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Grave Goods

John P. O'Grady

The University of Utah Press

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-87480-681-X

Publication Date: 04-01-2001

147 Pages; $21.95

Date Reviewed: 10-16-02

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002



Non Fiction, Horror, General Fiction

07-02-02, 10-17-02

In a book world dominated by fiction, in an environment swamped with souped-up horror tales by bestselling authors, it's easy to forget that ghost stories started out as non-fiction. Cautionary tales, warnings, pleas to remain at home -- the horror story has been used by parents, teachers and politicians with far more frequency than even Stephen King can publish. There's also a long tradition of literary non-fictional horror stories, starting with the earliest myths and popping up more recently in works by writers as diverse as John Keel and John Douglas. In 'Grave Goods', John P. O'Grady stakes a claim on territory that's only apparently being rented by the writers of horror fiction. His essays and enjoyable anecdotes bring back the raconteur as the primary teller of tales, which if not completely true, at least contains the grains of truth, or teach a truth. He's eloquent, insightful and inventive where he needs to be. 'Grave Goods' is ample evidence that the future of horror need not be solely in fiction, and that horror need not be crass.

In a slight 147 pages, O'Grady manages to create a consistent world of language. There are 16 essays in the collection that cover a wide range of subjects and moods, but O'Grady's voice is a constant presence. He's definitely telling the tale and often part of the tales he tells. 'Dreams of Virginia Dare', which begins the book, sets out his chatty, suburban-legend format. In it, he tells about a college prank from his time in Maine in the 1970's that develops into a literal "witch hunt". In doing so, he covers the tale of Croatoan, Virginia Dare, a legendary campus bear, a self-made magician and perceptions of satanic panic. His voice is ingratiating and entertaining. Other essays cover a class assignment from Stephen King himself, boundary states and state boundaries, the problems of being psychic, or even just thinking you're psychic, lost beehives angry at their owner and philosophers on the graveyard watch at a graveyard in the process of being moved.

Despite the range of subjects he covers, O'Grady keeps the overall narrative flowing. There's no strong connecting theme other than a sort of weird or kooky feel, but O'Grady's writing voice slides easily from one conversation to the next. Sometimes he seems to try a little bit too hard to be likeable. He doesn't need to. When he's lost in his subject matter, his character studies of men obsessed by bees or the Tarot, his meditations on place and nature, he's extremely enjoyable to read. Fortunately for the reader, O'Grady is lost most of the time. He sidelines in a series of fascinating facts, kindly debunks the obviously deluded but shows respect for preserving mysteries that evoke truth and wonder.

Most of O'Grady's tales involve some element of the supernatural or the eccentric, and they have a plot-like flow that reminds one of the best campfire horror stories. These are indeed the perfect types of tales to tell around campfire, or in a small suburban bar. O'Grady warns but ever gently. It's not like he's pulling his punches though. He evokes images and events that are chilling, but then steps back to take a bit more academic view of these proceedings. You can practically hear his leather chair creaking as he leans forward to confide in you. He's not writing fiction. He's not writing facts to be documented and debated. He's telling you the truth as he sees it. You don't have to believe every word he writes, but they're all worth reading.