Thursday, February 16, 2012
Book Review - Literary Memoirs - A Haunted Love Story by Mark Spencer
Mark Spencer is well known as the popular Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Monticello in Monticello, Arkansas and as the talented writer of several wonderful, prize-winning books of fiction, both novels and short stories. A Haunted Love Story, however, will introduce readers to a new side of Mr. Spencer, that of writer of creative non-fiction and memoirist.
When Mark Spencer and his wife Rebecca traveled with their three children from Oklahoma to Arkansas they all fell in love with a stately “convoluted, but also elegant” Victorian home located right on the town’s Main Street. Determined to buy it, though it wasn’t even for sale, Mark and Rebecca had no idea – at first – that the home they’d fallen in love with had quite a history. It had been, the Spencer family would soon learn, voted the “most haunted house in America” in an online survey conducted a full three years prior to the writing of Mark’s book.
The first half of A Haunted Love Story details Mark and Rebecca’s attempts to buy the house – known far and wide as the “Allen House” – from its previous owner, an eccentric “Dallas kind of gal” Mark dubbed “Marilyn,” a buxom blonde who could often look twenty-five or thirty years younger than her chronological age, and one who, it would appear, really didn’t want to sell the house at all. How many people wait two years to take possession of a house they love simply because the owner can’t bring herself to let it go? I would bet not many, yet that’s exactly what Mark and Rebecca did, sometimes with comic effect. As for the long wait to make the house their own, Mark and Rebecca must have known then what I came to know several years later – the Allen House needed and wanted them there, and it was determined it would have them. It had a purpose for the Spencers, and part of that purpose has been fulfilled by the writing of this book.
Even though the entire town of Monticello had warned them, Mark and Rebecca really had no idea what they were getting into when they and their children finally moved into the house of their dreams. They thought they were getting a beautiful Victorian mansion to love and to restore and to call their home, and so they were. Not much time passed by, however, until Mark and Rebecca realized they’d gotten so much more. The people who told this unsuspecting couple that the Allen House was haunted weren’t joking or simply repeating town superstitions and fears. The Allen House, the Spencer family came to realize, really was haunted.
In the first part of the book, Mark gives his readers an interesting and intriguing history of the Allen House that encompasses more than one hundred years and will surely fascinate any reader who’s ever wondered about the spirit world, no matter what his or her beliefs. The family even calls in credible paranormal investigators, the “Louisiana Spirits,” to conduct a thorough examination of the house and confirm or deny the presence of the spirits who made themselves known to the Spencers. I, myself, once lived in a house with excessive poltergeist activity, as did my own mother, yet I tended to be a non-believer where the spirit world was concerned. After all, I could only “hear” my poltergeist; I couldn’t see him or her. But even though I’m a non-believer, I was totally engrossed, and sometimes downright scared, by Mark’s detailed descriptions of the spirits he and his family encountered in their home, and I must say, I’m not quite the skeptic I once was. Mark and Rebecca eventually became convinced that no less than six spirits are haunting their beautiful new home, and one of the most active is Ladell Allen Bonner, one of the daughters of the home’s first owner.
As Mark details in the book, the first owner of the Allen House was wealthy businessman, Joe Lee Allen, who had the house built for his beloved wife, Caddye and their three daughters, Lonnie, Ladell, and Lew. The girls grew up in the Allen House, and when Ladell and her husband Boyd divorced, Caddye and Joe’s middle daughter came home to live with her mother.
Ladell was a real “southern belle,” born to wealth and privilege. Everyone in Monticello knew her, and she knew everyone else. The townspeople were curious about Ladell’s life, and when she swallowed mercury cyanide on Christmas 1948, the townspeople were, understandably, curious about that as well. That curiosity persisted for sixty years, until the Spencer family bought the Allen House.
One day, when Mark was alone in his home, he felt an irresistible urge to explore the attic. There, hidden under a loose floorboard, he discovered eighty-one love letters written to Ladell, the bulk of them from a man known as Prentiss Hemingway Savage, that at long last shed some light on the overwhelming sadness in Ladell’s life and pointed to a reason for her suicide.
The second half of this immensely readable book, culled from letters written by Prentiss Savage himself, details the tragic love story of Ladell and Prentiss, a handsome, wealthy, and very married oil executive, originally from Monticello, who had moved “up north,” to Minnesota. Old acquaintances who’d been reunited at a Hot Springs, Arkansas horse race, Prentiss found love with Ladell in mid-life, apparently too late, at least in Prentiss’ estimation, to leave “H.” his wife and make a home and a life with Ladell.
Even if you’re a “doubting Thomas” and don’t really believe in the ghost stories and paranormal activity recounted in the first half of the book, I don’t see how anyone could fail to be deeply touched by Mark’s sensitive and empathetic exploration of Ladell’s doomed love affair with Prentiss.
As I read, Ladell, Prentiss, Caddye, and the others who populate this book really came alive for me. I felt that I was witness to the sad – and not so sad – events that took place in Ladell’s life. I felt at least part of the great heartbreak she must have felt, and the fact that I did is testament to Mark’s perceptive writing. I can see why the spirits of some of the people who’ve lived in the Allen House still feel the need to haunt it and why they can’t let go of the life they lived on this earth and move on.
I loved the fact that Mark included excerpts from the letters. It was astonishing and riveting to hear part of this story told in the words of one who lived it. I couldn’t put the book down even though I was tired and needed to go to sleep. My need to know how things developed between Ladell and Prentiss was far greater. Ladell – a middle-aged Southern divorcee – was far from the “typical” romantic heroine, but she was real, a real human being connected to another real human being that I know and respect. Her story took on enormous importance for me.
Of course no one, not even Mark, knows all that happened between Ladell and Prentiss. Some of the details – and this book is richly detailed – had to be “filled in” by Mark. Always a sensitive writer possessed of much empathy, I think Mark really shines in this book. It’s never lost on him that he’s writing about real people, people who ate and slept and cried and laughed and just plain lived in the very house in which Mark’s living in now. As I read, I had the overwhelming feeling that if this wasn’t exactly how things played out between Ladell and Prentiss, then the difference was so minuscule as to not even matter.
A Haunted Love Story is far more than a ghost story or a story of paranormal activity. It is, in the truest sense, a love story. It details the love Ladell had for Prentiss, the love Caddye had for Ladell, the love Ladell had for her own son, Allen, the love shared among the members of the Spencer family, and the love they feel for their beautiful home. This is Mark’s “thank you” to the history of his home, and his love letter to his own wife for taking this sometimes strange and beautiful journey by his side. More than anything, though, this book was confirmation to me that love is, indeed, eternal.
I’m not a “crier.” Books and movies don’t make me shed tears. At least not generally. This one did. I can’t stop thinking about Ladell and the overwhelming sadness this lovely human being had to bear. Contrary to what some might expect, Ladell has not moved on. She’s still at the Allen House and still living with Mark and Rebecca and their family. However, with the publication of this beautifully written book, and the details of her sad history finally made known to all, I hope that Ladell Allen Bonner feels at last some measure of peace and tranquility.
Recommended: Definitely, and not just to those who enjoy books featuring ghosts. This is also a beautiful love story – two beautiful love stories – as well as the memoir of a family who finds a home they didn’t expect. It contains comedy and tragedy, but above all, it is honest, moving, and beautifully and sensitively written. It will enrich the life of all who read it.