Fantasy Writers That Make Great Use of Haunted Rivers, an American Literary Tradition

On the gorgeous cover of the newest Wild Cards novel, Mississippi Roll, a ghostly man pilots a wide ship’s wheel, his form ebbing away into tendrils like mist. Previously the captain of the steamboat Natzchez, the incorporeal man now haunts the ship’s decks and halls as it plies the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. In an inspired twist, the silent and otherwise unseen Wilbur Leathers can only manifest himself through steam.

The majority of Mississippi Roll takes place on the rivers, and most of the action occurs on the steamer itself. The story begins in New Orleans as the boat makes her way slowly northward, stopping at a variety of ports along the way. In addition to the crew, the Natchez is populated by passengers, entertainers, stowaways, and the odd raven. Bearing all the human drama playing out on her decks, the Natchez makes her way up to St. Louis, cuts back around the confluence into the Ohio River, and heads for Cincinnati and the Tall Stacks steamboat festival.

The Natchez is a last stubborn holdout, of course, representing a vanished river culture. The days of steamers plying the river died thanks to world-changing technologies, with passengers and freight moving to railroads, motorized roadways, and the skies. Flatboats and steamboats became obsolete, and that sense of time irrevocably passing, with new ways changing and leaving behind the old, preoccupies several of Mississippi Roll’s characters. One stowaway, Erzhan, is a traditionalist, not handling the changing times well; his friends hope to make him more modern, but he is unable to adapt. Leo Storgman laments to Sewer Jack, the boat’s aged bartender, “the world just keeps moving faster and faster.” And when Wilbur sees the steamers arrayed along Cincinnati’s riverfront, he realizes “this was a fantasy come to life, an image of a past that had gone all too quickly.”

Even if those times are past—or perhaps because of it—travel along the mighty Mississippi and other great rivers has played a vivid role in the American literary imagination. The rivers and their culture have become mythologized, sometimes with a supernatural twist. It makes sense that the waterways have made a fair number of appearances in speculative fiction, too.

For me, one of the more memorable examples is Wild Cards editor George R.R. Martin’s standalone novel Fevre Dream, a gripping gothic riverboat fantasy that centers on the friendship between boat captain Abner Marsh and the mysterious (hint: vampire!) Joshua York. And while the monstrous and depraved lurk in the thick shadows shrouding the tale, the real magic lies in the book’s depiction of the wide rivers themselves and the culture that grew upon their waters. In 1857, beginning on the Ohio River at New Albany and destined for New Orleans and Mississippi, the steamer makes its way further southward into increasing danger. The steamboat Fevre Dream is a richly-realized work of art, with Abner himself veritably layered with riverboat history. From the steamboat races to the rivermen unloading freight, the river comes alive with whistles echoing across its misty shores. Add in feuding vampires and the waterway becomes positively paranormal.

Equally evocative of the Mississippi and its life is Lois McMaster Bujold’s stunning Sharing Knife (aka Wide Green World) series. In the third volume, Passage, farmer Fawn Bluefield and her husband, the Ranger-sorcerer Dag, embark on a downriver journey that takes them all the way to sea. The river and the lushly described landscape may not bear the names that we know today, but the descriptions make clear that the story takes place on the Ohio and the Mississippi. Bujold was inspired in part by Davy Crockett’s adventures and she read quite a bit on the early boating history of the pioneer era. The novel is packed with river-related adventures and dangers, shoreline camps, and river ports. But there are no paddle wheels, here—this is a riverscape navigated by flatboats, fairly precarious crafts guided by poles and ultimately abandoned at the watercourse’s end. Steam-operated paddle boats made an appearance in the U.S. in the first decade of the 1800s, and the first steamship left New Orleans to make her way up the Mississippi in 1812. Bujold’s American fantasy coincides with a period prior to those technologies, though, when traders and bargemen made their slow way again northward on the Natchez Trace. There are no vampires here in Bujold’s tale, either, but rather a cancerous magical blight, stealing life force from the land itself and poisoning its rivers. Dag and the Lakewalkers use their groundsense in a continuing (and what feels to them like an eternal) battle to protect the world from ‘malices’ and the death they bring.

The magic and paranormal qualities of Martin and Bujold’s river likewise appear in Mississippi Roll. Despite Wilbur’s presence on the cover, the book is by no means a ghost story, but it does pay homage to the haunted reputation of the Mississippi and the ships of her past. Ghosts, river monsters, mysterious deaths, and suspicious steamer accidents populate the book. Wild Fox, part of a campy musical stage act, is able to unfurl magical illusions that completely fool the eye. A gullible trio from the TV show Dead Report, there to record evidence of ghosts, believe that the various deaths which have occurred onboard over the decades have transformed the Natchez into an especially haunted rivercraft; Leo Storgman (aka Ramshead) attempts to solve one of those unexplained deaths. Roger Ravenstone, with his talking raven Lenore, is a stage magician, even if his audiences think his magic comes from the wild card…he very well may be a devil, too.

Wilbur, a spirit of steam, frequently wonders whether other spirits are real. At one point he thinks that the Natchez herself is a ghost, knowing that she represents a long-dead time. The days of crowded riverboats racing on the Mississippi or flatboats poling cargo southward are finished, and in that sense, Wilbur’s character represents the changeover from one period to another. He built his Natchez just at the end of World War II, when riverboats still carried, to a limited degree, passengers and cargo along the great rivers. He discovered almost immediately, however, that river trade was shrinking too quickly to be economically viable. Now, in 2016, his ship is one of the last wheeled boats still operated by steam boiler, and in the very near future she may cease making runs as a living ship altogether—gutted and stationary, what will she become but a ghost herself, a dead riverboat?

How else does the Mississippi or American’s other great rivers appear in speculative fiction? What are your favorite treatments of the river, or your favorite river ghost stories?

Katie Rask is an assistant professor of archaeology and classics at Duquesne University. She’s excavated in Greece and Italy for over 15 years.

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