A review which originally appeared in Black Static #46 as part of a feature on Ralph Robert Moore:-
EVERYTHING SWARMING AROUND US: RALPH ROBERT MOORE
Ralph Robert Moore has the distinction of being the first writer I’ve interviewed for Case Notes whose work is primarily self-published, at least as regards books (he has a more than respectable CV of short story appearances, including one entry in an Ellen Datlow edited Best Of anthology). Black Static readers will be familiar with his work from various appearances in the pages of the magazine over the past couple of years, and if that’s not the case then check out ‘Men Wearing Makeup’ in this very issue. In Moore’s back catalogue through his SENTENCE Publishing you can find two short story collections and two novels.
Which rather neatly brings us to his most recent release, GHOSTERS (SENTENCE Publishing pb, 265pp, $15). According to the front cover blurb this is “a novel in ten stories”, while on the back cover we find “the ten stories comprising this novel are ten known cases in which Ghosters were involved”. By now you are probably wondering who or what are ghosters, and the answer is that they are people with the knowledge and skill set required to deal with supernatural manifestations, though there any resemblance to those admirably photogenic Winchester boys ends. Moore’s ghosters are not particularly nice people and their primary motivation is making money out of their gift. Imagine if you will, the movie Ghostbusters as directed by the Oliver Stone of Wall Street fame, or a more apt comparison might be The Frighteners without the comedy and a barking mad Jack Nicholson in lieu of Michael J. Fox. Ghosts are good for the profit margin, and in this monetization of the outré we can see a sign of the changing times.
I’m circling round and round the point.
In opening story ‘Half-Haunted House’ we meet the intriguingly named team of Stan Costello and Bud Hardy, whose primary source of income is buying and selling bottled ghosts. They are engaged in this activity at the start of the story, before travelling to see new client Sylvia, who wants them to visit the house of the title and bottle the ghost of her wheelchair bound son’s murdered girlfriend for him to stand on a shelf in his bedroom, the ultimate memento mori. The house of the title is Hoover Manor, once a private property, now transformed into a four storey shopping mall built entirely out of wood, and whose top two levels have been given over to ghosts, though the general public can visit if they pay the entry fee and sign the appropriate disclaimers. It is a striking introduction to the book’s central conceits, the characters and devices by which Moore intends to explore these themes. At the heart of the story is the relationship between Stan and Bud, two very different characters who nevertheless seem to perfectly complement each other, with a mutual and exclusive warmth that both underlines and undercuts the comedic baggage of their nomenclature. In addition we get a wonderful panoply of supernatural beings courtesy of the shopping mall come haunted house, some lurid and repellent imagery, and as subtext, driving the plot into ever darker alleyways, the hint of a deviant sexuality at play.
‘Tiny Doorways’ introduces us to Clay, perhaps the most powerful and certainly the least compassionate of the ghosters. Here he is employed to help the comatose daughter of a wealthy man whose Plum (the will to live) has been taken by a seed eating entity known as a Neek. Again we have a multifarious and convoluted plot, with more revelations about the nature of this version of reality, a varied and original cast of spectres, and a final plot twist which seems to underline the futility of existence. Clay is brusque at the best of times, and at the worst he is downright rude. He is a man who has no trouble telling people ugly home truths, and their choice is to like it or lump it, but in doing so he is only affirming the truths to which he himself bore witness in a vision that defined his identity as a ghoster – “I saw the world as it really is. Everything swarming around us. And most of it is evil”.
Six foot seven tall, Tilda Clem is the only female ghoster. In ‘A Woman Made of Milk’ she is hired by a man who is concerned that the ghost of his beloved wife hasn’t appeared to him. He fears that something has occurred to prevent her doing so. Together they penetrate deep into the bowels of his ancestral home, an ancient house by the name of Chatterton that, like King’s Rose Red, has simply grown and grown over the centuries, becoming a matryoshka doll of houses, their journey one that involves stripping away layers of the past like an archaeologist uncovering various strata of ancient history. Again, it’s a fascinating idea, a blue sky concept of sorts, but Moore doesn’t lose sight of the human aspects of his story, with a gripping and painfully emotive account of the final illness of MacDonald’s wife. While the story’s resolution has about it a sense of destiny fulfilled and brings closure of a kind, that end is only attained through sacrifice and the spilling of innocent blood. This touches on another distinguishing feature of the ghoster way of life, a leit motif of these stories if you wish to get all literary: their solutions are almost as terrible as the problems which they address.
Our final ghoster is the Irishman Patrick, described as having a head like an onion. He is perhaps a slightly more amiable version of the hard core Clay, a man who will tell it like it is, but will at least remain polite while doing so. He is required to help a man who is ‘Green with Demon’, which means that he has given into the rage and hatred in his life, allowing it to consume him. As so often in these stories, the character’s actions have led him to this terrible impasse of the spirit, and to move on he has to be forced to confront the reality of what he has become and the things that he has done in his past. It’s a tale of a potentially good man undone by the seeds of jealousy, who has fed his inner demon until it consumes him. Underlying the story is the concept that we all have demons inside us, and just like the bacteria in our bodies they keep us safe, only now and then getting out of control.
Clay returns for ‘Warfarin’, attending the death of a man who is haunted by Smudges, spirits of regret that feast and grow fat on the memories of events in his life where he failed to act as he feels he should have done. The story fills in more of the fascinating mythology and/or metaphysics of the ghosters, while the violence that has been quietly simmering away in the background, only occasionally reaching out to the reader with a machete in one hand and bludgeon in the other, now moves centre stage with scenes that some will find hard to read. The suffering of the innocent by way of atonement is another theme of the book, and that is seen most clearly here: the only way for Clay to get rid of the Smudges is to transfer them into a living being, one that is subsequently tortured and slain, in a procedure that is reminiscent of Jesus’ sending of the demons into a herd of swine and their subsequent fate.
I’ll post another not for the squeamish warning for Tilda’s second appearance. Jonathan in ‘This Old Haunted House’ moves from one hotel to another, and each time his room reverts to the furnishings in his grandfather’s house. He is being pursued by a Domino Ghost, one that jumps from generation to generation within a family, and Tilda can only help Jonathan by removing the possibility of his having children, which calls for drastic and bloody action, Moore describing the necessary operation in painfully precise and clinical terms, with accompanying dialogue that confers an almost matter of fact quality on what is taking place. Even Tilda cannot dispel some of the other symptoms of Jonathan’s haunting. None of these stories have happy endings, as such. In Moore’s scheme of things, the outré is not something to be dispelled with an appropriate invocation or dissolved by holy water. Rather it seems almost akin to an illness of some kind, a disability that we must learn to live with, a draining sickness whose ill effects have to somehow be accommodated, because there is never going to be a cure.
An unhappily married couple are haunted by the ghost of the wife’s cousin in ‘If He Had Wings’. Patrick comes to their aid with his apprentice Matt, who is a ghost eater, but although they get rid of the ghost they realise that the couple’s relationship is doomed to end in tragedy. Central to the narrative is the back story, the resentment that drives Tom to act as he does and which will eventually lead him to attempt to murder his wife.
There’s a sombre feel to ‘We Don’t Keep in Touch Anymore’, and a sense that this isn’t a self-contained story as such, but a bridge between pivotal events, a way for the author to reveal details that are necessary to the overall story arc. We meet Stan and Bud in similar circumstances to those of the book’s opening, at an isolated farm and looking to purchase bottled ghosts from a collector, but as the narrative unfolds we learn more of Stan’s past and the desire for closure that drives him on to act as he does.
The penultimate story opens with a meeting between the ghosters, with Matt now taken on as Clay’s apprentice and having a hard time of it, before moving on to a confrontation between Patrick and a man haunted by disturbing visions in ‘Flesh Ghost’. We learn about the man’s life, the delusions he has and the things of which he is afraid, how fear has dominated his existence, before eventually Patrick shows him how to correct the error that has occurred. Again it’s a story in which there is no happy ending.
We come full circle with ‘Full-Haunted House’. Hoover Manor has now been infected by an entity known as a Fear Ghost, which has drawn more spirits to itself making the whole mall complex inimical to human beings. Their old client asks Stan and Bud to return to the Manor, and they do so against their better judgement, when Stan is given a hint that he may find the personal closure he longs for by doing so. The stage is set for tragedy, and tragedy is what we get, with the totally unsympathetic Clay drafted in to pull whatever irons he can from the fire (at a price, of course). There are no happy endings, and that’s as true for the ghosters themselves as it is for their clients. We can only deal with whatever comes down the pike and make an effort to go on with our lives as best we can. It is a sombre end to the book, but one that has a kind of rightness to it. In Clay’s total lack of compassion and/or common humanity, his fusion of pragmatism and the appetite for cold hard cash, we see something of the true nature of the beast, what is needed to survive in the world of the ghosters, though even Clay concedes that sooner or later events will catch up with him. We are all living on borrowed time. In contrast the understated Bud offers a more upbeat alternative, the possibility of a life on the minimalist scale, with warmth and human values at its core.
The question has to be asked: do these ten stories comprise a novel? And I’m not sure that they do despite what it may say on the cover. Yes, there is a greater story arc, but I’m not convinced that everything here contributes to that overriding narrative as would be the case for a conventional novel. There are alarums and excursions, wonderful in themselves but not truly moving the greater story on. What can’t be denied is that Moore has written a book that contains a thoroughly original and totally convincing portrayal of the supernatural world, one in which cosmic vision and human feeling collide. I loved every single page of it, not least for the wealth of incidental detail and the assured way in which Moore so often circles around the crux of each story, slowly dragging it out into the light of day, letting us see and experience what is really at stake. It does for ghosts what his novel As Dead As Me did for zombies, with bells on.