Barbara Smith,
Haunted Theaters
(Ghost House, 2002)

Barbara Smith seems determined to unearth every ghost story in the Western world. She has passed through haunted hotels, is gathering U.S. ghost stories region by region, and now has stopped for a visit in Haunted Theaters.

Those familiar with Smith's Ghost House series know what to expect. Haunted Theaters suffers from the same somewhat awkward writing that marked the previous books, as Smith bounces from narrative to interview format and back again with no clear direction. But the Ghost House books make a place for themselves as guidebooks, not short-story collections.

Haunted Theaters benefits from the same voracious research that fleshed out Haunted Hotels. Smith roams through America and Europe in search of ghost stories, however brief. This thoroughness results in odd story companions. The "Possessed Piano" of Unchagah Hall in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, fills out almost an entire chapter with one well-detailed story. The actual chapter of "Phantom Performances" is filled with one- and two-page accounts of ghosts who sound far more interesting, but presumably had less garrulous eyewitnesses. The Winter Garden Theatre's stable of ghosts takes up only two pages, perhaps because they haven't proven sufficiently interfering with the business of the living.

For all Smith's devotion to the ghost story, she seems unwilling to give them the detail that a good story would call for. The ghost Terris of the Adelphi Theatre has the best story, loaded with wronged souls, a mad murderer and fully seen spectres in period clothing. If the book were full of such classics, it would be worth owning as a story collection. Sadly, the bulk of the ghost stories are of "someone may have seen some lights flicker" variety, and Smith is unwilling to give her stories more drama than can be documented.

Haunted Theaters is not, ultimately, a very satisfying collection of ghost stories. But the careful research gives a good idea of where to seek your own spectral experiences.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 6 April 2003

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