is one of the many reasons “This Thing Between Us” (FSG, $17), by the Chicago-based Gus Moreno, feels welcome. It’s unsettling, poignant and like the best ghost stories, I found myself telling the bare bones of the story to friends and family, just to see the reaction. It begins in Pilsen, which is exactly right — gentrification is inherently a ghost story, a tale of disrupted lives and new families moving into the homes of people passed over. In this case, it’s a condo inside a brownstone, just off 18th Street, and the protagonist is Thiago, whose Mexican father tells him that he’s not really Mexican when he flinches at spicy food. Thiago is full of guilt, and unsettled ideas of identity. Ghosts step into the turbulence. Thiago and wife Vera buy the Alexa-like voice-activated Itza.
Though HAL is more like it.
Still, why give away a book so simultaneously mournful and fun? I’ll just say, late at night, around the witching hour, Itza begins whispering to unseen figures. After Vera is killed in a freak CTA accident, Thiago leaves Chicago. Itza follows. Which, sure, sounds dumb. But Moreno’s playbook is old and knowing: Our uncertainty about technology can hold very serious heartbreak about what’s lost. The ghost in the machine, no shocker, is an ideal, ready-made 21st century ghost trope. “Reality and Other Stories” (Norton, $27) by John Lanchester, reads like a contemporary stab at the gothic austerity of dusty old ghost stories. Its centerpiece, “Signal,” which made a splash a few years back in the New Yorker, walks that line between gag and warning, the unsettling real estate of ghost stories. It tells the tale of a big old country house on New Year’s Eve and a strange man seen wandering through, unable to get a signal on his cellphone.
Yes, he’s a ghost.
Connecting with another person — dead, alive, etc. — is the great metaphor of ghost stories. So, no surprise, a new novel like “Reprieve” (Morrow, $28) feels haunted by the promise of a nation unable to see eye to eye. As Moreno’s protagonist often relates through pop references, characters in James Han Mattson’s absorbing book, set in the late ‘90s, are so steeped in violent horror movies, they rarely recognize what’s haunting the marginalized characters and people of color in their lives. The plot turns on a murder in an haunted attraction but legacies of hurt weigh heavier.
Same with “The Sentence” (Harper, $29) by Louise Erdrich, who won the Pulitzer for fiction earlier this year. This new one chews off a lot, because it’s set right now, in Minneapolis during the pandemic; the killing of George Floyd happens in real time to its protagonists. Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, features Native characters condescended to by sometimes well-meaning white characters, though the land itself, diversifying with Somali and Laotians, holds ghosts many more characters simply look past. The engine, though, is Flora, who dies on All Soul’s Day. She’s also — here’s the gag part of this ghost tale — the most annoying customer at a local bookstore. “At every event, she’d stay to the bitter end,” Erdrich writes. So when Flora dies, she continues to return to the store. “The last to leave. So in death as in life.”
What does this ghost want from us might seem like a minor question for an author as important as Erdrich, but again, she’s working important territory. Even a bestselling paperback as once ubiquitous (and really bad) as “The Amityville Horror” arrived here, summoning a so-called “ancient Indian burial ground,” noting the guilt beneath American ghost stories. No wonder some of our best contemporary ghost books are by Black women — Angela Flournoy’s “The Turner House,” Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing.” But then women in general often have a finer hand with ghosts than men. Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” might be one of three books I’d save from a fire. Chicago’s Gillian Flynn followed “Gone Girl” with “The Grownup,” a 2015 novella about a young fraudulent spirit medium who stumbles across real spirits. If the men in ghost stories tend to see a ghost as a challenge to the natural order, the women in a ghost story often become vessels for unaired resentment and potential. The mother in “The Upstairs House” (Harper, $27), Chicagoan Julia Fine’s unfairly overlooked novel from early this year, is struggling to connect with her newborn daughter. Until the long-dead children’s book author Margaret Wise Brown (“Goodnight Moon”) moves into her home.
Unpack that attic.
Or as Wharton once wrote in a ghost story: “The moon, swinging high above the battlements, sent a searching spear of light down into the guilty darkness of the well.”