The Girl is the second novella in a series called THE SOUTHERN HAUNTINGS SAGA by Bryan Hall, a young, relatively new writer. If it is any indication, this fellow has a great career ahead of him.
The protagonist of The Girl is Creighton Northgate — Crate — who is a sort of psychic, and a sort of private detective, and a sort of ghostbuster, though he rejects all three descriptors. What it amounts to is that he can see ghosts, and he can persuade them to move along to wherever it is ghosts go when they’ve finished their business in this world. He makes his living moving from one haunted person to another, relieving them of their ghosts when he can and debunking claims of ghosts where there are none.
As The Girl opens, Crate has just spent four months in the northeastern part of the United States, working as hard as he ever has. Now, though, he’s on his way back to the South, to “the red clay banks, deep woods, overabundance of roadkill and antique, mildewing mobile homes,” where he can breathe “a deep gulp of the sweet southern air, rich with decomposing leaves and pine and ozone and all the other faint odors that helped him feel at home.” He has a love-hate relationship with his native region, where people die hard and the ghosts were real far more often than in the North.
Crate’s first stop is near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in the Appalachian Mountains. Tom Lee, a construction worker, lives with his family in the wooded hills, and he’s haunted by the ghost of his 12-year-old daughter, Amy, who disappeared two years ago. Tom’s wife Margie thinks Tom’s lost his mind with grief, and his other daughter, Angie, is a teenager who keeps to herself.
Amy loved the woods that surrounded her family’s home, and was often out in the wild, sketching, walking, swimming. One day she went out into the woods and never came back. Margie thinks she ran off, but Tom knows she’s dead, because he sees her ghost regularly — almost every evening at dusk, at the edge of the woods. One of the most disturbing things about her appearances is that her head shakes or wobbles, almost as if she were drunk. Tom wants to help her move on, even as he longs to continue seeing her.
It’s a nice set-up, and Hall produces a gripping, deftly plotted and well-paced mystery. The best part of Hall’s writing, though, is that he gives us a fine sense of place and character, using vivid descriptions that make places visible right in front of us and authentic dialogue that makes his primary characters, Crate and Tom, seem like real people. Crate is an especially convincing series protagonist, terrible at small talk but managing to run his own business regardless; haunted by a ghost of his own; drinking in order to sleep. This novella left me interested in hunting down the two others Hall has already written in this series. I’m curious about how Hall is ultimately going to resolve Crate’s haunting, and I’m rather hoping he’ll do that in a full-fledged novel.
That said, The Girl is not a perfect story. The minor characters are mere sketches, which means ultimately that Crate is not able to hide the solution to the mystery of Amy’s disappearance for very long. The writing lacks polish in places, as evocative as it often is. But both Crate and his occupation are sufficiently interesting that I’m looking forward to reading more of Crate’s adventures.
I acquired this novella as part of the Arcane Bundle presently on offer. The Arcane Bundle is a collection of independent, small press and self-published e-books, offered on a “pay what you want” basis for five to ten works; this bundle contains six titles, with an extra two thrown in if you pay $7 or more. They are DRM-free and offered in multiple formats, something for each kind of e-reader. This particular bundle is available until July 18. The bundle’s website doesn’t specify, but as this bundle is identified as the “July bundle,” I’m guessing a new bundle is available each month. Because I’m a fan of independent and small presses, I’m curious about the other books in this bundle, and will look forward to seeing what’s offered next time around. It’s a brave new publishing world, and authors are doing some interesting things to get eyes on their books.