“The Ghost Variations,” Brockmeier’s new and much grimmer book, imagines not one afterlife but a hundred of them. Few, if any, resemble paradise. Hell is hell, of course, but even heaven doesn’t seem all that appealing in this collection of stories, each of which can be read in less than two distressing minutes.
What Hamlet called “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns” has wide-open borders in Brockmeier’s morose but clever tales. The souls of humans, horses, trees and even mosquitoes, whose ghosts Brockmeier describes as “legions of wailing specks needling around on pure dumb instinct,” don’t always stay gone once they’ve shuffled off their mortal coils. Some of them return to haunt our world because they have no choice. Others do so because they can.
Death, as it does, comes without warning in this book. Lives end after bodies tumble from cliffs, get conked by tree branches, disappear under landslides and suffer electrocution in laboratories. One man dies of a heart attack while being attacked by an alligator. In the hands of Stephen King or Karen Russell, such horrific ends might yield nasty, morbid thrills. But Brockmeier isn’t out to raise goose bumps, though easily spooked readers no doubt will shiver here and there. “The Ghost Variations” leaps over “the neat picket fences of death” to chase after the very idea of existence itself, “this terrible gumminess of being,” as one poor specter puts it.
Among the more disturbing ideas Brockmeier presents is that the dead receive few answers after crossing over. Most find themselves with more questions. In one story, “A Long Chain of Yesterdays,” a newly deceased bank executive is happy to learn he can relive any moment of his life whenever he likes. What he can’t understand is why this is all he can do. In “Minnows,” a spirit awakens to “a fate for which his imagination had simply not prepared him.” He is the ghost of a person who has yet to be born — and whose death will make him a ghost again. Like the other man, he is troubled by the why of it all.
Brockmeier wants his book to have at least the appearance of fun. The first page of every story is topped by a cute, cartoonish illustration that seems borrowed from “Pac-Man.” Light sneaks in through the cracks. In “Dusk and Other Stories,” a mute poltergeist amuses itself by communicating with a widower through the titles of the books in the man’s library (“Listen to Me,” “Look at Me”). The whimsical “Lost and Found” concerns a living boy who is separated from his own ghost, “a giant white jellybean of a thing” that affectionately begins to follow him around. And in “A Lifetime of Touch,” a sculptor dies while working on his masterpiece but nonetheless begins “la-de-daing through the afterworld.”
Readers may wish they could do the same during parts of this book. It would require a supernatural effort to fill a 100-story collection with nothing but winners, and Brockmeier is, after all, only human. He reaches his quota with more than one dud.
The author divides the book by theme, and so we get “Ghosts and Time,” “Ghosts and Family” and, with a bit of a stretch, “Ghosts and Words and Numbers.” The real ectoplasm holding this book together, though, is existential dread. Even a medium would have difficulty reading more than a few of these stories in one sitting.
The most unsettling story in “The Ghost Variations,” the book’s 14th, doesn’t involve a ghost at all. In “Elephants,” a pachydermologist in Africa experiments on a herd of wild elephants by playing them recordings of their own vocalizations. When the man’s stereo broadcasts the call of the herd’s late matriarch, the animals respond with a joy that turns to sorrow after they realize the mother elephant is nowhere to be found. Their debilitating grief, along with the researcher’s shame, hovers over everything that follows in Brockmeier’s book. The dead tell plenty of tales in “The Ghost Variations,” but none so frightening as the one you can believe.
Jake Cline is a writer and editor in Miami.