Friday, January 17, 2014

Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans, by Jeanne deLavigne

"No sensible person believes in spooks." -- from "The Magic of Aga Bab"

"He can laugh at supernatural things all he wants, but they gits you, jest the same." -- from "The Fountain Woman"

It's hard to imagine there was ever a time when ghost tours didn't crowd the corners of the French Quarter, but according to Frank de Caro, the idea of New Orleans as a particularly haunted city was popularized when Ghost Stories was first published in 1946. Aided, of course, by the indispensable, WPA-produced collection, Gumbo Ya-Ya, with which it shares a few stories -- although deLavigne's are more lavish in detail, especially when describing scenery, fabrics, and, yummm, French pastries.

Plenty of people still believe in ghosts, to judge by all those paranormal tv shows, but spectral behavior seems to have changed over the years. Many of these stories feature past events and places superimposing themselves over the contemporary reality -- so the room is suddenly filled, say, with a dinner party from the past. Even assuming this is strictly fiction, the way the metaphors work is pretty interesting, with the past continuing to have a "real" presence in the present. Nobody needs to hunt it down with electronic EVP recorders, because it's right there, interacting, mostly fairly directly, with the people and places that currently exist.

It seems clear that the past doesn't have that kind of ability anymore. deLavigne could write with the assumption that her audience had a certain familiarity with old tales and local history, and the folklore she was relating (and/or embellishing) is all dated to the alleged time period of the original tales, from 1776 to 1927. New Orleans is a place that's hung onto its history better than most of America has, but still, I doubt we could assume most modern folks have that kind of easy knowledge with the lore and personalities of previous centuries.

Because of that, if reading the Life of King Alfred was a reminder of what we've gained from modern life, Ghost Stories is a poignant reminder of what's been lost. 1946 is pretty near to us in the scheme of history, and yet the world she describes has been almost completely swept away. The idea of "the old Creoles" still hearing the ghost of Pere Dagobert singing "between the church and the cemetery" (p. 15) seems incredibly bygone.

Fortunately, this new edition, from the Louisiana State University Press, may revive some popular interest in the area's history, since I was in two separate NO bookstores in November when customers came in and asked for it by name.

Readers should be aware that the book betrays its time period of origin in some uncomfortable particulars: casual ethnic slurs, racial dialects, and stereotypes, mainly of African-Americans, but Italians as well. (Just like the original Nancy Drew books, I couldn't help thinking).

Some of the tales are also surprisingly gruesome. A lot of ghost stories and thrillers gloss over the fact that bodies decompose messily, but deLavigne sure doesn't. "Golden Slippers," for example, could practically be an episode of Tales from the Crypt, and there are plenty of ghost sightings accompanied by horrible stenches (in "The Twin Green Spirits," a bystander actually throws up from the smell), along with corpses that wind up "bloated and disfigured and horrible." (p. 162) 

On of my personal favorite aspects of these stories is that they're often set at very specific locations, sometimes down to the street addresses. Some are vaguer than others, and I was frustrated every time a cemetery was mentioned but unnamed, although I assume that the "Old St. Louis Cemetery" is St. Louis No. 1. And speaking of which, I'm particularly thrilled that the forward gives us photos of the author's tomb, in the St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery No. 1.

At any rate, I may use this as a guidebook to my own personal ghost tour on my next visit to New Orleans.

de Lavigne, Jeanne. Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans. Illustrations by Charles Richards; foreword by Frank de Caro. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013.

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