The Field Guide to North American Hauntings by W. Haden Blackman
In my first book review, I reviewed The Field Guide to North American Monsters, by W. Haden Blackman. This is a companion of sorts to that “field guide,” with this one dealing with ghosts and hauntings, obviously. The Field Guide to North American Hauntings covers well known ghosts and hauntings such as the Amityville “Horror”, as well as little-known local specters. This review will be very similar to the previous Field Guide… review. The books are very similar, so I decided to keep the reviews very similar.
The book, as the title implies, is really a reference guide, covering such general categories as True Haunted Houses, Haunted Vessels and Phantom Craft, Haunted Cemeteries and Burial Sites, Natural Haunts, Other Haunted Sites, as well as a detailed section of appendices entitled “Ghost Hunting.” Again, the focus of the book is North America, so no Scottish castles or haunted moors are mentioned.
The overall layout of the book also is implied by the title. It is set up like a field guide, as if the reader was going to take this with them when they went visiting selected haunted houses. And while the facts and narrative presented for each ghost’s description are largely accurate, it’s also done a little bit tongue-in-cheek. Entries warn the reader about being respectful to the ghosts, not startling them, bringing a priest, and the best times of day for spotting them. This kind of humor is used throughout the book, just as it was in The Field Guide to North American Monsters, and again I found myself chuckling more than a few times. But then again, that’s my kind of humor. To give you an idea of what I mean, here is the author’s little bio, from the back cover:
W. Haden Blackman is a corporeal spirit haunting portions of San Francisco, where he manifests to serve a prominent computer game company. He rarely appears during the day, cannot be photographed, and is easily repelled by the sight of religious artifacts.
(Just as an aside, the “prominent computer game company” he mentions is LucasArts, creators of, among other things, the Star Wars games.)
Honestly, for The Field Guide to North American Monsters, I didn’t mind the tongue-in-cheek tone of the book. That’s really what gives it its charm. Each monster entry starts with a brief summary of its vital statistics, including distinguishing features, height & weight (approximate, of course), range & habitat, population size, diet, behavior, and chance of encountering the creature. A narrative follows the vital statistics, including some of the more well-known stories regarding the monster in question. But it just doesn’t quite work as well with this book. A “nature field guide” for monsters is funny. You can almost imagine going out into the Pacific Northwest to do some “Bigfoot watching.” After all, if they do exist, they’re just animals, same as birds or what have you. But for ghosts, it just doesn’t seem as clever.
The guide ends with some interesting appendices, including a sample questionnaire for ghost witnesses, as well as one for ghosts(!); a state & province listing which is great for seeing, at a glance, which states harbor which spooks; and the requisite glossary of terms and bibliography.
The Good: Lots of the famous hauntings in here, from Amityville, to the Winchester Mystery house, as well as lesser-known haunted places, such as the Conference House (a favorite of mine). Also, many of the entries have a related picture, to help you better visualize the spooky scenery.
The Bad: Just like The Field Guide to North American Monsters, there’s not too much you could say against this book. The tongue-in-cheek humor is a little detrimental in the big scheme of things, I think. Skeptics could pounce all over that, and I’m surprised there hasn’t been more made of this. It’s very hard to get the scientific community to look at these phenomena in a serious light to begin with. This book doesn’t help the cause of the believers. But then again, that’s not it’s intention.
The Ugly: Some of the ghosts in here are known hoaxes, which I think hurts the book’s overall integrity. Things such as Amityville and the Winchester House (which is unusual to be sure, but only because Sarah Winchester thought it was haunted), don’t really belong in a book about supposedly real haunts.
The Bottom Line: Overall, I just didn’t get the same giddy feeling from The Field Guide to North American Hauntings as I did from The Field Guide to North American Monsters. Monsters are a prime target for satire, and a field guide felt perfect. Here, it feels a little forced. It’s still a good book, by a good author, and if you like the silly yet subversive humor as I do, it’s worth checking out.
Final Score: 85%