Sam Baltrusis,
Ghosts of Salem: Haunts of the Witch City
(History Press, 2014)

After many visits to Salem, Massachusetts, it was startling to realize, while browsing in a lovely bookstore in the heart of the pedestrian mall on Essex Street, that I owned not a single book on Salem ghost stories. I had to pick one up, and Ghosts of Salem: Haunts of the Witch City, by Sam Baltrusis, seemed a likely choice.

The slim volume satisfied although -- let's be honest, here -- I expected a little more spookiness from a city steeped in the Halloweeny exploitation of its witch-trial past.

Baltrusis seems to have done his research, citing various sources and conducting some interviews of his own. He seems to have some enthusiasm for the topic, which comes across in his writing. Unfortunately, the stories he tells are pretty bland. Someone maybe saw something, a figure they can't explain. Somebody felt something brush up against them in a dark room. No one's sure where a noise came from.

But nothing to raise even a few goosebumps is forthcoming.

Baltrusis also commits one of the cardinal sins of ghost books: He makes vague references to specific hauntings without providing many details or even a source for his information. An example: In the chapter on the supposedly haunted Salem Inn, he says a female apparition there is called Catherine. By whom? Why? Did a woman named Catherine die there? What were the circumstances? Have many people seen her? Baltrusis doesn't say, he just wants us to know there's a female ghost, and her name might be Catherine.

I expect more from my ghost stories. I'm not expecting absolute proof, but at least make an effort to gather some details.

He also makes promises he doesn't keep. In the chapter on the Witch House -- which, since it stood during the 1692 witch trials and housed a notorious magistrate, Jonathan Corwin, who helped condemn the accused witches to death, might actually have good reasons to be haunted -- Baltrusis tells us a team from the Travel Channel's Ghost Adventures series spent a night there to investigate the premises. As soon as the team walked into the house, he says, "all hell broke loose."

I read on, eagerly, looking for details of paranormal mayhem. But no. A microphone battery died unexpectedly. A recording taken at the scene purports to capture the sound of a child humming. The team thinks they hear the name "Mary" and the word "apple" repeated several times.

That, my friends, is what hell breaking loose must sound like.

Witch trials notwithstanding, Salem has no more reason to be haunted than any other city where people have lived and died. But given Salem's history and the image it so carefully cultivates today, one expects a little more zest to a collection of Salem ghost stories. Unfortunately, this is pretty tame stuff.

book review by
Tom Knapp

9 September 2017

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