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Lift Your Spirits

By Ann Morrow

New York State Ghosts

By David J. Pitkin

Aurora Publications, 364 pages, $19.95

’Tis the season for ghosts to be a-stirring. And if you’re looking for supernatural encounters to get you into the spirit of Halloween, New York State Ghosts undoubtedly has just the tale. Packed with 120 anecdotal accounts of paranormal activity, many of them from buildings familiar to area residents, Ghosts is ideal for bedtime reading, or for the telling aloud of tales by the fireside. Author David J. Pitkin knows his unhallowed ground: His previous books include the regional bestsellers Saratoga County Ghosts (1998) and Ghosts of the Northeast (2002). His latest edition includes 80 photographs of the sites and (reportedly) undead people that he’s researched, adding that all-important aura of it really happened!

Compiled over a 10-year span, the stories are told to Pitkin mostly by the participants, and many of them are augmented by the author’s accounts of his own experiences while investigating the sightings. Understandably, Pitkin doesn’t usually work alone, and his co-investigators include psychics, amateur ghost-seekers, and “sensitives” (people with sharpened intuition). Teamwork helps the author to discover not just where and when, but why the spirits he hears of remain on this earthly plane, and his humanism (he has a degree in counseling psychology) is much in evidence. Where Pitkin really excels is as a folklorist, and the stories are chock-full of colorful incidents, people, apparitions, and animals; a giant ghost pig, you’ll be amused to know, haunts Spook Hollow down in the valley. Among the cast of shade characters is a Jamestown nurse who remained to comfort the worst patients after her death, a Greenwich embezzler who can’t leave an Episcopal rectory, and an Elmira violinist encamped in the orchestra pit.

Chapters are arranged by topic: “Haunted Old Houses” is a cozy companion for do-it-yourself renovators, as many of its entities are discovered by homeowners fixing up old buildings. Sometimes past-life residents resent the intrusion, but oftentimes they take kindly to having their domicile restored by loving hands—and make their appreciation known. In “The Schermerhorn House,” set in a run-down Victorian in Schenectady, Pitkin recounts the travails of its new owners in 1991, whose first indication that they were being thwarted by an unseen companion came when they tried to install new wiring through the fire breaks leading to the attic.

The couple also describe activity by a poltergeist who tips candles out of candelabras, tickles guests at dinner parties, stomps its feet along the hallways, and unlocks the lock on the library door. A biography of the house reveals plenty of reasons for unquiet memories, among them the alleged 1825 shooting death of John Schermerhorn’s daughter in the house’s foyer.

The book presents an impressively teeming mass of energetic specters, yet the author’s stated aim is to “enlighten, not frighten,” and readers hoping to be spooked should take heed. Though “Children and Young Adults” contains slightly harrowing incidents from the Adirondacks, and “Personal Experiences” borders on the disturbing with its running narrative of visitations with serious spiritual implications for the percipients, Ghosts will appeal mostly to those readers who prefer their tales from the great unknown to be warmed with compassion rather than chilled by terror.

The most fun chapter probably is “Restaurants,” especially the stories on locally known establishments including the Country Club Motel in Saratoga Springs, and Brown’s Crooked Lake House in Sand Lake. Once host to Teddy and Eleanor Roosevelt, the hotel was the setting for a circa-1890 ghost appearance that was captured by a photograph. The never-before-published portrait is reprinted in the book.

History buffs, regardless of their opinion on life after death, should find Ghosts to be a year-round pleasure. A retired social-studies teacher, Pitkin incorporates an impressive amount of history into his investigations, and not all of it is haunted. A solidly re searched background adds to the veracity and continuity of each episode, and Pitkin’s writing style achieves the proper balance between unexplainable occurrences and natural phenomena. Doors and windows that open and close without human intervention, wafting music, booming voices in empty rooms, detailed descriptions of wraiths, mysterious visions from long ago, and mischievous spirits playing pranks: You name it and someone, or something, has done it from beyond the graves of New York state.

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