The Ghost in the Book: Recommended Reading Featuring Ancestors and Spirits

The Mighty Dead are an important element in many traditions around the world, at the national, local, and individual level. Ghosts and spirits, the ancestors and ancestor veneration, appear in both fiction and non-fiction; such books are plentiful, but finding texts that deal with the subject respectfully, and in a way that appeals to Pagan and polytheist audiences, can be problematic. Below are a few suggestions, but only a few; if we missed any of your favorites, don’t hesitate to leave a suggestion in the comments.

Fiction

Perhaps not surprisingly, ghosts appear most often in murder mysteries; a soul has been forced to move on before its time, and demands justice; or the soul is sticking around when it should have long since gone on to the hereafter. As such, most of the following titles can be classified as occult detective or urban fantasy, with a few science fiction titles rounding out the selection.

The Best of Jules de Grandin by Seabury Quinn collects twenty Golden Age pulp/occult detective stories that originally ran in Weird Tales. Over the course of his varied fictional career, de Grandin encountered everything from ghosts to malevolent entities to serial killers. Fair warning, however: the stories are very much of their time, and should be read with that in mind.

The Ellie Jordan Ghost Trapper series by JL Bryan is a long-running, contemporary paranormal series. I have only read up through the third book, and the fourteenth(!) is set to release in September 2021. The main character and her entourage are well-developed and endearing, and they take their work seriously; they use rigorous testing methods (e.g., science) to deal with entities that mainstream science refuses to acknowledge. The spirits they engage with might be friendly but mischievous, confused and grieving, or out-right malevolent; and the ghosts haunt everything from ancient mansions to contemporary subdivisions.

The Girl With Ghost Eyes by MH Boroson is the first in what I hope will be a long-running series. Set in the Chinatown of 19th century San Francisco, the story centers around Li-lin, the daughter of one Daoshi priest and the widow of another, who must facedown a malevolent sorcerer and assorted spirits. Drawing heavily on indigenous Chinese religious practices, spiritual beliefs, and folk customs, the book emphasizes the importance of family, tradition, and the ancestors in Chinese society — especially in a transplanted community. Plus, Li-lin is just awesome.

A Lotus Palace Mystery series by Jeannie Lin is part of a chain of loosely connected books. I recommend all of them, but, if you can only read one or two, settle down with The Liar’s Dice and The Hidden Moon. These focus on Wei-wei, the intelligent and curious daughter of a privileged family who takes it upon herself to solve murders that polite society would rather be swept under the rug. Like The Girl With Ghost Eyes, these emphasize the importance of family, heritage, and tradition, though without the paranormal element.

The Malykant Mysteries by Charlotte E. English are set in a fantastical Russian-type landscape, complete with freezing winters and soaring palaces. Konrad Savast is The Malykant, the secret servant of the Lord of Death. Tasked with tracking down murderers and avenging the souls of the deceased, he is assisted by two spirit snakes and an apothecary with secrets of her own. A terrific protagonist, a large stable of Deities, and a fully-realized spirit world make for a fun time. I have lost hours to these books without even realizing it.

The Obsidian and Blood series by Aliette de Bodard runs for only three volumes, which is a pity; I really hope that de Bodard will write more. Set at the height of the Aztec Empire, the books follow the adventures of Acatl, a humble priest of the God of the Dead who finds himself caught up in one murder investigation and political conspiracy after another; he just wants to be left alone to serve his God and the spirits of the dead, but his desire to see justice done is far too strong. An enthralling dive into a culture which is too often overlooked or demonized in both historical texts and fiction.

Occult Detective Quarterly/Magazine has been published intermittently since 2016. Each issue contains stories set in a range of times and places, from Depression-era New England to modern Japan to pre-Columbian Maya to British-controlled India. This variety of settings means there is also a variety of spiritual beliefs on display, from Shintoism and Buddhism to the folk occultism of backwoods America and the indigenous traditions of Central America. The short stories also make it perfect for reading on lunch breaks at work.

A Witchcraft Mystery series by Juliet Blackwell is set in modern-day San Francisco, but draws heavily on the prejudices, mistakes, and traditions of the past. Lily Ivory is a descendant of Spanish and Aztec witches; scarred by the experiences of her ancestors, she is determined to hide her abilities. But as the owner of a vintage clothing boutique, she often finds herself not only cleansing items which have been spiritually stained, but trying to uncover what happened to their original owners — and solving a murder or two along the way.

The Xuya Universe series by Aliette de Bodard is far-future science fiction, filled with living space stations, grown spaceships, and (yes) tea and poetry. The Dai Viet Empire is a culture that embraces elegance and refinement, obedience and duty; everyone and everything is connected by threads of respect and responsibility. Stand-alone novels include On a Red Station, Drifting; The Tea Master and the Detective; Seven of Infinities; and The Citadel of Weeping Pearls. De Bodard has also released the short story collection, Of Wars and Memories and Starlight, which features tales from several of her series, including the Xuya Universe.

Non-Fiction

The definition of ancestor varies across cultures and among individuals. In some cases, it means only those people with whom one has a direct blood relation, or an indirect legal relation (e.g., through marriage). In other cases, an ancestor can be anyone with whom the individual shares a common interest, a common spirituality, or a common culture. I tend to fall into the latter category, as I have had to look outside my family line for people I consider co-religionists; as such, the list below includes not only books on ancestor veneration, but also biographies of authors, civil rights activists, and heretics.

American Jezebel by Eve LaPlante chronicles the life of Ann Hutchinson, an iconoclast who challenged the ruling Puritan authorities of her day. While I do not share Hutchinson’s spiritual beliefs, I greatly admire her strength of personality, and recognize the role she played in making the United States a land where different religious traditions should be equal before the law. [Interesting note: LaPlante is a direct descendant of Hutchinson.]

Cleopatra by Stacey Schiff examines the life and legacy of one of the most famous queens of the ancient world. I have long admired Cleopatra, so I was excited to finally find a book which sympathized with the Egyptian Pharaoh over the Romans, the viewpoint usually taken in history texts. Well-researched, and written in an engaging style.

Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen by Lesley Hazleton takes on another notorious woman of the ancient world. Examining the religious, sexual, and political tensions of the age — as well as the millennia that followed — Hazleton exposes the smear campaign leveled against Jezebel, revealing a woman who fought for her husband, her family, her nation, and her Gods.

Pagan Portals: Nature Mystics by Rebecca Beattie looks to the recent past in search of the antecedents of contemporary polytheism. The book is narrow in its focus (American, British, and Irish poets and authors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), but thoroughly researched, well-written, and fascinating. I discovered several unknown-to-me writers, as well as a new appreciation of authors I had previously neglected.

A Pagan Testament: The Literary Heritage of the World’s Oldest New Religion by Brendan Myers is a tour de force of the western, non-Christian literary canon. Here you will finds writings on, discussions about, and retellings of, Anishnabe, Inanna, Demeter, Romanticism and Wisdom, Crowley and Schopenhauer, among many many others. This is a great starting place for anyone hoping to build their Pagan library, as well as good source on (non-biological) lineages and ancestors.

Seven Ages of the Goddess edited by Trevor Greenfield includes essays by a variety of authors on the Goddess and Goddesses from pre-history down through the present. Like many texts, it is limited in its geographical scope, focusing on the Near East, Europe, and modern Western Hemisphere. Nonetheless, it is engagingly written, with chapters devoted to Cybele, Asherah, Isis, female mystics of the Middle Ages, Mother Goose, and Gaia, among others. Like A Pagan Testament, this is a good place to start for those hoping to build their personal library and find co-religionists (or at least proto-religionists) in the past.

The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney charts the rise to power and reign of one of Egypt’s most celebrated Pharaohs: Hatshepsut, who ruled at the height of Egyptian power. Cooney’s text is unusual in that it emphasizes the role that religion played in Hatshepsut’s ascension; the polytheism of the ancient Egyptians is treated with respect. This one sits on my shelf right next to my books on Cleopatra, Hildegard von Bingen, and Christine de Pizan.

Additional Recommendations

I polled a number of my fellow bibliophiles, who had the following titles to suggest. I haven’t read these myself, but the people who recommended them have never steered me wrong. So, consider taking a look at The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James; Wights and Ancestors: Heathenry in a Living Landscape by Dr. Jenny Blain; Pagan Portals: Ancestral Healing edited by Trevor Greenfield; The Tradition of Household Spirits and The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind by Claude Lecouteux; and The Pagan Book of Living and Dying by Starhawk.

[Compiled by Rebecca Buchanan.]