MirrorDanse Books (2002)
Reviewed by Devin Jeyathurai (this review was first published in November 2005)
The subtitle of this book is an example of understatement, as well as truth in advertising. While it might be true that this is a collection of ghost stories, that phrase does not adequately convey the breadth of Robert Hood’s talent, nor does it offer the prospective reader any real idea as to what to expect. None of the ghosts in this collection are of the conventional sheet-wearing, chain-shaking variety, and not one of them actually goes “boo”. Hood quite deliberately defies convention, and the result is a series of stories that run the gamut, from quiet mood pieces to stirring cinematic epics. In at least one instance, it’s doubtful whether the “ghost” is anything more than the product of a disturbed mind.
In an interview with Kyla Ward (done for the book, and reproduced after the last short story), Hood explains that this collection is called Immaterial “because the material world is haunted by an immaterial reality.”
Sometimes, this haunting is direct. The characters in the opening story, “Nasty Little Habits”, are pretty sure who’s haunting them, too. When Warwick’s nasty little habits continue long after he’s dead, it’s not too difficult to figure out who the ghost is. What is difficult to figure out is the ending, and even when you think it’s over, Hood manages to sneak in a final twist in the tale.
At other times, it isn’t ever clear who’s being haunted by whom. In “Maculate Conception”, Jim has moved out after splitting up with Heather, but he’s still having dreams of her, and there’s a very strange stain on the wall in his new apartment. The two things are connected, but in a quite disturbing way. In “Rough Trade”, Mac has made himself a gargoyle – a gargoyle with issues.
Certain stories never actually identify if there is a haunting going on at all – “Blurred Lines” could be read as a story about a man feeling the effects of old age. “Resonance of the Flesh” is almost a crime story, as Gollan hides out in a hotel after embezzling two million dollars. “Peripheral Movements in the Leaves Under an Orange Tree” is either a ghost story, or it’s not – something’s making those leaves move, but what?
Hood is a writer capable of great variety. Take “Homecoming”, basically a summer blockbuster horror movie in print, complete with scene changes, multiple points of view and a slew of special effects. That story contrasts nicely with “Grandma and the Girls”, a much more intimate story with only the slightest hint of supernatural goings-on. Then there’s “A Place for the Dead”, which is more speculative fiction than standard ghost story, but it still manages to be scary. Set in a world where the dead refuse to stay dead and where the living must play host to those unresting souls, a son is faced with having to share his life with the abusive father whom he hates.
With so many stories to choose from, in so many different styles, it’s likely that there will be something for everyone. The reverse is also likely to be true. This reviewer had great trouble with one sequence in “Dead in the Glamour of Moonlight” which was just a little bit too disturbing. But by and large, the stories here deal with the substance of horror at one step removed, and lean towards creating a lingering sense of disquiet rather than capitalising on shock value.
Through these (and five other) stories, Hood demonstrates a talent for storytelling, as well as showing us his fascination, not only with the immaterial world that surrounds us, but also with the immaterial connections that form between friends, family and even strangers. Whether or not there are real ghosts here is not important – but each of the stories represents a journey away from the comfortable, the stable and the secure, pulling their protagonists towards a world where not everything is as solid as it appears.