The best books narrated by ghosts

Who am I?

Sadie Hoagland teaches in Louisiana, where eight out of ten of her students believe in ghosts. She loves a good ghost story, where the ghost, too, is haunted. In her novel, Strange Children, the ghost of a murdered girl whose murder happens at the end of the book narrates the story leading up to her death. In her short story collection, American Grief in Four Stages, ghosts appear as mirages of grief, presences who only serve to further the absence. Fiction allows her to think about both embodiment and disembodiment, and what it really means to give a character a voice even if they can only talk to the reader.

I wrote...

Strange Children

By Sadie Hoagland,

Book cover of Strange Children

What is my book about?

In a polygamist commune in the desert, a sixteen-year-old boy and a twelve-year-old girl fall in love and consummate that love, breaking religious law. They are caught, and a year later, she gives birth to his father's child while the boy commits murder four hundred miles away--a crime that will slowly unravel the community.

Told by eight adolescent narrators, this is a story of how people use faith to justify cruelty, and how redemption can come from unexpected places. Though seemingly powerless in the face of their fundamentalist religion, these "strange children" shift into the central framework of their world as they come of age.

The books I picked & why

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By Toni Morrison,

Book cover of Beloved

Why this book?

I cannot talk about ghosts in books with pausing to give homage to the outstanding and heartbreaking story of Sethe and the ghost of her daughter, called Beloved after her gravestone, whom Sethe killed to spare her a life of torture and rape as a slave. An embodied, adult Beloved returns to Sethe, "a greedy ghost" that "needed lots of love, which is only natural, considering." Beloved only speaks in her own voice for a brief period in the book, and when she does we see her embodiment waver, she is both herself and others ("there is no place where I stop"), both a murdered daughter and a conglomeration of generations of suffering under slavery. Morrison's employment of a ghost seems only natural considering the story she tells, one that asks us to truly see the horrific conditions of slavery in the pure poetry of her prose.

Sing, Unburied, Sing

By Jesmyn Ward,

Book cover of Sing, Unburied, Sing

Why this book?

Reading a ghost talking in a book can sometimes feel just like a person talking to you. Or they can tell you strange, beautiful visions and show you the chasm between them and the living, like the ghost of Richie does in Sing, Unburied, Sing. The book ties the crippling poverty and systemic racism of today with the violent racialized past through Richie, who was a boy killed in a prison a generation ago. It’s a book that's almost viscerally uncomfortable to read as Ward asks us to bear real witness to her characters' suffering, but her prose is astounding and her language provides us the air we need to breathe in her story. Here’s an example of both what the dead see, and how strong the writing is as she describes a vision of a white snake: "It raised its white head in the air and swayed, and slowly, like paint dissolving in water, its scales turned black, row by row, until it was color of the space between the stars."

As I Lay Dying

By William Faulkner,

Book cover of As I Lay Dying

Why this book?

Addie Bundren, the matriarch of the family, is the ghost that haunts this narrative. While she is largely absent save her marked presence in the title, her death and the transportation of her body form the arc of the book, and she arrives in the narrative in the later sections to tell her story. She asserts that her father had told her "the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time," and it's true that her life does not seem remarkably different from her death. Her bitterness remains, and her narrative voice does not differ much at all from the Faulknerian voices of her living children, whose perspectives dominate the book. But in a book about the hardships of life, this similarity between life and death does not seem out of place.

Lincoln in the Bardo

By George Saunders,

Book cover of Lincoln in the Bardo

Why this book?

Ghosts are the story in this book, and they are haunted by the living. We rarely think about grief from the perspective of ghosts, but Saunders gives us spirits in woe who witness a grieving father—Lincoln—who dares to touch, to hold even, his young son's corpse and the heart breaks in layers. While bodies and embodiment shift in this piece, the voices do not and they echo both their own historical moment, the modernist style of James Joyce or TS Eliot in their multiplicity, and our own time, when the book was written. The Bardo, the world of ghosts that Saunders sets his story in, is reminiscent of a Hieronymous Bosch painting, and gives us ghosts who barter in suffering (a hunter who must cuddle all the animals he killed in his life), who learn what it means to inhabit each other's subjectivities, and who feel that terrible distance between them and the living.

The Lovely Bones

By Alice Sebold,

Book cover of The Lovely Bones

Why this book?

Our culture is too emotionally immune to murdered women and girls, our television programming saturated with young, female victims. While we become obsessed with finding their killers, we are rarely asked to empathize with the dead. But right from the first line of Sebold's book, the dead—in this case, Susie Salmon—have complete agency. Susie immediately tells us that she looks like all the other missing girls from that era, but also that she hated home ec, and wanted to be "thought of as literary." We watch her suffer the search for her killer, and follow her friends and family in their grief. Eventually the chasm between the living and dead seems to shimmer just enough for Susie to reach across it, to embody a friend and share a first kiss. Sebold asks us to really imagine all that is lost when we read those headlines about murdered girls.

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Interested in Mississippi, grief, and murders?

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