When it comes to horror and horror-adjacent works, there is not always a need for it to be terrifying for it to be effective. Sometimes just using the backdrop of scary ideas and adding emotions into it can make a piece of work compelling. It wasn’t until a cold Christmas Eve day that I was made familiar with the work of Kevin Brockmeier. Walking the aisles of the Strand Book Store, I came upon a table labeled “horror,” which was exactly what I was looking for. It was filled with your usual Kings, and Hendrixes, but what caught my eye was the quirky cover for Kevin Brockmeier’s The Ghost Variations. Immediately my first thought was, “I want to get that book and get that cover tattooed on me.” My second thought was, “This book sounds amazing.” I quickly started reading through it, and I was completely caught off guard. This quirky-looking book that was advertising 100 stories was turning out to be one of the most heartbreaking gut-punch-inducing pieces of fiction I have ever read.
The style of The Ghost Variations lends a sort of fluidity to the stories by making them precise and easily digestible. When it comes to short stories or shorts of any medium, they force a creator to flex their creativity. You don’t get the 300 pages, or 2 hours for film, to flesh everything out. You must get to the point while still keeping your audience entertained. No matter what emotions I was feeling while reading The Ghost Variations, I was consistently entertained. This was one of the hardest books for me to put down and go run errands or go to work. I wanted my nose between these pages more than I wanted to eat dinner.
Each section is broken down into two ideas: ghosts and [something]. My personal favorites are “Ghosts and Memory,” “Ghosts and Fortune,” “Ghosts and Speculation,” and “Ghosts and Love and Friendship.” While those may be my favorites, each section does its own respective job of being a standout for its own reasons. There are similar themes that carry from story to story in their relevant sections, but a few ideas spill over throughout the entirety of the book. It doesn’t feel like the overall idea Brockmeier had during conception, but this book was very depressing in the best way possible. Although, if that was the initial goal for this book then he absolutely nailed it.
The Ghost Variations is full of new and interesting takes on ghosts and what they can be. From our typical spooky specters, we are met with ghosts of nature, ghosts of despair, and ghosts of happiness. Brockmeier takes a saturated subgenre and finds a way to make it feel fresh. Two stories that highlight just how juxtaposing the stories in this book are, are “The Hitchhiker” and ‘”How to Play.” The first one, “The Hitchhiker” is a creepy and ominous story about a woman who has died but is unwilling to accept the death has occurred. She is constantly asked by the Grim Reaper if she is going to Toledo. From there she learns how to basically avoid death until she is ready. And on the other hand, “How to Play” is a story about ghosts playing a human board game but playing it in the real life. It starts fun and wacky but slowly turns into an ominous psychological story about completely ruining a human’s will. These two stories show just how different each one can be from the previous, and how each one will differ from the next.
Quick side note—this may be ignorant to say on my part, but The Ghost Variations was the first time I realized the significance of font in a novel. This book was written in Monotype Dante, which was first used in a ’54 edition of Trattatello in laude di Dante. Honestly, that is pretty apt to think of when it comes to the material of this book.
One of the things that makes this book so accessible is the chapter/story structure. Nearly every story is told in a page to page and a half long single paragraph, with the exception of a few stories that are broken by a second paragraph. This adds a level of claustrophobia to each story, while simultaneously letting you know there will momentarily be a statement of closure. The story structure adds to the pace of each story.
The Ghost Variations is a set of stories that is nihilistic, with hints of optimism sprinkled throughout that, as previously stated, has left me feeling depressed. What is interesting though is how the nihilism is spun in a bit of a positive way. One of the best examples of this, funny enough, is the third story, “A Hatchet, Several Candlesticks, a Pin Cushion, and a Top Hat.” On the whole, the base idea is overwhelmingly interesting, where a man has dreams, and the dreams manifest into real life. He wakes up after one dream and is clutching a locket that he was given by a princess after slaying a dragon. He creates personal connections to these items, which forces him to think about all of the great things he has accomplished, but these tasks aren’t real. Are they? The final thought of this story is how the eight seconds after waking up, and the emotions that come with it, are the only things that are certain in his life. The story ends with one of the most stressful and depressing lines I think I have ever read, “[I]n truth those eight seconds are the only time, when he is awake, that he does not doubt it.”
Kevin Brockmeier is undoubtedly a fantastic writer whose prose constantly refines itself. He took the idea of ghosts and created true feelings and emotions behind them. The Ghost Variations is something that could be enjoyed by horror genre fans as well as people who aren’t necessarily into the genre. This book takes what could have been sappy and cheesy and makes it into an emotional ride that you will have difficulty getting out of your head for quite a long time. Since reading this, I have taken a step back in life and forced myself to evaluate things—what am I doing, what have I done? The Ghost Variations is a nihilistic, engaging, 267 pages of pure emotion.