Feb 15 2020

Duke Spooks: a Review of “Ghostly Tales of Mississippi” (2018)

Except for most of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work, some Hardy Boys, and a little Dick Tracy, a sprinkling of Edgar Allen Poe and Alfred Hitchcock mysteries series, and a couple of Goosebumps books—I didn’t read any Young Adult Fiction as a young adult (unless you think the 1992 NIV Student Edition of the Bible and 1984 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia qualify).

No Lovecraft in childhood. No Tolkien. No Stephen King (in book form). I did, however, read Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950) but none of its sequels, even though we had the whole series sitting right next to the encyclopedias. (And I’m too old for Harry Potter to have made an impression.)

So I don’t know if I’m an apt critic to comment on current young adult fiction like Jeff Duke’s Ghostly Tales of Mississippi (2018). I have, however, had no hesitation in writing about the most recent work that I’ve read in this genre: the first two books of Heidi. So in what follows, I hope not to disappoint.

Besides being young adult fiction, Duke’s book is certainly southern gothic in genre. But thankfully, its aromas contain none of the musty smells of imitation-disguised-as-influence so frequently found in writers who were repeatedly burdened by classroom-assigned readings of Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily (1930) and O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find (1953). Duke was taught by Barry Hannah (1942–2010), a highly revered writer, but one I’ve yet to read (so I can’t tell you how strong his influence on Duke is).

But the stories in Duke’s book do remind me of the things I as a child liked (and of which I was chased by the occasional nightmare) in the works of R. L. Stine. Most of the ghosts and witches that appear in Duke’s stories, however, don’t cause most of the characters they’re chasing or spooking much harm. Most of them….

I’m particularly appreciative how the title of each story in Ghostly Tales of Mississippi is of a particular place in that state. This detail is part of the book’s larger intention of weaving together an intricate pattern from various strands of local folklore, geography, and family mythology.

“Rosehill Cemetery (Brookhaven)” and “Cinema Theater at the Barnes Crossing Mall (Tupleo)” remain my two favorite stories. The first for its simplicity at rendering spookiness; the latter for its keen combination of nostalgia for playing Street Fighter II at an arcade, the vivid image of a phantom seen in the reflection of an arcade video game screen, and the very Kubrickian environment of a quiet, empty, cinema at night.

And there’s even a bit of Joyce in Duke’s collection of local tales; for his final story “Witchdance (Houston),” (Houston, Mississippi, of course), almost overpowers all the stories that came before it––very similar to the way “The Dead” does for the rest of the local tales in Dubliners (1914). But only almost.

View this post on Instagram

A random assortment #bookstagram

A post shared by Christopher Landrum (@bookbread2) on