“A haunting is a moment of trauma, infinitely repeated.” So writes Lettie Wells in an artist’s statement accompanying the eponymous gallery exhibition in the title story from Montreal-born A.C. Wise’s superb new collection. The various spectres and spirits that inhabit these stories are afflicted by equal parts anger and anguish at their circumstances, rendering the volume’s sixteen entries both creepy and shot through with a strain of piercing melancholy. Wise offers us unrequited lovers, missing children, suicides, and shipwrecks, all united by themes of loss and longing. Birds and animals form patterns of symbols within and across these stories, as do artists of various stripes: theatre and film actors, visual artists, and magicians.
The last take precedence in a pair of stories: the opener, “How the Trick Is Done,” and the penultimate story, “The Men from Narrow Houses.” In the former tale, a magician aligns himself professionally and romantically with a resurrectionist capable of raising him from the dead after he is shot onstage; the show-stopping trick turns deadly after the ghost of the magician’s former assistant reveals herself to his new inamorata. “The Men from Narrow Houses” is a more uncanny – and therefore somewhat more unnerving – tale about a shape-shifter who is able to transform herself into a fox, an ability that becomes the highlight of a magician’s onstage performance. Her relationship to the magician and the eponymous men from narrow houses throws her engagement to her fiancé into turmoil.
Magic implies illusion or sleight-of-hand; once an observer knows how the trick is done, it ceases to be impressive. Wise subverts this notion by insisting on the reality of her yearning, vengeful ghosts and forcing her reader not simply to suspend disbelief, but to accept wholeheartedly a world that transcends rational explanations and logic. She insists on the inexplicable as an intrinsic element of her stories and often refuses to ground a reader in recognizable situations or settings; as a writer, she shares more in common with Arthur Machen than Stephen King.
This approach is profound in “The Men from Narrow Houses,” with its pattern of symbolism focused on the underground, including an image of a house buried upside down, with an “attic branching like roots” and a basement that “sprouts leaves to push up through the ground.” The house has tunnels that connect the rooms and the protagonist, Gabby, dreams she “slinks like an animal” through them – a clear chime with her liminal state caught between human woman and fox. The story renders unclear whether her true nature is as a fox in a woman’s skin or vice versa; when the men from narrow houses ask “Where were you before you were here?” Gabby mishears the last word as “her.”
The “narrow houses” in the story’s title are redolent of death: coffins, burial, and the underground. This notion is made explicit in “The Ghost Sequences” when one of the artists refers to a game she used to play as a child with her sister. The Dead Game makes literal the metaphorical experience of the men from narrow houses: “We would lie perfectly still in the dark, our bodies straight, our feet together, our arms pressed at our sides, like we were lying in invisible coffins.”
Death in these stories is inextricable from art – perhaps not surprising given Wise’s evident affinity for the unnerving as a literary touchstone. “The Secret of Flight” is about a theatrical production that ran for one night only because at the play’s climax the leading lady disappeared onstage in front of a dumbstruck audience, her corporeal body replaced by a flock of starlings. In “I Dress My Lover in Yellow,” a painting by a notorious 19th-cenury New England artist has uncomfortable ramifications for a present-day couple who vanish mysteriously without a trace.
Both “The Secret of Flight” and “I Dress My Lover in Yellow” are notable for their stylistic inventiveness. The former includes notices from a 1950s theatre critic/gossip columnist alongside letters in the narrative present from the play’s (now aged) director to his unrequited male love interest; the latter intersperses excerpts from critical texts commenting on the artist and his work with correspondence between the disappeared young people. The author’s impulse toward structural playfulness is also apparent in “The Ghost Sequences,” “How to Host a Haunted House Murder Mystery Party,” “The Last Sailing of the ‘Henry Charles Morgan‘ in Six Pieces of Scrimshaw (1841),” and “Excerpts from a Film (1942–1987).” Far from being intrusive or artificial, these structural elements serve to further unsettle the surface narratives, enhancing the reader’s sense of dislocation and unease.
Which is not to say that Wise is incapable of telling a straightforward story when she puts her mind to it. “The Stories We Tell About Ghosts,” one of the strongest entries in the collection, is a relatively quiet tale about a group of children who spend their summer playing a Pokémon Go–like game on their phones. The game, called Ghost Hunt!, begins as a lark, but the stories the kids tell one another to frighten themselves start to bleed into the real world, ending with the disappearance of one of their number. In its focus on the guilt of the protagonist over the fate of his younger brother (which is telegraphed in the opening lines), “The Stories We Tell About Ghosts” manifests the collision of fear and sadness that pervades so many of these pieces. The marriage of haunting and trauma acknowledged in the book’s closing story is evident throughout the collection, rendering the book’s ghosts a manifestation of memory that follows us wherever we go, no matter how fast we run or how diligently we work to escape.