The Salt Spring Historical Society will have a special guest for its upcoming session on Wednesday, Oct. 9, when best-selling author Shanon Sinn makes a presentation on some unusual aspects of local history.
Sinn is the author of The Haunting of Vancouver Island, which spent 42 weeks on the B.C. bestseller list and has just gone into its fourth printing in less than two years. While tales of ghosts, murders and sasquatches may seem outside the historical society’s regular purview, Sinn’s journalistic approach to the topic incorporates much of the history of Vancouver Island’s settlement. As he starts with the Victoria area and largely moves north as the book progresses, Sinn mirrors the settlement of the island.
“In a sense I’m telling the story of how it was colonized,” he said.
Sinn investigated many of the stories related to the supernatural that have been passed down in the process, as well as First Nations beliefs with historic and contemporary relevance.
Sinn earned his writing degree at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, where he was awarded the Barry Broadfoot Award for Journalism and the Gisele Merlet Creative Writing Award. Although collections of ghost stories with a regional connection are a common tourist shop draw, what sets Sinn apart is the excellent quality of his writing, coupled with his “skeptical believer” stance. Before writing his book, he did deep research into local legends to root out the truth, using newspaper articles of the time period and first-hand sources whenever available.
“In almost every case the history has been altered,” Sinn explained about popular ghost story collections. “I would check into the story and find out they didn’t happen or had been twisted quite dramatically. A lot of stories have been tinkered to make them more scary, or for other purposes.”
For example, Sinn’s research leads him to conclude there is no basis for the “Headless Woman of Mount Sicker,” and to set the record straight on the real facts of an infamous murderer said to have occurred in Victoria’s Fan Tan Alley.
Sinn said one of his goals in creating the book was to collect and curate the stories in an engaging way.
“I wanted them to all be quite unique and different, and also very visual,” he explained.
Another unique aspect to The Haunting of Vancouver Island is the inclusion of First Nations stories, instead of setting them aside in a separate book of “myths.” Sinn’s sources include James Swan, the hereditary chief of Ahousat, a First Nations village north of Tofino. A chapter on stories from that region was transcribed from an interview with Swan, in his own words.
“There are so many layers to what he’s saying. There’s not just the narrative on the surface, there’s also lessons being told,” said Sinn, who also took a course on Indigenous representation and misrepresentation at university to help get things right, in addition to consulting with other First Nations friends. The book has been strongly received in that sector; a teacher in Cedar actually told Sinn he considered the book to be an act of reconciliation.
The Haunting of Vancouver Island has been hard to keep in stock, it’s so popular, but with the fourth printing just out Sinn has been booked for a 10-stop signing tour. Books will also be available at the Salt Spring talk.
The meeting is open to the public and gets started at 2 p.m. at Central Hall. The event doubles as celebration of the 30th anniversary of the historical society’s establishment of the Salt Spring Archives.
For more on this story, see the Oct. 2, 2019 issue of the Gulf Islands Driftwood newspaper, or subscribe online.