Sunday, November 28, 2010

Spooky Virginia retold by S.E. Schlosser

Having been horribly disappointed by the two ghost story books I chose to read around Halloween (the one about Alaska that I reviews and a "classic" book from M.R. James that I found so boring I couldn't even bring myself to review it), I eagerly grabbed this one from the library shelf in the hopes of trying to find something better.

This was definitely something better. Let's start with the decision to use "retold" instead of claiming authorship over the stories. Almost any book of collected tales and legends is going to be an adaptation of oral tradition. If you are going to use the "by" label, then you need to have written them yourself. Better even than "edited by", I think retold is the way to go. After all, what Schlosser is doing carries on the grand tradition of those who came before her. This is just designed to reach a broader audience by writing them down.

The stories themselves felt warm and familiar to me. I don't know if I'd read or heard some of them before (that's quite possible, as I've been in love with ghost stories almost since I could read) or if we have a situation of similar stories playing out in different parts of the country. Either way, every page in this book was a welcome return to the kind of ghost story I like best--
haunting tales of things gone wrong, cruelty repaid, and horrors revisited again and again.

While the language is soft (there are no oaths or swear words in here), the tone can be quite brutal. People are skinned alive, bloodied before recognition, and dismembered, depending on the story. There are a few that are just sad, such as when a distressed lover dies and remains at his or her designated spot, and a few that are just tragic (the wreck of the old 96 is included). Overall, however, the tone is dark without being gory. It's just the right pitch, in my opinion, for these kinds of tales. The classic story was often the best--make it scary, but don't cause anyone to lose their dinner over the campfire or wood stove.

You have to have a love of folklore and oral tradition to get this book. The stories are all extremely short, and their endings are as predictable as a Pittsburgh Pirate losing season. You'll often know the clincher before it happens, but that's okay. The fun is not so much in the reveal as in the getting there. You either appreciate this or you don't, and which camp you fall into will determine how much you like (or don't like) the book.

The oddest thing about this collection is that, since these are older tales from the south, we have slaves mentioned here and there. I give a lot of credit to Schlosser for not sanitizing the stories that include, for better or worse, things we'd rather not think about as being established history.

Personal favorites for me was a Jack O' Lantern story that was one I hadn't heard before, a story of vampirism set in the backwoods, and one about a sticky finger bone. Each were well plotted and creepy in their own way. I'm sure you'll find your own favorites if you read this book.

I liked Spooky Virginia a lot, and am looking forward to seeking out more books in this series. If you're a fan of the classic campfire ghost story, you should look for this one and its companion volumes, too.

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