Over the course of close to three decades, between 1986 and 2014, Robert Hood had written forty-four stories concerning ghosts: many short and bite-sized reads, a few novelettes for passenger-side driving, and a single novella that’ll last you at least a couple visits to your doctor’s waiting room.
These collected works (along with notes on the inspiration of each tale) are divided into what the writer has called “thematic categories”, a sort of grim and deathly taxonomy -- a directory of “haunted” things, if you will; and they come together to form the volume, Peripheral Visions. These categories are as follows: haunted places, haunted families, haunted minds, haunted youth, haunted vengeance, and haunted realities. The book itself is a whopping thing, whether we’re talking paper or megabytes – about two-hundred twenty thousand words, not including the author’s notes.
Oh yes, reader, you’ll be reading for more than a bit.
A volume of ghost stories then – what better way to give yourself chills throughout the day: walking with the dead and their sufferings – watching them stick their cold and peeling fingers into the lives of those who wronged them, stirring things up and licking the blood from their rotting nails.
Indeed, whether it be what the dead has left behind in ornate hotels of stained glass, or the leather seats of classic big-block v8 cars, or otherworldly places that’ve transcended humanity altogether, where concepts such as passion and lust have been abandoned for order and industry -- Hood has put together a collection that is tireless in its pursuit of “hauntings”; and because of this it offers the reader a variety of twists and turns.
The good: As before mentioned, Hood offers a grand table lain with tattered silk cloth. Atop it sits fixings from a variety faraway places, things, and people. It starts off with his first published work, Necropolis, a post-apocalyptic short that sets things off well, its focus on ghosts as victims trapped in their own never-ending cycle of thoughtless misery.
“You know what weird means, Barry?” I tasted almonds on the breeze now. “Do you?”
“I know what I mean.”
“Means second-sighted. Not quite in this world.”
“Not all there is right.”
-From Necropolis, written by Robert Hood.
Another notable work in the collection is The Whimper; and it’s in the back. And like Necropolis, its fixation is with the end of days. The Whimper, however, pursues this shape differently than what you might be used to, abandoning nuclear fall-out and flesh-eating revenants for something a little more subtle.
It was hard to see them, as though they were covered in a shifting gossamer film. While they walked they went out of focus and back again, with an imprecise rhythm – nauseating if you stared too long. They looked lost. A woman wearing a business suit. A man in overalls. A teenager with an untidy shock of hair, carrying a skateboard under one arm.
-From The Whimper, written by Robert Hood.
Hood’s Necropolis and The Whimper, along with a handful of others tales (Nobody’s Car, Rotten Times, Beware the Pincushionman, Ego, The Glamour of Moonlight, the latter of which is one of my personal favorites), sets the strongest foundation for the collection, often in fascinating and ascetically pleasing ways. The imagery in these tales is rich and despite the majority of them being short stories, Hood has pinched apart great and enchanting worlds and diverse cultures and historical events. And what we’re left with are the greater attractions: wraiths of indigenous lore, giant monsters, and even the head-banging spirit of rock and roll.
The bad: So begs the question, if Hood has done such a swell job in the before mentioned works, what’s holding it back?
A fair question with a fair answer.
For every one tale that got it right, there were three or four that got it wrong, or got it average – and there’s a few reasons for this that I’ll speculate on: poor variability of prose and repetitive writing mannerisms, and as a whole, lack of any compelling characters or character development.
“For God’s sake, use a hanky,” Rosalyn snapped.
“For God’s sake, he’s a married man.”
“For God’s sake!” she said as she grabbed her dressing gown and swept out after the old lady.
-From Getting Rid of Mother.
“For God’s sake, sit still,” his mother would scream at last.
-From Nasty Little Habits.
“Who else is going to take care of the old bastard? It’s the law, for God’s sake.”
-From A Place for the Dead.
“For God’s sake, man, what are you doing lurking out here in the fog?”
Every writer has their style, something of a signature or a fingerprint that brands an author’s work, so that it’s recognizable by those who frequent their stories -- and these “fingerprints” are often subtle; and ideally they should be. Because when they’re not it can make the aggregate of an author’s work (despite the differences in plot and characters) read the same, from story to story, character to character.
“For God’s sake” is only a minor example. But it’s not about the phrase itself but rather the implication, the image and personality that comes with it. By the eighth time you’ve heard the phrase in any of the short fiction that fills the pages you’ve started to notice other trends that stale and cripple each tale’s characters.
The characters in most of these tales, anyway, even in Hood’s better works, lack blood and individuality, and exist separate from the story plot. The spectacle becomes the setting, the mystery in the foreign scenery; and more often than not the characters feel like they’re just along for the ride. Backstory through dreams and flashbacks are over-utilized in an attempt to address this. But in most cases it feels like awkward exposition – an attempt to relate the reader to desires that lack any real depth or significance, to press the men and wives forward in the arms of ghosts that are equally feeble as absorbing characters.
But, is it worth a read?
As a whole? It’s hard to say. But for me, the answer was no rather quickly. Again, while the diversity of plot and story-setting was captivating and drew me in, I grew tired once the cards were lain out. Further, I found, that the farther I trudged on, the less I was able to make out differences in the characters and story-telling between stories. Honestly, I think some of the tales exist much better on their own, or perhaps bound in a smaller volume, and minus those silly “thematic categories”
Even the bibliography is “haunted”, for God’s sake.