Facing the fear through fiction

’Tis the season when thoughts inevitably turn to Halloween. For some, this means delightful dressing up, pumpkins, and candy. For others, gigantic skeletons, gravestones, and other spooky paraphernalia suddenly appear in their front gardens. These appear to be the two sides of the supernatural—a source of fascination offering either a frisson of fear, or a celebration of a reassuring afterlife. Witches and magic, two other popular Halloween tropes, can go either way.

As for me, I can live without imaginary horrors—life is tricky enough. Give me the treats instead.

As I look around at my friends’ recent book releases, I realize that there are more books referencing the spirit world than I’ve seen in a long time. I can’t account for this sudden increase in interest. Some, like mine, feature a friendly if somewhat clueless ghost. Among other new books are those narrated by the dearly departed, or that involve a character who, despite any logical reason for doing so, senses evidence of a crime through an artifact of some kind.

Those who enjoy (if that’s the word) the horror genre claim it’s a form of catharsis, a way of dealing with horrible personal experiences. Their reassurance is in knowing evil can be vanquished.

But the other kind of supernatural fiction doesn’t fall readily into the “paranormal” or scary category. In the books I’m thinking about, these ghostly presences are benign—they aren’t there to haunt, but to help, the living.

Take Donna Norman Carbone’s new novel, All That is Sacred. It’s narrated by a woman who’s died but has unfinished business she needs to resolve before she can be at peace. Watching her figure out ways to do that without frightening her friends makes it a reassuring read.

In Barbara Davis’s latest novel, The Echo of Old Books, rare-book dealer Ashlyn Greer can feel the echoes of a book’s previous owner—an emotional fingerprint only she can read. When she discovers two apparently unpublished books, she finds herself obsessed with the tragic romance they describe from two different points of view.

Sandra Young’s Divine Vintage tells a story about a woman who owns a vintage clothing store. She discovers, as she tries on an elegant Edwardian gown, part of a trousseau, that she’s sensing the evidence of a century-old murder. Visions—seen through the eyes of the murdered bride—dispute local lore claiming the bridegroom committed the crime, and she sets out to discover the truth.

And Janie Emaus’s brand-new The Advice Columnist has yet another take on the other-worldly. Nobody knows the right words to help Joannie—who’s been an advice columnist for thirty years. After she’s laid off and the rest of her life begins to fall apart, she’s bombarded with texts, emails, and calls from her younger self, and has to decide whether to take advice from the Joannie of thirty years before.

Finally, Kimberly Sullivan’s upcoming novel, Rome’s Last Noble Palace, is a dual-timeline novel that takes place in the palazzo of the title. A young American woman, there to work, is certain she feels a ghostly presence in her attic bedroom, and must unravel the mystery behind the haunting before something similar happens to her. A page-turner of a book.

All these books offer intriguing ways of dealing with today’s issues. I have a feeling many of them were written, or begun, during the lockdown of 2020-21, and I wonder whether they’re a response to the uncertainty of that time. Life seemed even more precarious then, because the world was living with a situation completely new to us and beyond our control. Perhaps this was a way of reassuring ourselves that no matter what, things would work out for the best in the end.

In my own case, my friends’ questions about where I thought people might be after they died if I didn’t believe in heaven, required an answer. My reply has always been that I believe those we love live on in our hearts, and I know I’m not the only one who converses with their dead relatives. I can still hear my sister giving me unsolicited fashion advice…

In my book, A Beginner’s Guide to Starting Over, my widowed main character, Molly, talks to her late husband Simon in her head—until the day he shows up in her kitchen to help her find a replacement for him, who won’t be as good, but will do.

If you find this burgeoning phenomenon of interest, you’re not alone. So, if you’re looking for a friendly spirit to spend some time with, you could do worse than to read one of these books!

Happy Halloween!

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