Barbara Smith,
Ghost Stories of the Sea
(Ghost House, 2003)

I live too far from the ocean, and I've never owned a boat. I've spent little time at sea and wouldn't know how to sail if I were plopped down on a yacht. And yet, I have a nautical frame of mind, and I devour naval tales with a passion.

I also have enjoyed ghost stories for many years, so Barbara Smith's book, Ghost Stories of the Sea, seemed a natural fit.

It was, all in all, a pleasant enough read. There are quite a few good yarns here. But it didn't satisfy my love of both the nautical and haunted genres nearly as much as I'd hoped.

Many of the tales simply don't fit within the scope of the title. "Buried Boat," for instance, tells the story of a man building a private dock on the St. Lawrence River back in 1922. While workers were digging piling holes, they found a well-preserved, although fire-damaged boat -- maybe 150 years old -- buried in the mud. Odd, maybe. Haunted? Scary? No, Barbara, it's just an old boat.

In other cases, the author tries to make stuff that's just not scary sound terrifying -- or she refuses to accept evidence that contradicts her version of events. For example, "Haunted Rock," in which a ghost of a woman allegedly walks a small island near the Bahamas in search of her lost child, is also filled with vague, unfrightening details. A lighthouse keeper at one point decided to have the island blessed. "Some say the exorcism was a success," Smith writes. "Others say that it was not so, that the cleansing ritual did not free the ghost from her terrible visits."

Terrible? Heck, the ghost at her worst was just walking along, looking for her kid. No one was hurt, so what's so terrible? Then, Smith ramps up the speculation by telling us that two men vanished on the island in 1969. She asks: Was the ghost involved? Was it UFOs? We just don't know! Oh, come on.

It gets worse. In "Yesterday's News," Smith crafts a genuinely creepy tale about an insane spirit that repeatedly extinguished the lighthouse beacons at Fort Monroe on the Chesapeake. Then she reveals the truth -- "that the ghost was not, in fact, a ghost at all but rather a deranged soldier who had escaped from the Fort's hospital."

Fair enough. No ghost. But Smith isn't content to let the matter lie. Not everyone believes the soldier was real, she writes, preferring to accept the ghost story over the flesh-and-blood alternative. "If you wish to determine which of the two theories you think is correct," she adds, "you can visit the beacon." Proving what?

These are just a few examples among many where Smith tries to make something out of thin air. I guess that happens sometimes when you're dealing with ghosts -- but at least try not to be so transparent! (See what I did there?)

I don't want to be too hard on Smith. She obviously enjoys telling these stories, and some are legitimately chilling. In many cases, I wish she'd provided more actual facts -- specific dates and places, names of people involved, if for no other reason than it helps make the stories feel real. Instead of presenting a body of serious research on the supernatural, she goes more for the feeling of a campfire storyteller -- atmosphere over substance.

If you like that sort of thing -- and if you enjoy stories that are related to the sea -- then by all means give this book a read. There are worse books, by far.

book review by
Tom Knapp

16 November 2013

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