The Ghost Variations: One Hundred Stories, Kevin Brockmeier (Pantheon Books 978-1-524-74883-8, $27.00, 288pp) March 2021.
I became aware of Kevin Brockmeier’s work back in 2008 when Robert Shearman, in an interview with Eric Forbes, included Brockmeier in a list of writers “who play with the short story, squeeze as much out of it as they can.” Sadly, I’ve only now gotten around to reading Brockmeier’s short fiction, picking up his latest collection The Ghost Variations: One Hundred Stories. The book is the literary equivalent of a concept album, gathering together 100 ghostly vignettes and then breaking them up into 11 categories including, “Ghosts and Memory”, “Ghosts and Nature”, “Ghosts and Speculation”, and “Ghosts and Love and Friendship”. There’s even a Concordance at the back of the collection that provides an intricate spiderweb of links between each vignette. Given the length of these stories – none longer than five hundred words – and the singular nature of the topic, if I weren’t reviewing The Ghost Variations, I would have dipped in and out of the book like a box of Cadbury Favourites (or the chocolate-in-a-box equivalent in the US). What’s truly incredible about this assemblage of all things phantasmagorical is they are so inventive, so bursting with ideas and strange insights, that if you do read each story in quick succession, they never become a bland, indistinct purée of hauntings and spectral emanations.
Brockmeier gets the chains a-clanking with “A Notable Social Event”, a sad, exquisite tale about a teenage ghost who has spent a century repeating the same move – fleeing from the man who rejected her – in the hope of perfecting the gesture.
At fifteen, she thinks, she failed to express the true complexity of her emotions, all her humiliation, resentment, forlornness, and heartache, and each feeling in its exact proportions, and so, ever since she died, she has performed her flight from the ballroom with countless tiny reflections.
This beautiful nugget of a story sets the scene for so many other brilliant nuggets. There’s the woman who spends a literal lifetime parsing the words for the perfect wish before letting a patient genie out of its bottle, or the man whose fortunes are in such perfect balance that the exact amount of lousy luck offsets any good luck he experiences, or the person who accidentally becomes a ghost centuries before they’re born, or the alien fleet invaded by human spirits from a dead Earth, or the man forced to leave the afterlife when it’s discovered he’s not a ghost, or the time God stopped the world for a head-count and “discovered to His alarm that the imaginary beings outnumbered the real ones.” I could go on – I’ve not even covered a tenth of book – but rattling off more stories would only rob you of the joy of discovering these unexpected wonders for yourself.
Coming back to Robert Shearman, The Ghost Variations did remind me of his new collection, which I reviewed last year, We All Hear Stories in the Dark. Yes, Shearman’s magnum opus is eight times larger than Brockmeier’s book, but they are both playful, inventive works structured around one hundred thematically linked stories that also exhibit a great deal of passion and respect for the power of short-fiction and the art of story-telling. Shearman and Brockmeier display this adoration through their breadth of imagination, through their willingness to tinker with the form, and through their keen eye for the human condition, ensuring that the often surreal tales they tell run the emotional gamut by being funny, moving, and horrifying, sometimes in the same paragraph.
The Ghost Variations: One Hundred Stories is a remarkable collection, one that regularly elicits a gasp of delight and awe over stories that barely straddle two pages of text. Even if ghosts and haunted houses don’t float your boat, if you’re someone who reads fantastic fiction for its sense of wonder and its ability to provide fresh insights into old, worn-out ideas, then I beg you get a copy of The Ghost Variations. This is your sort of book.
This review and more like it in the March 2021 issue of Locus.
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