"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Book Review: "The Ghost Wore Black," by Chris Woodyard

Yes, Edgar endorses it, too.

Those of us who are humble chroniclers of The Weird are well aware that old newspaper files, particularly from the 19th century, are a treasure-trove of anomalies: ghosts, demons, creepy underwater things, even creepier flying things, and just-plain-unspeakable things lurking in old houses. A good many of these stories are hoaxes and still others products of sloppy reporting. However, a precious few have enough credibility to make the hunt through these long-forgotten news reports more than worthwhile.

Our modern era is generally divided into two bitterly antagonistic camps marked "closed-minded 'rationalist'" and "anything-goes credulity." In this respect, at least, we are very similar to the Victorian and Edwardian periods. As Chris Woodyard notes, the 19th century was a time when people wrestled "over and over with the question of superstition vs. experience." This is a dilemma that still faces us today, although far too many of us insist that "the mystery has been solved" one way or another. Thus, these old stories are not merely entertainment; they have something to teach us about our own strange company.

Woodyard has taken on the substantial job of "newsprint resurrectionist," peering into the dark, cobwebbed corners of newspaper morgues in order to separate the weird wheat from the cheesy chaff, discoveries that she regularly shares on the websites, "Haunted Ohio Books," and "Mrs. Daffodil Digresses." The latest book-length result of these Herculean endeavors is "The Ghost Wore Black."

"GWB" covers the full spectrum of spiritualist phenomena. Crabby spirits armed with lists of grievances against the living? Check. Death angels and banshees come to warn you that it's high time to get the will written and the tombstone carved? Check. Ghastly physical souvenirs left by visiting spooks? Check. Hoodoos that snare the unwary? But of course. Avenging phantoms of murder victims? You bet. Yankee rivals of the legendary Spring-heeled Jack?  Hell yes.  First-hand sightings of His Satanic Majesty himself? Need you ask?

Think the "Men in Black" are new curiosities spawned from our modern UFO era? Guess again. We even meet ancestors of the eeriest of recently-reported paranormal sightings: Spooky Black-Eyed Children, meet the sinister Daughters of Darkness. Woodyard also includes a section devoted to what we now call "Fortean" accounts: physical manifestations and spirit-sightings that do not easily fit into any traditional supernatural categories. All these tales are greatly enhanced by Woodyard's erudite annotations, which provide extremely useful historical context, as well as follow-up information,when available.

In short, "The Ghost Wore Black" is highly enjoyable reading, but even more importantly, these newspaper reports serve as a cache of primary source material dealing with an often-ignored aspect of American cultural history. Whether or not the stories found in this book can be believed, they represent a view of this world and the next that many people of the era wanted to believe.

[Note: Apparently the FTC, in its eternal wisdom, legally requires me to add the disclosure that I received a review copy of this book, with the assurance that the opinions expressed above are my own unbiased observations.  I frankly feel like a complete jackass for making this declaration--as if this is some BIG IMPORTANT WILDLY INFLUENTIAL SITE rather than some goofy little blog that gets fewer visitors than Robinson Crusoe. But that's bureaucracy for you.]

1 comment:

  1. Maybe, in the spirit of the blog, the FTC want your word that you aren't being guided by an otherworldly intelligence...

    More seriously, sort of, I like a book that gives sources for the stories it reports, rather than rehearsing rumours. Such rumours and stories are fun: I had a book that compiled stories of the strange, such as Humbert I, King of Italy, meeting a man who looked liked him, who eventually was killed the same day the king was assassinated - but the origins of the stories were never given. As you write, whether the stories may be believed is not really the point. The stories existed, were believed by some, and had some factual origin, if only the unexplained facts reported in a newspaper.


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