“Sing, Unburied, Sing” emerges from this lineage. “I like to think I know what death is,” says Jojo, the young protagonist. “I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight.” It turns out his path to manhood depends on it, on learning to acknowledge the dead and the persistence of the past — opening his eyes to a landscape bloated with the phantoms of Hurricane Katrina, the living ghosts rotting in prison.
But in a few of these books America becomes the ghost; America is shown to terrorize and consume. “America that green ghost, been after me for at least a couple hundred/years somehow once convinced me to do its dirty work for it sharp in a/warm bath,” the Native American poet Tommy Pico writes in his collection “Nature Poem.” “You don’t seem too haunted, but you haunted,” repeats a line in Terrance Hayes’s “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.”
In Hari Kunzru’s “White Tears,” whiteness itself is seen as radioactive, fraught with danger. Seth and Carter, partners in a New York-based recording company, are obsessed with black blues musicians, the more elusive and “authentic” the better — they want the “ghosts at the edges of American consciousness.” They cannibalize black art and awaken a frightening ghost when they forge a record. But it’s clear that there is something unsteady, almost vaporous about the men themselves: Seth with his nagging feeling of hollowness, and frenetic Carter with his blond dreadlocks and mysteriously acquired family wealth — their taste their only identity. “I pass through the world, but I leave no trace,” Seth says, echoing a line in Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad,” set decades earlier, in the American South. Cora, Whitehead’s heroine, escapes a brutal plantation in Georgia and takes temporary shelter in an attic in North Carolina. Through a hole in the wall, she observes white people in town, roaming in the twilight. “No wonder the whites wandered the park in the growing darkness,” she thinks. “They were ghosts themselves, caught between two worlds: the reality of their crimes, and the hereafter denied them for those crimes.”
Far from obsolescent, how hardy the ghost story proves as a vessel for collective terror and guilt, for the unspeakable. It alters to fit our fears. It understands us — how strenuously we run from the past, but always expect it to catch up with us. We wait for the reckoning, with dread and longing.
When the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears on stage, Horatio’s words to him are beautifully ambiguous: “Stay, illusion!” he commands. He might mean, Come no farther, ghost. He might mean, Remain a phantasm. He might even be speaking to himself, biding his illusions to wait a minute more, intimating that the ghost’s revelations will remake his world.
“Stay, illusion!” Horatio commands. And in the stage directions, the ghost opens his arms.