Simon R. Green: Ghost of a Dream

The Ghost Finders are back. The intrepid agents of the Carnacki Institute are up to their eyeballs in spooktacular mayhem once again. Team leader JC Chance (no longer human after being touched by a Higher Power), technology expert Melody Chambers (always with the best toys) and the notoriously unstable telepath Happy Jack Palmer (trying to kick his prodigious drug habits) tackle a bizarre pair of cases in the third book of the series.

First, the trio handles an incident involving a haunted train station, welcoming back a train that’s over a century late and carrying a passenger list made of up the doomed and the damned. What exactly is the secret of the Ghost Caller, and how did it inspire its creator to do the unspeakably appalling deeds that he did? And what does it mean that at long last, the Bradleigh Halt station is seeing traffic once more?

Then it’s off to the theatre, when the Ghost Finders are dispatched to the Haybarn Theatre in Leicester. Long disused, the building was undergoing renovations until work was halted courtesy of weird events and one guy literally scared to death.  Now, actors are a superstitious lot, and theatres are notorious for being haunted, so what makes this case different? The answer may lie in the past…or perhaps it’s connected to the theatre’s newest owners.  But as JC, Melody, and Happy Jack poke and prod, they run into more questions than answers. Who’s behind the latest spate of hauntings? The aging actors looking for one last hurrah? The spoiled young film ingénue, looking for another kind of acting credit? The ancient caretaker who comes and goes as he pleases? One thing’s for certain: someone…or something…is playing the role of a lifetime. And beyond.

While I greatly enjoy this series, it still hasn’t grown on me the way the Hawk & Fisher, Nightside, or Deathstalker books did. There’s just something about Green’s tone and approach to this series that reads as slightly different. Less personal, less involved, less epic. Sure, the Ghost Finders books fit into the same general urban fantasy setting as the Nightside, and they even mimic the episodic-with-a-larger arc that made that series so much fun, but I still don’t feel the same connect to JC, Happy Jack, or Melody that I have with so many of Green’s other characters. And I can’t put my finger on it, exactly. It’s as tough Green has either stripped away a layer of emotional depth, or added an extra degree of remove.

Still, it’s a fun series. Green, as always, has that knack of conjuring up the right words, phrases, and triggers to convey all the dark and naughty and dangerous images you could ever want, conveying horror both physical and spiritual, without sinking into the Gothic abyss so many horror writers use.

If I was to sum it up, I’d say that his work is…accessible. Less involved. He relies on images and unconscious prompts, rather than flowery language and intense experiences. He’s telling ghost stories here, about spectral locomotives and haunted theatres, about ghostly actors and long-dead madmen, revenge plots and otherworldly menaces, and he’s spinning out these yarns around the metaphorical campfire and preparing you for the inevitable gotcha “And the killer with the hook was on the other end of the phone, calling from within the house, RIGHT BEHIND YOU ALL ALONG!”

Witness a passage like: “The footsteps grew even louder, and heavier, as they drew nearer, slamming down with more-than-human weight and an inhuman sense of purpose. The stage itself seemed to shake and shudder with every step as though in anticipation. As thought it was frightened.” Evocative, yet nothing terribly special, but pushing the all the right buttons, as though Green has mastered the art of the literary short-cut.

And through it you, you have the ever-resourceful characters as they crack wise against the oncoming darkness, kicking ass and taking names.

This is, of course, my long-winded way of saying that Ghost of a Dream is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a Simon R. Green book. While the outward details and trappings may change, they generally come in two varieties: relatively short and epically long. This, in the same mold as the Nightside books is comparatively shorter. The first storyline has only a little connection to the second, for all that it takes up a third of the book. Clearly, Green’s just having some fun, working out stories at different lengths before packaging them together as a reasonably-sized paperback. Together, they advance the major series plot by a few ticks, touching upon JC’s continued changes, his ghostly girlfriend Kim’s unexplained disappearance, the enemies who have infiltrated the Carnacki Institute, and the greater threats from Beyond. It’s enough to feel like progress without resolving anything important.

As a Theatre major, once upon a time, I appreciated the spotlight upon the time-honored tradition of ghosts in the theatre, and I loved some of the revelations and how it all came together. A job well done, worthy of a curtain call.

In the end, I must confess that while I really liked this book — as I do all of Green’s work— I wasn’t overwhelmed. I fear that I’ve become too familiar with his work, to the point where it registers as comfortable, rather than challenging. Pick this up if you’re a fan, or if you just need a quick, entertaining read, and maybe turn an extra light on if you’re reading it late at night.

(Ace, 2012)

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