The Ghosts that Talk

ghost stories
Ghosts in history first rose to my notice with Jaime Lee Moyer’s atmospheric, tense series beginning with Delia’s Shadow , set in San Francisco toward the end of World War I.

This period coincides with the height of the Spiritualism movement, popular both in the USA and the UK; many famous people were associated with it, Arthur Conan Doyle as an enthusiastic supporter, and Harry Houdini as an equally enthusiastic debunker.

Moyer does a great job with evoking time and place, both realistic details and the spooky sort. The subsequent books, A Barricade in Hell,  and Against a Brightening Sky,  cover the end of the war and the Bolshevik Revolution respectively, bringing in imperial Romanov ghosts to accelerate the dire doings in this world and the next.

Moyer 3

I loved how Moyer built her series around a married couple who communicate with each other—all readers are different, but I don’t like bickering couples who never resolve their issues, especially when the world is going to hell around them. You know Delia, who sees ghosts, and Gabe, who is part of the San Francisco Police, will always have each other’s back.

A beautifully developed couple—not quite married, but engaged—is central to Mary Robinette Kowal’s soon-to-be-released Ghost Talkers,  which I describe in more detail at Goodreads.

Briefly, I loved this book; I loved the clever twist that made the Ghost Talkers work in the World War I context, I loved the unpredictable twists, the characters, and above all I loved the relationship between the central pair; Kowal gives us a beautifully poignant tale, with moments of tenderness, laughter, and exhilaration as well as tension and profound awareness of the horrible cost of this war. I really look forward to seeing where she takes it next.

When another ghost book showed up in my NetGalley queue, Rysa Walker’s Delphi Effect (a terrific, exciting YA novel set a few years in the future) I began thinking about why these ghost stories work for me so well.

lily dale

I’m not into the horror ghosts, eviscerative poltergeists, evil things possessing the living, and so forth. The ghosts that show up in stories I like are people trying to be people however they can, and that includes connecting with other people. When we’re not murdering one another, we are very gregarious animals.

As Christine Wicker notes in her sympathetic, often acerbic, journalistic exploration  into the Spiritualist town Lily Dale, aside from the table rockers and spoon benders and those seeking riches with some help from the supernatural, most people want connection with loved ones.

Our lives are so messy, and they become messier when death interrupts; so many of these stories, fiction or personal relation, are about finishing. Business, justice, conversations. Aren’t the very best relationships of our lives conversations that we never want to end?

Ghost stories are also stories, that is, they connect us with the past, as well as give us that thrill of the weird. Then there’s the puzzle aspect, that sense that we don’t know everything after all, and one thing we humans enjoy besides speculation is puzzle-solving.

I enjoy ghost stories like these because of the way the authors work with emotional connections. How about you? Read any ghost stories that you recommend?

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The Ghosts that Talk — 22 Comments

  1. I always thought anything with ghosts had to be horror, so I always avoided books and films, until I was babysitting back in the seventies, and saw The Ghost and Mrs. Muir on TV. I discovered then that ghost stories could be romantic and emotional without being just all horror all the time.

    After that I was on the lookout. My mother told me about a TV show called Topper–a comedy about ghosts. Hard to find now, though.

    • I vaguely remember TOPPER when I was a kid. In those days, we watched what the parents watched, except early morning TV before the parents woke up. I think Topper might have briefly been on then.

      I saw THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR way back in the sixties, I think, and loved it–and my daughter saw it on TCM or AMC a decade or two ago, and loved it.

  2. I’ve read some books that have interaction with ghosts and shades, and where ghosts become secondary characters in the stories. Urban fantasy, mostly.

    Nothing that sounds as charming as what you’ve mentioned, though, so I won’t recommend.

    But I do look forward to checking out the books you mentioned.

  3. Based upon your recommendation I just ordered Delia’s Shadow for my Nook. I like gentle ghost stories. My few encounters with ghosts have been of the need for connection in order to finish something. This sounds like my cup of tea.

    • Well. . . this is not gentle, though it’s not horror. It’s taut, atmospheric, with excellent historical chops, but a lot of violence. It’s at the far end of my own spectrum (I stop at horror).

      I hope you enjoy it–but you might read it when you’re in the mood for murder mysteries with that supernatural element.

      I myself am always on the lookout for gentle, slightly humorous–as pointed out above, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” type ghost stories.

  4. I read with total delight at 16 (although a little less later on when I became more jaded) TRYST by Elswyth Thane. The ghost part was fairly predictable, but the part that keeps pulling me back is the fact that the ghost amassed an entire roomful of books that he gets to come back to, as well as the girl who discovers the books in his absence. It is lovingly described in some detail–actually the house and garden might be said to be another character, along with the sympathetic housekeeper. (Tea in the garden under a huge tree! Kipling read sitting on a windowseat looking down on the garden! I’d still opt for that.)

  5. Hmmmm. . . Maybe This Time by Jennifer Crusie is not pure horror but the ghosts are certainly on the creepy side.

    On the other hand I can offer:
    The King in the Window by Adam Gopnik
    A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz
    The Court of Stone Children by Eleanor Cameron
    and of course
    The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

  6. I like amusing helpful ghosts like the ones in Topper and the Ghost and Mrs. Muir. I saw the movie, too, with Gene Tierney, I think. Who was the actor in the TV series. I seem to recall that I and my friends were all in love with the ghost.

  7. I looked it up. Edward Mulhere–interestingly he played Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady as well.

  8. My most often reread book-with-ghost, Nancy Atherton’s ‘Aunt Dimity’s Death,’ would probably be categorized in the most cozy fringes of cozy mysteries. I am one of those people who reads mysteries for characters & setting, hoping for as little violence as possible, so — be warned if you consider murder obligatory in the genre. This one is probably about ‘Ghost & Mrs. Muir’ level. The heroine, who is still struggling after her mother’s death, originally has no idea that the Aunt Dimity in her mother’s bedtime stories really lived in WWII England.

  9. Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s A Red Heart of Memories and Past the Size of Dreaming. There are other stories connected to these novels, but I don’t know all of them.

    Some people (like me) say that her stories often remind them of Zenna Henderson–very humanistic, if that makes any sense–people are generally positive and…nice in the best way possible.

  10. Court of the Stone Children was the first one I thought of. And I loved the first two Aunt Dimity books, though after that I lost interest. There’s also A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle, and The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones.