For weeks now I've been slowly getting through A Manhattan Ghost Story, the seventh horror novel by T.M. Wright. He's a prolific but rather cultish author whose first book, the oddly poetic and ambiguous Strange Seed, I read and reviewed last year; it left me nonplussed, unsure of how I really felt about it. But Wright had skill, a manner and tone I found intriguing, so I didn't give up on reading another horror novel by him. Then I happily found a copy of MGS, feeling that his talents would lend themselves well to a quiet tale of haunting in the Big Apple. Dared I hope for, I dunno, Woody Allen meets Roman Polanski (to put it in cinematic terms)? Well... yep, kinda I was hoping for that! But now, I'm feeling that same ambivalence about this novel too.
A photographer named Abner Cray visits the city to do a coffee-table book of his work, staying at an old friend's empty apartment. He muses obsessively on the nature of death and the dead but not in any way I found insightful or surprising. A struggle, trudging through "poetic" elegiacal passages such as Yes, definitively, this is what it's all about, this is what Death is all about; sit back now, I'll tell you, my God, they'd swarm all over like angry bees, the dead would, like angry bees which appear again and again throughout the narrative. Then there's flashback chapter sections in which Abner and a delinquent friend break into a mausoleum as young teens in 1965, which contain some really and truly clunky, amateur-hour prose and dialogue (if I read one more conversation in which two characters say one another's names over and over again...).
The present day sees ghosts intermingling with the living in a sort of purgatorial New York City. At least, if you can't figure out that the odd people who speak in repetitive near-riddles to the narrator are merely shades of the dead - well, there, I spoiled it for you. But I didn't really: the book is titled "A Manhattan Ghost Story" - what else is the reader supposed to expect? Just look at the Tor paperback's cover art!
Anyway, I had to give up two-thirds of the way through, and quickly skimmed the final chapters. Don't feel like I missed much. There's an interesting story here, absolutely: Abner's friendship with a man who's abandoned his apartment and left the country because he murdered someone; his burgeoning relationship with that friend's ex-girlfriend; Abner's own past in which he'd slept with an attractive cousin; his misadventures in the dark and gritty city streets and parks and apartment buildings. But there's little atmosphere and, as I said, you pretty much know what's coming. The pacing is stop/start and the editing should have tightened up a lot of the writing. I felt like MGS was an old manuscript Wright had in a desk drawer and turned it in without rewriting it.
I really wanted to like A Manhattan Ghost Story; I haven't read a good ghost story in some time, and I felt the Manhattan setting would work to Wright's advantage. It's just that I don't think he took enough advantage, certainly not enough to convince this reader. He has some real fans, though, as his Wikipedia page reads more like disguised fanboy gushing than impartial biography (who gives a fuck who the movie rights to MSG were bought by and which celebrities were attached to act in it? You don't see that in other Wikipedia novel entries). Not finishing a book is one of my great pet peeves, but it really is the only sensible course: three weeks of reading and I didn't even make it to page 250 (out of 381). My shelves are overstuffed these days; what would you have done?
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