≡ Menu

Narrative Nonfiction 5: Spooky Stories

nonfiction five button I’m not sure if Halloween ranks as my favorite holiday, but it’s definitely up in the top few. And the whole nature of Halloween lends itself to lots of good and spooky nonfiction. In honor of this awesome holiday, I’ve got a Narrative Nonfiction 5 list that I hope you’ll enjoy.

Stiff by Mary Roach

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Stiff by Mary Roach is a really fun and sometimes gross book. In it, Roach explores what happens when a person decides to donate their body to science after the die. While many go on to be donors for medical school classes, others are used as crash test dummies, for decomposition studies, or other feats of science. If you have a bit of a stomach, this is a great book. And it’s Halloween connection? Cadavers are sort of like zombies, right? (My Review)

Bonus: Mary Roach also wrote a book on ghosts, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, that I think would be totally appropriate on this list.

Ghost Hunters by Deborah Blum

Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death

I haven’t read Ghost Hunters by Deborah Blum, but I do know her well (she was a former professor), and have enjoyed all her other writing so far. In this book, Blum explores looks at a group of scientists and intellectuals who, around the turn of the century, tried to close the gap between religion and science at a time when these pursuits were heading in different directions.

I was hoping to get to read this book this month but ran out of time to get to it. Maybe next October, or sooner if I decide I just can’t wait. Ghosts are a big part of Halloween, so there you go.

Bonus: Blum’s most recent book The Poisoner’s Handbook is also a great read that could fit into this theme. Here’s my review.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

I think the best way to explain this book is just to quote directly from the back cover, which is so good I can’t possibly top it:

Genteel society ladies who compare notes on their husbands’ suicides. A hilariously foul-mouthed black drag queen. A voodoo priestess who works her roots in the graveyard at midnight. a morose inventor who owns a bottle of poison powerful enough to kill everyone in town. A prominent antiques dealer who hangs a Nazi flag from his window to disrupt the shooting of a movie. And a redneck gigolo whose conquests describe him as a “walking streak of sex.”

These are some of the real residents of Savannah, Georgia, a city whose eccentric mores are unerringly observed — and who dirty linen is gleefully aired — in this utterly irresistible book. At once a true-crime murder story and a hugely entertaining and deliciously perverse travelogue, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is as bracing and intoxicating as half-a-dozen mint juleps.

I’m about 170 pages in — at the murder! — and I can already tell you this book lives up to most of the hype from the back cover. The Halloween connection? Suicide! Murder! Voodoo! Scary stuff.

The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis

The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist’s Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis, and Magic

I found this book after doing a search for “nonfiction” and “zombies,” and I think it looks pretty good. Davis was a Harvard ethnobotanist who went on a number of field trips to Haiti to research zombification and zombies in Haitian culture in the 1980s.

While there, Davis also connected with Haitian society to explore the relationship between cults, secret societies, and the government. The book is described as more of a personal narrative than strictly academic account, which makes it a lot more appealing to me. And it connects to Halloween because of the zombies — spooooky.

Spellbound by Karen Palmer

Spellbound: Inside West Africa’s Witch Camps

This is book I just recently came across on the New York Times Book Bench Blog, and I’m glad I did because I the list felt incomplete without a narrative nonfiction book on witches. In Spellbound, journalist Karen Palmer goes to a West Africa’s witch camps, places where women accused of witchcraft are banished.

While Palmer initially believes the camps are places to send “troublesome” women, she begins to be taken in by stories she can’t explain. The book goes on to explore this phenomenon and what happens to women sent to these camps. I think this book is a little more serious than the others on this list, since the way she describes the witch camps is truly awful, but it sounds fascinating.

There you have it – some narrative nonfiction to enjoy during this spooky fall season. Any other suggestions for narrative nonfiction on ghosts, ghouls, witches, zombies, or other phantoms of the season?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) October 27, 2010, 7:35 am

    Once you’ve finished Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, you must make a trip to Savannah. Both THE book (as they call it in Savannah) and Savannah are fabulous.

    • Kim October 28, 2010, 5:05 pm

      Kathy: THE book, that’s funny! I would love to visit Savannah, it sounds like such a lovely city.

  • Man of la Book October 27, 2010, 8:29 am

    I’ve had “Stiff” on my shelf for a few months now, glad to see it’s worth the wait.

    I will definitely read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil before I go to Savannah (on the agenda for the next year or two).


    • Kim October 28, 2010, 5:06 pm

      Man of la Book: I think Stiff is a great book – a little gross at parts, but Roach has such a great writing style the humor helped me get past those parts.

  • Thomas at My Porch October 27, 2010, 12:58 pm

    Narrative non-fiction. I needed that phrase the other day but didn’t know it existed. I quite liked Stiff. I would like to be composted one day (or used for science…in whatever way my body would be useful).

    • Kim October 28, 2010, 5:07 pm

      Thomas: “Narrative nonfiction” might be my favorite description, but “literary journalism” or “creative nonfiction” also work. I tend to use them interchangeably, and there are many more terms than that.

      After I read Stiff I got it in my head that I’d like to be compost for a tree, which sounds weird but probably less gross than what happens when you’re just buried.

  • Stephanie October 27, 2010, 1:12 pm

    I’ve read both The Serpent and the Rainbow and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and found them fascinating. Stiff and Ghost Hunters sound intriguing too.

    • Kim October 28, 2010, 5:08 pm

      Stephanie: Oh good, I’m glad The Serpent and the Rainbow is good. It looked good to me, but I haven’t read it so couldn’t say for sure.

  • Stephanie October 27, 2010, 4:36 pm

    Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Stiff are both awesome books!

    • Kim October 28, 2010, 5:08 pm

      Stephanie: I JUST finished Midnight… and thought it was really awesome, which I’m so glad about!

  • Erin October 27, 2010, 4:38 pm

    What a fun list! I’ve only read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, but they all look interesting. Spook was going to be my contribution, but then I saw you’ve already listed it!

    • Kim October 28, 2010, 5:09 pm

      Erin: I haven’t read Spook, but I’m almost positive it would be good. It seemed like cheating to put two Mary Roach books on the list, so that one is extra 🙂

  • Lynne October 28, 2010, 9:34 am

    I thought Stiff was great. I still need to read more Roach books. All of these other titles you mentioned sound good, but especially Spellbound. (Of course I’m drawn to the synopsis of the most serious one…lol)

    • Kim October 28, 2010, 5:10 pm

      Lynne: Spellbound is the most serious, but I’m sort of drawn to it too. I think it’s interesting the ways that things we think of a myth or just stories have real significance in other cultures.

  • Trisha October 28, 2010, 7:09 pm

    I keep meaning to read Midnight… Clearly I have to get on that.

    • Kim October 31, 2010, 8:55 am

      Trisha: Yes, do it, it’s awesome!

  • Jenny October 30, 2010, 10:04 am

    I love Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil! John Berendt is brilliant at capturing the voices of the people he’s met in Savannah. The book slows down during the trial a bit, but still, I love it. Have you seen the film? The Lady Chablis plays herself and is exactly as fabulous as Berendt portrays her. 🙂

    • Kim October 31, 2010, 8:56 am

      Jenny: Yes, I think that’s exactly right – he gets every single voice so well that it’s easy to keep all the different people clearly in your brain. That can be really hard to do. I haven’t seen the movie, but I really want to. I hope it’s on Netflix!

  • Valerie November 4, 2010, 1:36 pm

    I first heard of THE book (haha) when “This Old House” did a renovation in Savannah, and they actually introduced the viewers to Chablis. Had to read it after that, and loved it. You are right, though, that it is a book about shallow characters, but very good reading!

    • Kim November 6, 2010, 7:51 pm

      Valerie: Lol, THE book, love that 🙂 I think I might watch the movie just to see The Lady Chablis, since she’s almost so outrageous that it’s hard to believe.

  • christa @ mental foodie November 7, 2010, 10:37 am

    I love narrative non-fiction! I enjoyed Stiff, and also Bonk. I also have The Poisoner’s Handbook on TBR. Husband listened to the audio book and liked it. My friend also lent me Garden of Good and Evil, and I can’t wait to read it!

    • Kim November 8, 2010, 8:28 pm

      Christa: Sounds like you have a lot of good books on your list. i think The Poisoner’s Handbook would be a lot of fun on audio.

  • Eva November 7, 2010, 6:18 pm

    As you know, I LOVE Ghost Hunters. I think I’m the only person who felt a bit meh about Midnight in the Garden, etc. But those last two on your list sound awesome: I hope my library has them!

    • Kim November 8, 2010, 8:30 pm

      Eva: I think Midnight in the Garden could be meh if you weren’t in the mood for it — there’s not a lot to it besides some of the great writing and characters, but it’s such a setting sort of book that worked for me.