Wise Dogs and Restless Ghosts
Garth Stein has done a lot of things in his life. He’s been a playwright; he’s been a documentary filmmaker. He actually won an Academy Award in the “Live-Action Short” category. In fact, A Sudden Light began as a play – he was trying for “a classic with a Gothic feel to it. I thought — I want the house that the people live in to be a character, to interact with the people,” he told me last fall in an interview.
Garth worked several years on A Sudden Light, a length of time bestowed on him by the fact that his previous novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, was immensely successful (four million copies, translated into 33 languages). But before Racing, he wrote an earlier novel that I want to mention, How Evan Broke his Head and Other Secrets.
Evan is the story of a Seattle rock musician who, through a series of unforeseen events, suddenly becomes an instant father to his teenage son, who he hasn’t seen in 13 years. The protagonist, Evan, also has epilepsy, which he has tried to keep under wraps. I think Stein has a particular affinity for young people, which showed in his portrayal of both Evan and his son.
Reviewers gave Stein praise for his acute portrayal of a young man, who for various reasons, including his medical condition, has walled himself into a pretty isolated existence. Of course, becoming a father changes all that.
From there it was on to The Art of Racing in the Rain, an inspired story narrated by a dog – a very wise dog named Enzo. Enzo tells the story of his master, Denny, an aspiring race-car driver who is stuck selling auto parts, and his struggles with his family, including dealing with his wife’s terminal brain cancer. Enzo is a lot smarter and more humane than many humans I know; if you haven’t read this book, fair warning, it will make you want to immediately go out and get a dog.
Moving on, I would like to highlight some novels that, like A Sudden Light, feature ghosts are protagonists.
I am a big fan of ghost stories; I don’t know why – maybe everyone wants to believe, at some level, in an afterlife. Maybe everyone just wants the bejesus scared out of them. For whatever reason, people love a good ghost story.
I have to say that Ben, the ghost in A Sudden Light, is not a very scary ghost. He is certainly a ghost who wants his story to be heard, but he’s not exactly a threat. Not so in some of the other ghost-haunted books I want to mention.
The first is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. This 1959 novel remains one of my favorites, because it is so damned effective – you’ll be climbing the walls of your own house by the time you are done with this very unsettling book. In Jackson’s story, a highly sensitive young woman joins a group of ghost hunters in a very creepy old house, and soon the house is communicating with her. This novel shares an attribute with Stein’s in that the house is really a character in its own right.
Next up: Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. This 2009 book is another in which a house, a decaying English mansion, is practically a character in its own right – the place practically oozes malevolence. Is the house haunted, or is the family that inhabits it nuts? Actually, a lot of these novels boil down to this very interesting question.
One of the best tricks in Water’s authorial bag is her gift for making mundane and everyday phenomena absolutely terrifying. Little spots of something on the wall. A shaving mirror that springs to sudden, terrifying life. Sarah Waters could have taught Alfred Hitchcock a thing or two.
British author Waters was a “Well Read” guest this year for her novel The Paying Guests. One thing she excels at is recreating an historical period – the period of The Little Stranger is post-World War II, an era when England was both haunted by and trying to recover from an immensely draining and cataclysmic war. The Faradays, the family who owns the mansion (called “The Hundreds”) are emblematic of the crumbling of the British class structure after World War II.
One ghost story I love is actually a kids’ book – Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Neil Gaiman is a fantastically talented writer of fantasy who started his writing career in the comics with a series called The Sandman. He has mostly migrated to novels now, but he returned to form with The Graveyard Book.
It’s really a graphic novel; the drawings were created by Gaiman’s longtime artist collaborator, Dave McKean. It’s about a little boy in terrible jeopardy – he flees his house after his family is brutally murdered. He takes shelter in a nearby cemetery and is adopted by a bunch of ghosts in an English graveyard.
These ghosts are a rogue’s gallery of delightful characters, but no kidding, this is an authentically scary book. Still, it works wonderfully as a kids’ book – It won the Newbery Medal in America for best children’s book, so I guess the librarians who choose that award thought so. Adults will enjoy it, too.
Finally, I recently stumbled on Ghosts: A Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for Proof by Roger Clarke. What a find! Clarke is a British film writer, but his avocation is trying to prove that ghosts exist (his heart’s desire is to see one, though he hasn’t yet). He’s been on this quest since he was a teenager.
This book is a gallery of British ghosts and hauntings, and let me tell you, there are some eerie stories here. Clarke maintains an admirable objectivity throughout. He’s also good at explaining why certain periods of English history lent themselves to a belief in ghosts. After World War I, for example – so many English soldiers were lost during this awful war, bereft families were desperate to connect with their forgotten loved ones. That extended the English fascination with ghosts well into the 20th century. If the works of Brit Neil Gaiman are any indication, in the 21st .century that fascination is alive and well, on both sides of the Atlantic.