Perhaps we’ve been getting our ghost stories all wrong. All these avenging murder victims, all these forlorn lovers — but what about a lumber magnate consigned to an afterlife made dense with the ghosts of the trees he felled? Or the relationship that haunts former partners long after their breakup?
In “The Ghost Variations” (Pantheon Press), Kevin Brockmeier expands our idea of what a ghost story can be — and prompts us to consider complex questions about life and death, being and nonbeing. Brockmeier, the Little Rock-raised author of eight books that probe the fantastical, offers one hundred vignettes on a wide range of ghostly perspectives. There are humans living, dead, and transiting the mortal plane. There are animals, including a herd of elephants concocting their own ghost stories after hearing the call of a lost loved one. There are paranormal stories, like the one that profiles a horseman of the apocalypse. And there are stories of the entirely incorporeal, such as a tale of the discovery of a 27th letter that “had been haunting the alphabet at least since the time of Cervantes.”
Brockmeier’s ghost stories defy expectations. They spurn the conventions of gothic horror. Further, these ghosts have little to do with a sense of History obtruding onto the present, as ghosts sometimes do in the traditions of oppressed and marginalized peoples. Instead, Brockmeier delivers the texture of personal experience at (or just adjacent to) the boundary line between life and death. These one hundred stories are by turns touching and whimsical, only occasionally morose. Rather than campfire terrors, these ghosts invite us to consider everyday experiences as simultaneously mundane and numinous.
The stories are also remarkably compact. In a brisk two pages, each story introduces a unique conceit, often a fanciful one, and then teases and twists the premise. Brockmeier tends to land on the most wondrous sentences, surprising with humor or a trenchant insight into the human condition. For instance, the 64th story begins, “They made him leave the afterworld when they found out he was not a ghost.” The story provides a quick study of alienation as its protagonist feels out of sorts in the land of the living. It ends with a snap after the character finds himself deposited at a shopping mall, having been tried and convicted in a ghostly court for “willful and premeditated materiality.” The story closes thus: “Outside he was sure he would find what he needed — either an attorney with a specialty in the transcendental or a good, heavy, fast-moving car.”
At this pacing, I can imagine a reader taking in “The Ghost Variations” in the rhythm of a daily devotional. A bedtime reading, perhaps, to end the day with a reflection on the meanings of mortality and whatever one might expect of a life-after, or to marvel at a well-wrought turn of phrase. And the language itself indeed sparkles. For instance, one ghost, in his living days, was a dreamy romantic, always feeling “a canyony sensation of intimacy and potential.” Another searches for a verb tense to capture the feeling of déjà vu and settles on “the present super-perfect.”
“The Ghost Variations,” as all of Brockmeier’s work does, affords readers a sense of wonder — and also, I would say, showcases empathy for characters in all their travails, whether living or dead, whether human or animal or nonbeing.
In my literature courses at Lyon College, I often try to facilitate a “sympathetic imagination” — a term coined by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum to describe the ability to comprehend others’ motives and choices, to see them not as Other but as sharing many of our own problems and possibilities. Usually we discuss this skill as relating to extraordinary times of deep Othering, such as the Islamophobia that followed the September 11 attacks or the anti-Asian rhetoric and violence we have seen intensifying during the pandemic, but it also serves mundane situations of misunderstanding and misrecognition that we find every day — in family, in the workplace, in politics.
Reading “The Ghost Variations,” I wondered: how does its empathy facilitate sympathy with the dead, with a nonbeing? What does it mean to sympathize not just across the boundaries of human difference, but also with the nonhuman? I can’t imagine that it serves the dead much to do so. But I suspect it leads to a richer experience of human life — while I still have it, anyway.