As scientific as we may wish to be, there’s no denying that there is a sense of place. We know that some animals, at least, also feel it. Whether theirs is a more pragmatic desire to return to where conditions were favorable to be born, or whether something deeper draws them there, we have no way of knowing. People feel it too, this sense of place. We know where we’re from, and if we don’t we often want to find out. The space is somehow part of us. There’s a compelling exploration of this in Judith Richardson’s Possessions: The History and Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley. While not America’s first haunted location, the Hudson Valley was singled out for this treatment by Washington Irving. He, however, didn’t invent it.
I’m not from the Hudson Valley. I could never afford to live there. That doesn’t mean the area can’t speak to me. Richardson’s approach is academic yet readable and she considers how hauntings fill needs and how they play a role in that ever-contentious enterprise of land claims. Ranging through literary treatments, whether the fiction of Irving or tour books of the next generation, or indeed, more recent literary efforts, Richardson deftly guides the reader through American Indian and Dutch and other inhabitants’ stories of themselves. Race inevitably plays a part, and her tracing of the origins of some traditional tales is really remarkable. Who owns the land? Who truly owns anything?
Similar treatments (I can’t help but feel somehow lesser) must exist of other haunted locations. Richardson doesn’t engage in arguments over whether ghosts are factual since ghosts serve so many other functions. Our lives are the stories we tell about ourselves. Many of those tales involve the place we are or places we’ve been. In our highly mobile society, few of us, it seems, can make a living where we’re from. Those of us born in small towns range far and wide to find employment. In many cases we may not want to go live where the drama of our childhoods unfolded. Yes, there are pleasant memories there, but there are also ghosts. Richardson explores how this plays out in one small stretch of the country. Indeed, it’s a small stretch of New York state. Stories of hauntings continue in that particular valley. Uncanny, perhaps, but there are places in this world like that, and this book is a sure road post on this particular overgrown trail.