Lily Dale Takes Horror to a New Level

By
September 16, 2004

For a skeptic, every good ghost story ends with the question,
“Okay, but how could that really have happened?” It’s the reason
those literal-minded souls don’t look behind them when turning off
the lights, or haven’t spent nervous nights worrying whether or not
it was just a “house sound.”

But what if a spooky tale began with such disbelief, and was
told as experienced by a strictly no-nonsense narrator? Enter
Lily Dale by Christine Wicker. Formerly a religion reporter
for The Dallas Morning News, Wicker stumbled across the
upstate New York town of Lily Dale and immersed herself into a
world where spirits roam the streets and send messages from beyond
the grave, where archangels lead a chosen few to good parking
spaces, and where the dead hold just as much power as, if not more
than, the living.

Passed through a cast of characters like any good slumber party
game, Wicker’s tale blends a history of necromancy and the
Spiritualist movement with the present-day experiences of its
followers in Lily Dale. This includes anyone from curious old women
who speak to a crew of invisible spirit guides, to the familiar
middle-aged New Ager looking with charms rattling for rejuvenation
and diversion. A few celebrities even pop up along the way, as
well. One of the most engaging anecdotes recounts the town’s
consternation with Harry Houdini, who would visit mediums in
disguise and then with great delight expose their hoaxes and
tricks.

The great strength of this book comes from the sheer abundance
of material. As Wicker exposes historical, scientific, and even her
own personal doubts with Lily Dale’s claims, an eager believer is
never far away. Earnest testimonials of spiritual encounters and
their benefits run throughout the book, as well as mediums and
tourists ready with dreamy claims to heady visions and colorful
past lives. It’s as though the town and the entire movement weaves
a safety net of the faithful, always ready to soothe a doubt with
either a cool explanation, or more often merely the beguiling
suggestion that the unexplainable is at least possible.

It is this volleying that provides the dramatic weight of the
book, as enacted in the mind of the narrator herself. Her struggle
with her own empirical nature in the face of such logical ambiguity
keeps the loopier side of the tales at bay, and the book forms as
less a deconstruction of Spiritualism than a portrait of the
seemingly innate desire for humans to believe in something divine,
even if that something is nothing. As the author herself writes,
who could help but be enchanted by the idea of those we’ve lost
living forever, waiting for us to join them and sending helpful
messages in the meantime?

This loftier theme transforms into an immediate tension over
whether the narrator herself will be able to trust Lily Dale’s
claims. By the end of the book, readers are less concerned with
where their own beliefs stand than whether Wicker came around to
stop frowning at all things uncanny and just enjoyed herself.

All ghostly doubts aside, Lily Dale is simply a great
read, entertaining and informative, funny and, at times, tragic.
It’s delight comes from giving readers the chance to explore a
hidden and secretly delightful subject matter with gravity, but
without having to take sappy seminars or listen to windy
explanations of one’s aura. Wicker, though sometimes begrudgingly,
has already done all that for us. Her skepticism keeps perfect
rhythm throughout the book, raising its defenses in the face of
obvious hoaxes, unwilling to bend even when emotions run high, and
melting just when the reader wants to believe. At the very least,
Lily Dale is sure to at least pique one’s interest and
consideration of all things supernatural, make for interesting
summer road trip conversation, or for those willing to accept the
tale, offer an enchanting look at why we want to believe.


Lily Dale Takes Horror to a New Level was published on September 16, 2004 in Arts & Entertainment

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