I don’t generally review non-fiction, but Preparing the Ghost was so odd, so delightfully peculiar, so genre-bending, that I have to talk about it. At its most basic, it’s a story of Harvey Moses, who, in 1874, obtained a dead giant squid from some fishermen and paid them to deliver it to his house. He then draped the squid over his bathtub and got a local photographer to take the first known photo of what until then had been largely considered to be a mythical creature.
This by itself is a kind of story so Lovecraftian and unsettling that it’s enough to give you strange tentacle-filled dreams. But Frank makes it even stranger. His book is a collection of odd facts and, at first, seemingly unrelated connections between events, objects, and people. You learn quite a bit about the giant squid and people who search for it, but you also learn about how calamari came to be an item on American menus, how ice cream gained popularity, and where latex comes from (no, not from a squid). There is an entire part on how much St. John’s changed since Harvey’s time. The book made me look up trips to St. John’s simply so I could take it there and read it while munching on fish and brewis (just one of the words you learn from the book) and gazing at the sea.
Preparing the Ghost is itself like an antique photograph — vaguely disturbing and fascinating, with a complex story behind a single image. I could say that this book is simply a collection of bizarre historical facts, but it is much more than that. It is part history and memoir, but it is also a philosophical study. There is a section on pain and empathy. There are reflections on migration, home, and belonging. There is also a sense of impermanence throughout the little volume. Grandparents die, towns change, squid specimens disintegrate, myths get destroyed.
Preparing the Ghost is, most of all, a study of myth-making and myth-destroying. It is an autopsy report of sorts for the giant squid and its place in our imagination. The fact that the squid was dead and that there was now a photo of it did not make the giant squid any less mythical. Frank’s own obsession with the animal and people who hunted it becomes most apparent towards the end, when the book turns on itself, becomes meta-fictional, with the author questioning his own descriptions of what transpired when Harvey obtained the squid. Frank writes his own myths and, in turn, inspires a whole new wave of obsession (myself included).
I leave you with notes I took while reading this book, because I no longer have sentences that can convey what this book is:
– ‘while real, can best be captured in theory’
– ‘Newfoundland saw its first road in 1825’
– squid-skinning machine
– tenacious ejaculatory apparati
– Giant-Squid Erotica
– suicidal Newfoundlands
I also leave you with this page from my notes: