A Spectral Hue: Weird in the best possible way

A Spectral Hue by Craig Laurance Gidney science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsA Spectral Hue by Craig Laurance Gidney science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsA Spectral Hue by Craig Laurance Gidney

I don’t know how to categorize Craig Laurance Gidney’s 2019 novel A Spectral Hue. It has an eerie, otherworldly story, and it’s published by a noted small horror press, but I didn’t think it was horror. I didn’t think it was fantasy either. And maybe categories don’t really matter for this slim novel that gave me a genuinely original reading experience.

Gidney’s story is set in a small town, a village really, nearly surrounded by marshlands, in Maryland. Many escaped or emancipated enslaved people ended up in Shimmer, working as crab fishers or taking other jobs associated with the water. There is an entity in the marsh, and some people are sensitive to it. Whether they are drawn to the somewhat rare marsh bell orchid flower, with its pink-purple flowers, or something else, they began to create things. Hazel Whitely, an enslaved woman, made strange quilts. Shadrach Grayson painted. Another man decorated bottles with glue and paper, fabric or beads, nearly all in that other-worldly color. Over the years the town of Shimmer has drawn people who experience the entity in the marsh and make objects to honor her.

The present-day story follows three such characters, each of whom follows a different path to reach the thing in the marsh. For Xavier it’s art, both academic art and the artistic impulse itself, inspired when he sees one of Hazel Whitely’s quilts as a boy. For Iris, it’s spirituality, and for Lincoln it’s pain.

Gidney’s story moves back and forth in time. We follow Hazel Whitely, and earlier than that, an unnamed woman who chooses to call herself Fuchsia, or, earlier, Amarantha. Hazel is an enslaved African American who senses a spirit around her. It wants her to draw, but Hazel is not good at drawing. Instead, she begins to piece together scraps of fabric. In the present-day story, art historians and scholars comment that it was highly unusual to see the strange shade of fuchsia-purple-pink in any fabric during Whitely’s lifetime. Shadrach Grayson’s brooding landscapes of the wetlands flicker with patches of the strange color… and sometimes those patches move.

Craig Laurance Gidney

Craig Laurance Gidney

Xavier comes to Shimmer to write his thesis on the “outsider art” of the town. Iris already lives there. She is alone; her partner Tamar fled clear across the continent, possibly to escape her compulsion to create the elaborate collages decked with the marsh orchid. Iris, trying to move on, has signed up with Airbnb, and Xavier is her tenant. When Xavier visits the Hazel Whitely museum, which has exhibits of Whitely’s quilts, Grayson’s paintings and other examples of outsider art, he meets Lincoln, who is penniless and homeless, currently living in a motel and working as the caretaker of the museum. Lincoln, who came from an upper-class family, became infatuated with the charismatic and destructive Gash, and then got addicted to methamphetamine. He is off the drug, but only starting to drag himself out of a long dark tunnel of humiliation and self-destruction. All three of the main characters begin having strange experiences. Iris, who has always seen ghosts, begins seeing them more regularly. Lincoln notices that images in the artwork move and shift, particularly when no one else is there with him. Xavier has strange dreams, and a sense of completeness when he discovers, by accident, Tamar’s collages.

Gidney weaves in some well-deserved critique of the very concept of “outsider art.” The common meaning of the term comes from art schools and professors, and refers to artists with no formal training, (in other words, anyone “outside” the university). Much of the humor is found in the first half of A Spectral Hue, in the exchanges between Xavier’s dueling thesis advisors, both of whom are great characters. However, another aspect of “outsider art” can be that the creator had no desire or intention to share it with others. In the case of the Shimmer art, none of the creators meant for it to be shared with people. It is meant for the entity in the marsh.

The creators of Shimmer, all of them, are outsiders in other ways. They are all African-American; many marginalized in some other way as well. Hazel and Shadrach were both enslaved. Others are gender non-binary, or gay, like Lincoln and Iris. The people who are drawn to the being in the marsh have all been pushed outside the bounds of privileged society. They’ve all been silenced and held away from the levers of power.

Lincoln may be the most marginalized of the three. Closeted in his own family, he was considered too bourgeoisie for the activist group Violet Rage. He fell from comfort to a precarious situation, risking his life as a prostitute to score enough money to get crystal meth, then even to buy food, sleeping under bridges. Lincoln recalls that there were moments on the drug when he felt what I would describe as ecstasy; with his interactions with the quilts and the paintings, he experiences that again. That connection is his truest sense of belonging.

A Spectral Hue is a horror story in the sense that there is an otherworldly being who wishes to make its way into our world and needs human artists to do that. There are horrors in the book: Hazel’s children are sold to pay the Whitely son’s gambling debts; there is a harrowing passage on a slave ship crossing. These are not phantasms from the author’s imagination. These horrors are part of American history.

This book simply wouldn’t have worked for me if it had been about an eerie presence near an artist’s colony where everyone painted or sculpted. The choice of artforms that were historically available to marginalized people, sometimes referred to as “craft” forms, made the artifacts that are created even more powerful. The artwork in the later part of the book draws from murals, graffiti, comics art, and, of course, collage — in this case, all forms that can be worked collaboratively.

I liked A Spectral Hue very much. I turned each page wondering what was going to be revealed next, or thinking, “Wait…. Whaaat?” I thought the story was strange and original and I’ve continued to think about since I finished it.

The story was not as well supported by the editorial process as it could have been. In a couple of places, there are errors that an editor could have caught and clarified. (I read a final version, not an ARC.) In one passage, Linc wakes up, sees a fuchsia-colored ball of light outside his window and follows it along the marsh edge. Then “He dressed quickly, taking up his backpack, and left the room.” Either there is a sequencing error there, or a missing transition. I know this story plays with time, but this is simply too jarring. In another area, an informant Xavier is interviewing gives him a cup of coffee, which, a few pages later, is a cup of tea. It’s possible that this is a second interview, but it wasn’t clear. Both these quirks jarred me out of the story. I have to say, the reason I comment is because I was so deeply immersed in this story that I resented the interruption. It’s also possible that Gidney is doing something subtle here that I didn’t catch. It still interrupted the experience for me.

A Spectral Hue deals with the creative force, with pain, love, loss and found family. Offer this book to people who want to learn about folks who have been “othered” in any way; people who like Tarot cards, collage, and found-object sculpture, people who loved art school and people who hated it. Maybe the category I want is simply “weird,” in the best possible way.

Published in June 2019. For generations, the marsh-surrounded town of Shimmer, Maryland has played host to a loose movement of African-American artists, all working in different media, but all utilizing the same haunting color. Landscape paintings, trompe l’oeil quilts, decorated dolls, mixed-media assemblages, and more, all featuring the same peculiar hue, a shifting pigment somewhere between purple and pink, the color of the saltmarsh orchid, a rare and indigenous flower. Graduate student Xavier Wentworth has been drawn to Shimmer, hoping to study the work of artists like quilter Hazel Whitby and landscape painter Shadrach Grayson in detail, having experienced something akin to an epiphany when viewing a Hazel Whitby tapestry as a child. Xavier will find that others, too, have been drawn to Shimmer, called by something more than art, something in the marsh itself, a mysterious, spectral hue. From Lambda Literary Award-nominated author Craig Laurance Gidney (Sea, Swallow Me & Other StoriesSkin Deep Magic) comes A Spectral Hue, a novel of art, obsession, and the ghosts that haunt us all.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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2 comments

  1. This sounds so fascinating and horrifying and weird and good!

  2. You talked me into it.

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