Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Book Review: Grave's End

As a semi-professional Halloweenie, I have to say I'm glad October is over. Sometimes I just get so saturated with all this ghost business. Endlessly researching ghost stories, forever looking at horror and paranormal websites to promote my book and tours, constantly dwelling on the paranormal -- it all becomes too much sometimes. As soon as October petered out and November swept in, I felt a decidedly fresh breath of air. So I can only imagine how tiresome it would be to have every damn day be Halloween in your house.

Poor Elaine Mercado, then. Grave's End is her story about a "true" haunting that occurred in her house from 1982 to 1995. Mercado felt a sensation of being watched as soon as she moved into the place. Her daughters also reported strange "suffocating" dreams and unexplained phenomena (water being thrown on them, hair clips being hurled at them, etc.) and saw eerie mists and flickering balls of glowing light bouncing around the ceiling. Mercado's then-husband remained tight-lipped about the whole thing, but after he moved out admitted to having had a few of those dreams himself.

Mercado comes across as a kind and reasonable if not-very-bright person. I don't mean to imply she lacks intelligence. She's a nurse, so she is capable and not stupid. But she comes across, in the book, as astonishingly slow-witted or perhaps obstinate, I can't quite decide. Either she really cannot make the connections between these strange happenings and a capital-h Haunting, or she is incredibly stubborn. For years the house shows clear and definite signs of being Very Haunted Indeed and she refuses not only to believe but even to understand what's happening to her. She takes a course on parapsychology at Kingsborough Community College and, because she cannot find anything in her textbook that exactly matches what is happening in her home, comes to the bizarre conclusion that she is not experiencing anything truly paranormal:

"I was glad to have read about other people in similar circumstances but in each story I found so much that was not related to what we were experiencing. We had such a "mix" of things in the house, such a jumble of seemingly disconnected phenomena. My studies in the paranormal left me with the feeling that there might be no way to resolve the problem plaguing my house."

Her strange incapacity for any kind of lateral thinking at all makes for a decidedly frustrating reading experience. It's really shocking it took her thirteen years to figure this shit out. It's also really shocking the way they discover things, like crawl spaces and "dirt rooms" in the cellar that they didn't even know existed. I'm like, "How did you not check out these things before you bought the house?!" They hadn't even looked in the basement when they bought the place! They hadn't even seen the furnace! Granted, there was an old couple living in the basement when they went to look at the place who were quite hostile and essentially blocked them from looking at these things, but still! They hadn't seen the furnace!

The other issue I have with the book is that she's no storyteller. I don't mind her straightforward, plain-spoken prose (even if I suspect she doesn't know the difference between tortuous and torturous). She's a layperson, not a professional writer. And indeed, her plain-speaking and, yes, skepticism, do add to the overall sense of horror in the book. But her pacing is completely off; the book is front-loaded with extraneous detail and then quite rushed at the end. Thirteen years of build-up is summarily undercut by a single chapter that takes place over the course of a single nine-hour period in which Hans Holzer and a fellow medium "cleanse" the house. After all that, the ghosts are banished in an afternoon.

I suppose this would be my major beef with the book. Well, that, and the fact that she fails to really get into any of the history of the neighborhood. I was looking forward to some investigative facts that would lend new insight into Gravesend. She does talk about some 19th century Dutch "settlers" who were trapped in a mine but fails to expand on any factual/historical details (also I'm not sure you'd use the term "settlers" for people living in Brooklyn in the 19th century). Also, I wish she hadn't dropped certain storylines, such as the embittered elderly couple who had to leave the house when she and her husband bought it. I was sure they'd come back.

Since it's generally a pretty breezy read, though, I have to forgive it many of its faults. Also, it's a great little slice of NYC history, in its own way. Most importantly, the book does deliver the chills. One scene in particular stays with me. Elaine and her daughters give a house party (for Halloween, no less) and one of her co-workers who is sensitive to all things psychic is basically stopped in her proverbial tracks as soon as she enters the house. "There's a tiny woman in a wedding dress under your stairs," she says. "She's crying." The week before, Elaine had found an old, yellowed size-four wedding dress in the crawl space beneath the stairs. For some reason, that image really got me.

And hell, something -- a plastic bag, I think -- rustled in my closet just now and I fucking froze in my seat. So that's hubris for ya: just when you think you're so clever, it happens to you. And then everything's different, isn't it? Suddenly you're no so smart anymore. I think that's the real lesson I'm going to take away from Grave's End. Be humble, and check your crawl space.

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