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A Manhattan Ghost Story

by TM Wright

(Telos Press, $10.00, 276 pages, paperback, 2006, ISBN: 1-84583-048-2.)

Review by William P Simmons

cover scanFrom its origins in oral folk belief and the quasi-religious story patterns of cross-comparative mythology, to its subsequent refinement as written literature (an art form more concerned with refined emotional effect than the general story patterns of oral lore), the ghost story has long served as a symbolic vehicle which entertains while reflecting the apprehensions, secret desires, and nightmares of humankind, regardless of age or era. Possessing the desire, symbolic language, and themes to explore the unknown vistas of our exterior worlds as well as our own dark hearts, the proper supernatural story -- a narrative provoking intellectual/spiritual inquiry as well as inviting emotional stimuli -- asks readers to question their individual 'and' cultural beliefs. Rare is the story that employs character and sense of place, theme and plot to such effect that ghosts of external nature (and Nature itself) exist side-by-side with the less palatable, albeit more threatening ghosts of mind. Rarer still is the author whose approach, themes, and style evoke a sense of wonder found not outside of parameters of normality but from within them. TM Wright is such an author, and A Manhattan Ghost Story is perhaps one of his most tragic yet elegantly written odes to human pain and love.

Traditional supernatural fiction, from JS Le Fanu and MR James to such modern sensations as Stephen King, often focus on threats from outside the commonly accepted parameters of logic, science, or the seemingly 'everyday'. First a context of everyday logic and 'reality' is evoked, captured by realistic setting, characters, and rules of logic. Only then are elements of the supernatural or fantastic allowed to gradually slip in, throwing an ordered world into a chaos that is then, predictably enough, reaffirmed/saved at the story's end. Wright on the other hand, with all the depth of insight and skill of a true artist, isn't content to operate along such classical structures. Rather than depict a banal re-hashing of so-called logical, objective everyday reality his stories tend instead to question the very emotional, intellectual, and spiritual definitions of reality in general.

Employing evocative language, subtlety of approach, and a unique sense of the hidden truths lurking just outside the everyday, Wright's fiction questions Nature (both our own and the external Nature around us), our understandings of existence, and the very fragility of the very tool of perception. To put it another way, physical ghosts may indeed haunt the shattered worlds of Wright's deeply introspective, empathetic characters, lending fright and fascination to narratives as grounded in philosophical speculation as they are in surface terror, but, more frightening (and certainly more challenging to pull off effectively as a writer), there is no re-established construct of Reality upon which the supernatural can intrude -- because there is no single definition or portrait of reality first maintained.

An economically written and deeply felt nightmare of atmospheric subtlety and stark spiritual horror, suggesting a refined sense of occult powers and supernatural mysteries lurking at the very edges -- or, more often, within -- the fabric of 'reality', Wright's elegant visions expose borderland moments in the lives of characters who through their own folly or, worse, through no fault of their own, discover that preconceived notions of existence are a surface illusion, and that the truth, whatever that mystifying presence may indeed be, is a thin onion peel away from the woken mind. Moments of intellect or emotional overflow -- those times when the supernatural is encountered -- provoke awe and invite a new sensitivity to the sublime possibilities anchored in the everyday. The very commonplace if 'hidden' existence of the dead -- and their confused relationship with/proximity to the living -- infuses Wright's novel A Manhattan Ghost Story with pathos and tenderness at the very same time that it frightens. Reprinted in a new attractive edition from Telos, and featuring an introduction by the author, this is a novel about ghosts, about us.

Depicting a world full of ghosts -- an everyday reality of various possible shifting realities --Wright creates in this novel one of his characteristically subtle yet chilling refutations of logic, evoking fear not only from a land populated continuously by the dead who don't realize it, and the living who may just as well be, but also by throwing into uncertainty the very nature of existence ... and our ability to perceive it. Abner Cray is one of those shadow-land folks cursed with the ability to see, feel, and interact with the dead, and is in turn tormented by both the spirits of the dead and by the constantly shifting nature of reality -- itself largely a meaningless world when subverted by Wright. It is this sense of no common ground, no safety zone of logic or faith, science or meaning, no objective reasoning. This lends Wright's horror fiction the resonance of absurdism, saying much by seemingly saying little. The horrible relationships and psychic gifts that Cray discovers in A Manhattan Ghost Story are nowhere as frightening, revolutionary, or tragic, as what he shows us about the nature of love.

Not constricted by any one narrative tradition or formula, his characters take him into realms of the visionary terror story wherein there is no pre-established order of logic, science, or rationale; no safety in conventional philosophy or religion. In this novella Wright keeps his essential mysteries unknowable because the process of 'experiencing' them is more important, in the end, than deciphering them. Something, we are assured, waits just outside our five senses and intellectual capabilities, something outside nature or logic, like a shadow skipping by the eye on a dark night in your living room, with all the dark miracles of Hades waiting only inches from your grasp: this is the feeling that the novel instils, these the songs of the damned and damnable, reaffirming the importance of structure and originality in a genre softened by slapdash sensationalism.

Wright's predilection is for scathingly intimate characterization and evocative atmosphere. His novels are often less about plot than mood, holding the power and effect -- the dream logic -- of a nightmare. This is certainly the case in A Manhattan Ghost Story, wherein a man who discovers he can communicate with the dead who populate our world although both they (and we) may not recognize them (or, often, ourselves). Wright is as concerned with the universal and quite terrifying quest for love as he is with 'supernatural' shades. In Cray's struggle to come to terms with his ability, himself, and a world whose borders are shattered, the dead seeping through like murky water, is the even greater quest to face -- and attempt understanding of -- love. A quest that is futile, pitiable, and manic. A quest doomed to failure.

Wright's haunting world of pain and loss, redemption and heartache, is as steeped in the banality of the everyday as it is electrically charged with the dead. His characters, and the world visited, is neither one nor the other, but both. Wright's Manhattan is full of dead folk who don't realize it, and members of the living who may as well be dead; many are already dead emotionally and spiritually if not physically. Love-- that central theme in Wright's work -- is shown with the same terrifying honesty as a cemetery plot, honestly; love is as much a funeral shroud and beast as it is ecstasy, obsessive and destructive, hungry and fulfilling. Capable of cutting into the soul no less harsh than a razor splitting skin. All this makes Wright's frightening, fatalistic fables undeniably, painfully human. His characters mirror the authenticity and emotional overflow of Edgar Wallace's prose-poems while going still further into secret stories of lives lived, lost, and regretted. Lives haunted. As often as classic revenants stalk street and dream, the primary specters of this novel masterpiece not only of genre but American literature are guilt and regret -- internal phantoms that cripple the presents of people unable to free themselves from the past. Broken futures and broken promises share the stage with broken hearts.

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