In the introduction to this new revised edition of a book that is almost twenty years old and was last seen propping up a computer monitor, paranormal investigators (and leaders of the new Ghostbusters squad) Erin Gilbert and Abby L. Yates admit “When we wrote the first edition we were young and green and full of Chinese takeout”. They also concede that the book might contain “one too many mentions of The X-Files – but, hey, it was the nineties.”
But if you’re expecting a completely tongue-in-cheek spoof of some po-faced paranormal textbook, you’ll be in for something of a surprise. In words that former Ghostbuster Egon Spengler might have used, ‘Ghosts From Our Past’ “is something of an anomaly.”
To start, the ladies describe how they met and where their obsession for all things spooky began: Erin, dubbed ‘Ghost Girl’ by her unforgiving classmates, tells the stomach-churning but oddly funny story of how she was haunted by the ghost of a crabby neighbour, an old lady who resembled Cruella de Vil and vomited blood like she was coughing up a hairball. Meanwhile, Abby was in search of leprechauns with her imaginary dog Zorp. When they eventually met each other in the school cafeteria and bonded over a discussion about astral projection, it was a force as powerful as crossing proton streams. Within moments they had founded the Metaphysical Examination Society, a club which was only ever destined to have two members.
But this is where ‘Ghosts From Our Past’ takes an interesting and unexpected turn, because instead of continuing the crazy story of Erin and Abby’s burgeoning career as ghostbusters, the book actually delivers a fairly accurate (albeit with comic asides) breakdown of the history of ‘real life’ paranormal investigation. The Fox Sisters – whose attempts to communicate with an entity called ‘Mr. Splitfoot’ ushered in the modern spiritualist era – get a pretty big mention, as do other well-known paranormal heavyweights like William James, Harry Price, Harry Houdini and The Ghost Club, which adopted a rigorous ‘men only’ policy that is beautifully punctured by Abby’s cute drawing of a Jane Austen-type trapped behind the familiar Ghostbusters ‘no entry’ logo.
The science stuff comes next, including an explanation of Abby and Erin’s Spectral Field Theory (“So new it’s still got that new theory smell”) and entries about psychokinetic energy, ectoplasm and ley lines that are worthy of a genuine paranormal primer. But there are gags concealed along the way, and by the time we reach the chapters on paratechnology and the classification of spooks, we’re back into more familiar Ghostbusters territory, even though the chapter on ‘Preparing for the Metaphysical Examination’ (ie. going on your first ghost hunt) does contain a lot of genuinely useful advice.
It’s actually Abby and Erin’s ghostbusting colleague Jillian Holtzmann who provides the too-brief chapter most fans will love – a look into the ghostbusting arsenal, with miniature blueprints of the new proton pack and ghost trap. But things get too cheesy when their receptionist Kevin writes a couple of pages, and confuses the Patrick Swayze movies ‘Ghost’ and ‘Road House’ in the question, “Why would a bar hire a ghost as a bouncer?” Please bring back Janine Melnitz, so she can slap this vacuous imposter-to-her-throne upside the head.
The whole volume is rounded off by a handy appendix containing a ‘Paranormal Quickstart Guide’, an ‘Is It a Ghost’ quiz and various other bits of indispensable documentation, including a waiver of liability if an investigation goes wrong.
It’s actually this last section that typifies what is both right and wrong about ‘Ghosts From Our Past’: it’s kind of a schizophrenic book that wants to be funny but also wants to take the subject of ghosts and paranormal science seriously, so that readers who are new to the field actually come away with some genuine knowledge. In many ways, that’s very true to the ‘Ghostbusters’ universe because part of the appeal of the movies is that they do treat paranormal science with a certain reverence. But, in this case, it means that the book doesn’t quite know what it wants to be and any fans who are expecting to laugh out loud or learn anything fun about the new movie will probably be left disappointed. More illustrations would also have been nice, especially pictures of the ghosts from the movies (which are conspicuously absent even in the Malevolent Case Studies chapter.)
On the other hand, as a serious paranormal study aid with a little bit of spoofing on the side, ‘Ghosts From Our Past’ works very well indeed. From that POV, it deserves a very strong recommend and a Slimer-friendly…
GHOSTS FROM OUR PAST: BOTH FIGURATIVELY AND
LITERALLY / AUTHORS: ANDREW SHAFFER, ERIN GILBERT, ABBY L. YATES / PUBLISHER:
THREE RIVERS PRESS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW