Why do readers find ghost stories too haunting to put down?

I have noticed, at several bookstores, an entire row dedicated to tales about Michigan ghosts with titles like “Haunted Michigan: recent encounters with active spirits,” “Michigan’s Most Haunted: A Ghostly Guide to The Great Lakes State,” “Haunted Travels of Michigan: A Book and Web Interactive Experience,” “Ghosts and Legends of Michigan’s West Coast”... I could go on and on.

I started wondering why.

The covers (not necessarily of the books listed above) felt rushed together with the poorest quality digital art, sometimes comically so. The books seemed to have the overall lack of quality so common in self-publishing.

I asked Lloyd Wescoat of the bookstore Grandpa’s Barn in Copper Harbor why there seemed to be so many of these books and she responded, “Because they sell!”

Wescoat wasn’t offering them to be polite to local authors. She was, in fact, stocking them because of the strong market for ghost stories.

But I still wondered why.

Keith Taylor co-edited “Ghost Writers: Us Haunting Them,” a Wayne State University Press book that aimed for quality literature, with submissions from Nicholas Delbanco, Elizabeth Kostova, and 10 other respected Michigan authors. Taylor believes “people are interested in ghosts because we are all going to die. The idea of the ghost is the idea of life after death, and most of us like the idea of continuing in some way.”

Maybe these books simply tap deep psychological veins, the second of the Freudian drives of sex and death, which, by the way, might explain why romance and violence seem to be the heart and lungs of the bookselling industry—and why combining those two elements has created mega-sales for the likes of the “Twilight” series.

But with rare exceptions, such as Taylor’s anthology, many of these ghost stories seem to have bypassed an editor’s pen.

Taylor says books like these are “written quickly, to either titillate or tell an urgent personal story” and that they are “often intentionally on the level of the good campfire story.”

Perhaps it’s that campfire aesthetic that’s critical in understanding the success of these books. A crappy cover can come across as pulp fiction cool, the lack of editing as raw, maybe even contributing to the verisimilitude.

Let me give you an example of the opposite.

With revenues of nearly $4 billion, Penguin Random House controls more than 25 percent of the book business. Their release last year of “The Big Book of Ghost Stories” had a cover that I felt desperately tried to echo the pulp novels of yesteryear. The ploy felt inauthentic to me. The techniques of bad covers and bad writing that can arguably make ghost stories fun and accessible were part of the marketing campaign for “The Big Book of Ghost Stories” that I felt failed. I didn’t buy it. In more ways than one.

But I did buy Taylor’s anthology. And its cover is simple: The title in large white letters over black, as if the word GHOST on a cover is enough to sell books. One who opened it to its first pages would find Laura Kasischke’s “Ghost Anecdote,” which opens with:

When I was sixteen, I saw two girls, my age, slip through a fence in my backyard.

When I say slip, I mean that they did not walk through the fence, or climb over it. There was no gate or hole in the fence. It was chain link, the fence, and separated our yard from the Ratterinks’, and these girls walked across the backyard and slipped through it as if it didn’t exist.

When I called out, “Hey!” they turned to look at me, and then at each other, and then they disappeared.

And then the reader disappears into the book, into the story, into the questions of death and the supernatural.

I’ve always believed everyone is interested in the supernatural. Even the atheist. Especially the atheist. In fact, some atheists I’ve met seem to be the most concerned with and interested in the subject.

Ghost stories allow us to talk about death in a safe way. And to explore an emotion that often thrills us, as if the only thing we have to fear is the lack of fear itself.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Bruce Lahti
Fri, 12/06/2019 - 12:11am

Hey, Ron. You may never see this comment, but I'm "ghosting" it anyway. If I was only interested in the money I might make, I would have written my brother's story decades ago.