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Ambrose, Kala. Ghosthunting North Carolina. America’s Haunted Road Trip. Clerisy Press, 2011.
This was not the book I thought it was when I bought it (twice, accidentally). I thought it was about ghost hunter organizations in North Carolina. It’s not. I did find something like that, but I will review that book later in the month. And I did end up enjoying this book overall, but let’s address a few issues first.
So, what is this book? It’s basically a tour guide by a professional psychic of a selection of the most interesting and creepy paranormal sites in the state. I wasn’t especially thrilled at first to find out her profession. I found the introduction, where she went on at great length about her psychic abilities and such, very tedious.
It’s not that I don’t believe in ESP, etc., but these claims irritate me for a few reasons. First, there’s more than a little bragging involved about something that is really quite common (and often faked to make money). Lots of people have strange experiences with the supernatural or paranormal, or whatever you want to call it. I think there’s a strong probability that most people are “psychic” to some extent.
Second, it tends to Scooby-Doo folklore. I don’t see a whole lot of difference between dismissing a creepy feeling and strange noises in a house as drafts and bad plumbing, and dismissing it as a “vortex” or whatever New Age term sounds good. It’s still attempting to dismiss a mystery with an untested hypothesis.
Third, it tends to be culturally appropriative and sometimes bordering on racist. For example, I had my hopes up early on when Ambrose was talking about Somerset Plantation and the conditions for slaves there. Yay, finally some ghost storytelling that doesn’t fall for the usual Gone with the Wind mythologizing!
But then she fell into the same trap Tiya Miles talks about, where white tour guides in the dark tourism industry treat African Americans and their historical experiences as window dressing and entertainment for white people and their history. I can’t think of a single example in the entire book where she talked about black people except as slaves.
Especially disappointing was her repeated mentions of how slave conjure women may have used magic against their white masters, but she never gets into any details about that. And yes, that’s been researched. Remember the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans in Dixie Spirits? So, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that the only mention of the Tri-County area is a rather pallid description of Blount-Bridgers House in Tarboro that doesn’t even mention Miss Minerva and her tendency to run the house’s elevator in the wee hours.
It’s not all bad, though. One of the frustrating aspects of Ambrose’s gimmick (being a psychic writing a book about NC ghost stories) is that she does do a fair bit of research and travels to a lot of different places in the state. I mean, yeah, there are holes and she never mentions the Frank C. Brown Collection, but she does mention the Rhine Research Center and interviews a bunch of people at these different sites. I actually found her postscript about her research path a lot more interesting than her introduction about her psychic career. Yes, I’m a nerd.
She talks in the intro about how she’ll use her psychic abilities to find ghosts at these sites (while making the apt observation that most ghost experiences happen when you’re not expecting them). Then half the time, she doesn’t sense anything in these places, anyway. Yet, those chapters are usually still interesting because she did her homework. I get that the psychic bit is the gimmick to sell the book, but it detracts from the actual work she put into it.
The story I found most interesting by far comes late in the book. It’s about the 1906 massacre in Asheville (which I’d never heard of before) of five innocent people by an escaped convict named Will Harris. Seems Harris blew into town shortly after his prison break, looking for his “girlfriend.” There was a difference of opinion about that relationship status and she got her sister to tell him she’d left town.
Not believing the sister, he got drunk and took her hostage. When found out, he fled into the street, where he went on a shooting rampage that killed five people and a dog. Tracked down by a very large posse, he shot back at them and ended up full of holes. Classic pattern for a mass shooter. And it led directly to Asheville becoming a dry town for decades (some Temperance campaigners successfully blamed the massacre on Harris’ drinking).
One of the things Ambrose notes is that Harris kept shouting he was the Devil (this, of course, made my folklore research ears prick up). But even though she has a previous discussion in which she mentions (without scraping more than the surface) that NC has a lot of devilish folklore, she doesn’t connect the two.
What she does do is mention that there are shadow people hauntings (among others, like the sound of screaming) since the massacre. She connects this to discussion of previous dark entities at other sites in the book. In this recurring discussion she makes some good points about how violent and unhappy events can lead to a sinister atmosphere and scary hauntings. I think that’s a pretty good metaphor for the kind of history folklore most often preserves.
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