Queer Hauntings: True Tales of Gay and Lesbian Ghosts – Ken Summers (Lethe Press)

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What really draws gay men and women to Halloween? Surface commentary tends toward “dressing up and acting out” and comes mostly from ourselves, but Mardi Gras hasn’t been co-opted to the same extent. Celebrating “otherness” and embracing the ironic liberation of wearing masks by a community that has worked all too hard to strip themselves of such psychologically weary
accoutrements bears study, but I think the reason is simple and raw: some of us are drawn back into the darkness. The
closet is a box of shadows as well as our childhood playground. After all, we grew up in there alone, among a field of tombstones engraved with the names of unrequited crushes or worse. So maybe we’ve a predilection to return to haunted spaces not for titillation but from a sense of familiarity: this is ournight-time language; we were fluent in fear well before we found any sense of “pride.”    

Ken Summers Queer Hauntings: True Tales of Gay and Lesbian Ghosts is written with all the aplomb of genuine research and reporting, with prose injected with just enough gothic poesy for it to hold its own on your typical spider web-strewn bookshelf stuffed with other such dark materials. If you haven’t read a nonfiction collection of ghost stories before, be forewarned: this is true to the genre, meaning you are getting a). historical background and b). the occurrence of said haunting with a pinch of irony thrown in, or not. There’s no typical story arc and tidy resolution. Much small town lore resides in such writing, and  Summers is an adroit craftsman on both fronts: the reportage is delivered in calm and meaningful dollops while the spectral experiences are compellingly conveyed.

Early kudos to the author by starting with Lizzie Borden –I didn’t know Lizzie was a lesbian; not giving proper mention to Lizzie’s long suspected half-brother seemed a slight oversight, though the focus on her lonely life after the murder of her parents and her sister’s total rejection of her once her homosexual affair became obvious illustrates the intense ostracism toward gays in the 19th Century. That the second chapter moved to storied Province Town and the early days of the AIDS epidemic warmed me to what was meant to be an autumnal read. Summers isn’t just ghost hunting here, episodes and elements of early, nearly forgotten gay culture are revealed in Queer Hauntings as well as brutal acts of prejudice. Readers with an interest in true crime will be particularly chilled.

The book is divided neatly into regions, ending with ghost stories from around the world with a (super)natural emphasis on the United Kingdom, home to so many crumbling manors and haunted halls that the author cannot be faulted for being a bit Anglo-centric when after all, London invented fog (and to think Oscar blamed the Impressionists, and before you ask, yes, he makes a spectral appearance in a capable but oddly quote-free chapter –why pass on repeating some Wilde witticisms?). Still, the author’s own lively queer sensibility make these tales of the deceased pop –titling a chapter about a Philadelphia gay bar with a haunted basement linked to the Underground Railroad “Slave to the Rhythm” might make some readers groan and others grin. Either way it keeps the pages turning. I was thrilled that there were more stories from New Jersey than New York, proof that the author dug deep, and the chapters dealing with the South were particularly interesting. The horror of the fire at the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans should be acknowledged and memorialized far and wide within the gay and lesbian community, while more individual but nonetheless tragic fates like the one that befell Bill Neville at the Royalty Theatre in Florida often fade from memory much too quickly.

There’s some great old Hollywood history in the Western States chapters, though the vague innuendo of “Who Haunts the ‘Houdini Mansion?’” is the only piece in the book that feels like its reaching. Liberace’s story made me want to revisit Las Vegas and dine in his restaurant, Tivoli Gardens, still open and quite haunted, apparently his glittery ghost is a rather needy queen –and Summers provides the address and available contact information for the locations covered in his book, making it a viable travel guide as well.

Queer Hauntings is a glowing success. It confirms that we must tell all of our stories, even the scary ones, for our history to survive. This book is the perfect tome for a cozy New England bed and breakfast read. And late at night, when the floorboards creak and you pull the covers up to your chin, there’s no guarantee that whatever is coming bears you malice –really, it’s what might still be knocking around in your own closet that’s cause for corporeal concern. 

Reviewed by Tom Cardamone

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