Review: Giving Up the Ghost

18 Jun

Nuzum, Eric. Giving Up the Ghost: A Story About Friendship, 80s Rock, A Lost Scrap of Paper, Giving Up the Ghostand What It Means to be Haunted. New York: Dial Press, 2012.

Growing up in Canton, Ohio, Eric Nuzum was convinced his house was haunted. He’d been plagued by vivid dreams of a ghostly little girl in a blue dress: every night she would appear and shriek gibberish at him, a feeling of fear and danger clinging to her. Mysterious thudding noises from the attic didn’t seem to help, and neither did the feeling that just beyond any closed door, someone was watching him.

Enter Laura Patterson. Eric and Laura were typical Rust Belt era misfits: they hung out in abandoned miniature golf courses, made each other mix tapes and went to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Laura was the only one there for Eric when his visions of the little ghost girl landed him in a psychiatric hospital. Predictably, the friendship fell apart after high school. Laura departed for New York, where her own life fell apart and ended prematurely.

Giving Up the Ghost is part memoir, part psychic investigation. The book is written in three narratives: in the first, Nuzum traces his history of ghost girl visions; the second, his friendship with Laura. In the third narrative, an adult Nuzum, still beset with visions of Laura, sets out on a quest to find out what it means to be haunted, visiting Clinton Road, a hotbed of miscellaneous paranormal activity in northern New Jersey; the Gettysburg battlefield; the upstate New York spiritualist community of Lily Dale; the Mansfield Reformatory, and ultimately, his childhood home.

Reading Giving Up the Ghost is a bit like listening to someone talk about their dreams: they’re obviously meaningful to the teller, but they don’t necessarily make sense to you. Nuzum’s ghost girl was unsettling and Laura’s fate was tragic, but the two never really seemed to intersect in a meaningful way, and the outcome of his modern-day ghost hunt narrative is so predictable (“I don’t believe that places are haunted, but I do believe that people are haunted”) that it would’ve been better to leave it out. Plus, the spooky and forlorn landscape of 1980s Northeast Ohio begs otherwise: from the abandoned Putt-O-Links at the opening of the story, to Laura and Eric’s hangout at the gas well, to the noose found dangling beneath an overpass in Cleveland’s Flats, it’s patently clear that places do seem to be just as haunted as people.

Still, it is hard to read the 1980s narrative without feeling sucker-punched back into one’s own turbulent adolescence. Teenage Laura and Eric are breathtakingly rendered with the furious jealousies and thrills, secrets and explosive anxieties that accompany all such loner friendships, even more so since Laura died young: frozen in time, she becomes a sort of post-punk Annabel Lee. Which makes us wonder uneasily about the objects of our forgotten obsessions and where they might be today.

At its heart, Giving Up the Ghost is a strange tale with a beginning but no end, one that reminds us that life isn’t a narrative construct – life is just life, and sometimes it just ends, with no meaning or moral.

–Christine Borne