NON-FICTION//The Ghost: A Cultural History- Susan Owens


Sometimes a book promises great things- and a book that takes a look at how we have perceived the idea of ghosts in our culture since the time of Beowulf had the potential to be a fascinating read. Naturally, I started it in October in preparation for the darker evenings and Hallowe’en. We all love a ghost story, right?

The book takes us through a British view of ghosts and spirits through literature, art and drama from the start of the English language via the saints, Shakespeare and the Pre-Raphaelites, with detours through Hogarth and Blake, modern art and the recent ‘silent ghosts’ of the 14-18 Now project. Each section explores how different times in society shaped the way we see the dead and the afterlife, with religion and technology having a huge impact on something that we all know well; death is a part of all our lives and we all have someone we wish we could see again. This longing is universal and something that people have dealt with for centuries.

This range of subjects is fascinating but it means that the book often feels dense but with no real in-depth exploration of how each portrayal moved the overall way ghosts were viewed. I’m used to reading academic books (for fun!), but this book occasionally veered into dryness. I also would have liked more about the Irish/Welsh/Scottish traditions, as I know that there’s a whole rich mythology that could have been explored- but maybe that’s another book.

This is a book that promised much, but that was a hard read. It’s a shame because an accessible history of ghosts and death could have been so informative and interesting.

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