Neither Ghostly nor Gripping: ‘Guestbook: Ghost Stories’

2.5 Stars

“Guestbook: Ghost Stories” proudly claims on its back cover that this collage of images, listings, quasi-Instagram pictures, and one-page short stories “explores the visitations that haunt us in the midst of life, and reinvents the very way we narrate experience.” This statement is true: Even flipping through the pages produces a kind of eeriness in the reader — one tinged with an uncertainty entirely unrelated to the ghost stories themselves. Instead, the reader is led through a maze of disjointed collections of images and prose that should evoke a sense of hauntedness but instead fall flat. The familiarity of the imagery — seeing as it seeks to capture the mundane moments that make up our daily lives — lacks enough clarification to inspire the strangeness that author Leanne Shapton is going for, leaving the reader to flip through the pages in confusion.

There are good moments, however. Shapton, one of the authors of “Women in Clothes” along with Sheila Heti and Heidi Julavits, presents a story called “Billy Byron” in the early pages of the book. “Billy Byron” follows the tennis prodigy from birth through his depression and rise to fame. The story ends with his implied suicide in a way that is both poignant and jarring. Shapton marries photographs from throughout his life with captions that keep the eye moving continuously. This rapid progression creates an anticipation that propels the story towards its end. “Billy Byron,” and other chapters — if they can indeed be called such — remind 21st century readers the importance of an image and how much people, even in an Instagram-saturated world, are hungry for images that transcend their time and touch them in ways that require prolonged scrutiny, instead of cursory double-taps.

“Peele House” is likely the most haunting of all the chapters and is an excellent example of the theme Shapton fails to capture throughout many of the others. Peele House, built in New York in 1931, appears in multiple photographs as the house passed from owner to owner, perhaps because more than one woman suffered a miscarriage there while many others reported strange noises and leaking water with no apparent source. The black and white photos, as well as their captions, are ethereal and remind the reader of what is so unsettling about old, creaky houses: a sense of being watched.

Other highlights of this collection include a curation of “Instagram photos,” called such because of the varying number of likes below each one, and a perfect description of shyness:“I’d always thought she was chilly, but when we were sat next to each other at dinner and got to talking about books and people we both knew, I realized her shyness was the blurry, foggy kind — reserved, but not cold." “Georgehythe Place,” a short photo-illustration of a family living in the chapter’s namesake mansion, has its fair share of eerie deaths and mysteriously unidentifiable “water stains,” while a beautiful array of vintage dresses accompanies a short description of how the woman who bought it felt when she wore it or first looked at it. These chapters all act as curations of the images that have an inexplicable power to touch the viewer. Collected together and told as part of a larger narrative, they are truly striking in both their ability to capture a lost past and maintain the curiosity of a contemporary reader.

The confusing bits, however, are just that: confusing. Unfortunately, they occur often enough to bury the otherwise compelling parts of “Guestbook” among the many baffling pages. “Who is this Who is Coming?” is a 10-page spread of nearly identical pictures of a veil: There is no explanation to accompany the black and white images. The reader, supposedly, must fill in the blanks, to the point that it feels like Shapton did not do her due diligence in crafting each collection carefully enough. “Public Figure Beauty Lover Digital Talent Traveler Spinario Parma | Abu Dhabi” is a short “poem,” though what it really is is anyone’s guess, composed entirely of compliments about a woman’s dress. The premise is intriguing, to be sure, but the problem that resurfaces constantly throughout reading “Guestbook” is that many of Shapton’s chapters are intriguing without actually doing the narrative work required to evoke the sense of haunting that the collection promises.


Certainly Shapton’s method of telling a story is not conventional, and there are a few moments when this attempt at breaking literary boundaries does work. But the experience is much akin to panning for gold: searching, desperately, for a small glimmer amid the dirt and silt. Unfortunately, many of the stories within this book could be interesting and could elicit some emotional connection, yet the elements needed to create this feeling are either too small to be registered, or non-existent. The photographs and illustrations themselves are striking, many of them capturing the mundanity of everyday life, but these images do not stand on their own: They need more from their author, and Shapton ultimately does not deliver.