Ghosts and culture
At last I’ve finished the book, after writing two “What do you think” pieces on the way. So now I can get down to an actual review.
I’ve moved the other two pieces to my blogs. First I was excited because the book mentioned as haunted places that I knew from my youth, or had actually visited. You can read that one here, if you like The missing ghosts in my life | Notes from underground.
The second one got me even more excited when the ghost turned out to be related to my wife. It’s quite something to have a family ghost. And you can read abou that one here The family ghost — it’s official! | Hayes & Greene family history.
And those were, for me, the most interesting things about the book. I have a couple of Arthur Goldstuck‘s earlier books on urban legends, and there’s something about them that applies to ghost stories too (apart from the fact that ghost stories are often themselves urban legends). The main interest in reading about urban legends is if you have heard them in the wild. And in the same way, ghost stories are interesting mainly if you know the places or the people concerned. Having the ghost actually related is a bonus.
But a long string of ghost stories, or non-ghost stories, tends to get boring rather quickly. The non-ghost stories are about places that are said to be haunted, but where no one actually claims to have seen a ghost, and there seem to be rather a lot of those, including the famed “spookhuis” in the Armscor grounds in Pretoria.
I found the most interesting parts of the book were the beginning and the end. The beginning told me some things about history that I didn’t know, and had some interesting information about Islamic ghost stories told by slaves in the Cape, which would include stories told by slave nannies to the master’s children, and so the conception of ghosts among Calvinist white Afrikaners was influenced by folktales from Muslim Indonesia.
The blurb makes much of the point that South African ghost stories are multicultural, as the different cultures influence one another, so I expected a bit more analysis and interpretation of some of the individual ghost stories, tracing the cultural influences and the different conceptions of ghosts, but there was little of that. At the end there was a potted description of how Judaism, Islam and different varieties of Christianity regard ghosts, but it too did not relate them to any individual stories. There were some quite interesting ghost stories written by children, and a description of Pinky-Pinky, a ghost that went viral among school children in the mid-1990s — a tokoloshe for the new South Africa, as Goldstuck puts it. That was one I hadn’t heard of, though our kids were still at school then.
So apart from the personal bits, I found the book a bit disappointing. If it hadn’t been for the personal bits, I’d probably have given two stars, but for them I give three.