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Reviewed by:
  • The Haunted Tropics: Caribbean Ghost Stories ed. by Martin Munro
  • Sebastian Charles Galbo (bio)
Munro, Martin, ed. The Haunted Tropics: Caribbean Ghost Stories. Kingston, Jamaica: The University of the West Indies Press, 2015.

"Given the history of the Caribbean," writes Martin Munro in the introduction to The Haunted Tropics: Caribbean Ghost Stories, "it is not surprising that much of the region's literature bears a haunted quality: ghosts are everywhere, be they of the Amerindians, the African ancestors, the slaves, the planters, the indentured workers, the victims of dictatorships, foreign invasions and natural disasters, or the modern exiles" (x). This collection of stories charts the hauntings of specters and liminal figures that terrify, cajole, and intimidate living subjects into fear and, on occasion, epiphany. Munro's anthology features stories outside the recognizable realm of the Western "horror" genre; instead, the tropes that typify the conventional ghost story—obstreperous phantoms, creaking shutters, and eldritch draughts of cold air—are set aside to craft a reimagined genre located at the vexed intersection of memory, diaspora, and the supernatural. [End Page 179]

The literary task of The Haunted Tropics, explains Munro, is "to create a more specifically Caribbean ghost story genre" (x). As the first collection of its kind, Munro has assembled a transcultural anthology of fifteen narratives that break the ground of this nascent genre. The introduction shifts away from pedantic attempts to define "haunting" or "ghost" in the contexts of continental philosophy or critical theory, such as trending pop-culture zombie studies. Many narratives provocatively complicate "ghost" by broadening the definition to include madness, memory, and nonspecific specters that embody difficult historical and present-day truths. Specters assume the troubled forms of identity, sexual orientation, environmental destruction, and social invisibility, "haunting" living subjects until they come to terms with fear. In this way, these (post)colonial hauntings often function as protean mirrors through which the self undergoes rigorous scrutiny of both the dead and undead. Alternatively, specters are sometimes invoked to remedy present-day social ills and, by visiting the living world, exact justice, peace, and humor.

Particularly resonant is Shani Mootoo's "The Bonnaire Silk Cotton Tree," which narrates the encounter between young Trinidadian photographer Nandita Sharma and a notoriously mischievous jumbie. Struggling to establish a reputation as an artist, Nandita sulks after reading a patronizing review of her latest exhibition. She reads the columns of an Irish priest who fulminates against the spiritual perils of "the dark arts of the Caribbean" (102). While Nandita, a non-practicing Hindu, almost always finds these soapbox jeremiads humorous, she becomes especially absorbed in the priest's new article discussing the jumbies inhabiting Trinidad's silk cotton trees. "Silk cotton trees," pontificates the priest, "serve no purpose today, save as lair of the unbaptized and of their leader in the underworld, the jumbie" (105). The column admonishes Trinidadians to avoid the trees, and its ghostly miscreants, and seek baptism. Undaunted, however, Nandita ventures out to photograph Trinidad's much-feared Bonnaire silk cotton tree. The jumbie greets Nandita with a mordant sneer, mocking human obtusity in the midst of widespread environmental degradation and social injustice. The jumbie explains that land-consuming quarry operations encroach and destroy Trinidad's landscape. Struck by the jumbie's passionate acerbity, Nandita reveals that the purpose of her visit is to be imbued with the artistic power to make great photographs. The jumbie agrees to pose for Nandita, but stipulates that her photographs will not develop without exchanging favors. They agree that next Sunday, before J'Ouvert, Nandita will photograph every human, animal, and plant squashed by injustice, from "the days of the early Spaniards, to the slaves of the British, to the present-day victims of robberies and drug-related and poverty-related, greed-related and envy-, and jealousy-, and power-related crimes" including "displaced monkeys, birds, snakes, mosquitos, crapauds, and all kind of creatures" (113). Hours before the frenetic blur of J'Ouvert, Nandita will document the undead human and nonhuman animal spirits walking among Trinidad's living world—and, in doing so, Nandita achieves artistic stardom as the only living human to have captured photographs of the parading (and protesting) ghosts. Mootoo deftly...


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pp. 179-183
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