Sunday, March 4, 2012

Review: "The Ghosts of Varner Creek" by Michael Weems

When I purchased "The Ghosts of Varner Creek," I thought I was buying a ghost story in the traditional (read: horror) sense. That, it's not - despite a very creepy hotel room encounter with a ghost early on - but I'm having a hard time pegging it. Amazon's description calls it "a southern Gothic tale of a paranormal mystery," and that's pretty close, though I would argue that it's a regular mystery with some paranormal aspects.

However you want to categorize Michael Weems' novel, you'll have to admit one thing: This is an excellent, if at times heartbreaking, story about the way one family self-destructs and the secrets left behind.

The narrator, Sol, grows up in the small town of Varner Creek with his parents and his older sister, Sarah, who has Down syndrome. His parents' marriage isn't a happy one - not surprising, considering it's rooted in date rape - and so when Sol's mother, Annie, and Sarah disappear the day after Sarah's birthday, not many are surprised. Sol is, though, and he isn't the only one wondering about their disappearance.

How Sol deals with the emotional aftermath of his mother's disappearance, his father's emotional and physical abuse and, yes, his unexpected ability to see ghosts makes for an engrossing read. It's not always comfortable, but given the subject matter, that's appropriate.

What hooked me early on (after I realized what kind of book this was not) is the way Weems wrote Sol's discovery that his mother and sister have vanished. Weems nails the way a young boy would react to being left with a parent who terrifies him by the parent he loves. Confusion, denial, self-blame - it's achingly easy to imagine Sol's emotion state:

No, no she couldn't have, I though. She wouldn't do that to me. Oh, God, I thought. Why didn't I wake up? Why didn't she wake me up, too, and take me with her? How could I not have heard her. She must have been rummaging all through the dresser for the clothes and even Sarah had gotten up without me hearing her. If I had woken up maybe she would have taken me with her.

The writing is generally very good. Weems skirts the line of overly cutesy with some countrified spellings - "yah" instead of yeah, "diller" instead of armadillo, etc. - but it was kept within reason. 

I don't normally enjoy novels like this one; I prefer escapist fiction, where the harm people do to each other is sufficiently removed from my reality. In spite of that, I made it through "The Ghosts of Varner Creek" in a little more than a day. It's worth reading.