Who is the haunted and who is the haunter? Samantha Hunt doesn’t ask this directly, but the question is at the core of her nonfiction collection, “The Unwritten Book: An Investigation,” about ghosts, addiction, her father’s death and the unfinished manuscript for a novel he left behind. During the introductory chapter, “Circulation Desk,” she imagines a post-life library where “along with every book we never had the chance to read in life might we find the ghost books too, texts that were never written or never finished…” While there is a sense of whimsy in this sentence, as throughout the book, it is also loaded with grief because the ghost book she really wants is the one her father started but never finished.
Hunt presents the pages he did manage to complete along with her notes on the real-life inspiration for character names or how certain events he presents as fictional conjure the real-life hardships of his alcoholism. She makes his book, his ghost book, an artifact, corporeal, by including it in her book. Hunt’s writing about her father’s book is frankly more interesting than what he wrote. As much as her father haunts her, she haunts him through her annotations of the pages he left behind.
“The Unwritten Book” is a meditation on haunting. Early on, Hunt plots this course when she tells the reader in the “Table of Contents” chapter that “one theme emerges around a centerpiece of lush, if slightly rotted flowers: How We Are Haunted.” It being a meditation means Hunt allows imagery and wonderings to flourish, takes her time with them. Her prose is like lush flowers in a picturesque old cemetery.
Ghosts, in life and on the page, are ultimately about conversations with the dead as Hunt writes, “With these pages, I thought, I’ll talk with the dead.” The page as Ouija board. She creates conversation with other writers and their books, such as W.G. Sebald, Rebecca Solnit, Ross Gay, Toni Jensen, and many others alive and dead. The contemporary book I see Hunt’s book most in conversation with is Elissa Washuta’s magnificent 2021 essay collection “White Magic.” Both books are about alcoholism, mental illness, grief, ghosts and book as artifact. An entire piece could be dedicated to how these writers bring what haunts them to the page, the varied approaches they take in discussing how the supernatural is natural (Washuta), is part of nature (Hunt). A seemingly small but important distinction. Making this type of distinction lines up with Hunt’s book as she takes moments throughout to consider how words can be pulled apart, their meaning reconfigured. She shows this can happen with a life, her life, pulled apart by loss and using words, books to reconfigure it, to find its new meaning. “The Unwritten Book” is a very necessary addition to the haunted nonfiction library.
“The Unwritten Book”
By Samantha Hunt
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pages
Bruce Owens Grimm is a queer ghost nerd based in Chicago. He’s the co-editor of Fat and Queer: An Anthology of Queer and Trans Bodies and Lives published in May 2021 by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. He attended the 2021 Tin House Winter Workshop. PEN America awarded him an emergency grant for writers whose income was impacted by COVID-19. He is a Pushcart nominee for his essay, “Inventory of a Haunted House, No.4” originally published by Sweet Lit and republished by Creative Nonfiction’s Sunday Short Reads. You can follow him on Twitter: @bruceowensgrimm.