OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
Ghost Dreams – by Matthew Hughes
Publisher: In UK and Commonwealth; PS Publishing 2022. In Canada and USA; E-edition by M. Hughes, November 2022.
Stan Winkleman, a burglar by trade, doesn’t believe in ghosts, but the ghost he meets believes in him.
When I was a kid, TV was dominated by Westerns. In more recent times, “reality” shows concerning ghost hunters were ubiquitous. I watched a few myself, but only because I was interested in scenes set within the more outré historical buildings. I have an interest in peculiar or obscure historical details that are new to me. They constitute proof of the eccentricities of humanity. As for ghosts? Zero interest. I don’t believe in ghosts.
Most of the ghost series seem to have ceased production and been relegated to rerun channels. I’m not surprised. There are only so many darkly-lit set-ups to anti-climaxes, accompanied by dialogue along the lines of “Did you hear that?” “What?” “A sound.” “No, but I bet you heard a ghost.” “Let’s open the closet door and find out.” “Oh my God, there’s nothing inside!” etc., that I or anyone else is willing to tolerate.
Some series exhibited a sophisticated, skeptical humour, which I welcomed. Another, contempt for non-Christian beliefs, to the point of dismantling and desecrating a traditional First Nations memorial site. I thought the guide who brought them there showed a commendable restraint in expressing his outrage. Me, I was yelling at the TV screen. My neighbours probably thought “Not only does he talk to himself, now we hear him swearing at himself!” But I digress…
Anyway, the point I’m attempting to make in my usual convoluted manner, is that the fundamental quest in these series was to produce evidence that ghosts exist. None of them succeeded. No surprise there. But there’s less to the results than that. As far as I can recall, the investigations sometimes delved into the “historical” background of the ghost, both in terms of the alleged original human personalities, and with the alleged “history” of sightings. The implications of actual “proof” of ghosts were totally ignored.
By that I mean the questions that spring to mind. For example, I don’t believe in ghosts, but were I to meet one, I’d be delighted, because it would constitute proof of life after death (something else I don’t believe in). I’d be pestering the ghost with non-stop questions.
Would I be afraid? No. Someone posted online a couple of days ago the statement “If ghosts were capable of harming living human beings, there wouldn’t be a white person alive today.” In fact a close study of human history suggests just about any definable group is at risk from revenge-minded ghosts, were such to exist. Unless you prefer to believe that the dead automatically forgive their killers. One of those endlessly debatable topics. All I know is, were I done wrong, I’d haunt the heck out of the perpetrator and make the remainder of their life an exponentially expanding tumult of misery and suffering… I mean magnanimously forgive them after saying “Boo!”… Oh, never mind. I’m a bit petty when I’m dead.
Finally, finally I get to my point. The chief value of Ghost Dreams is that it goes way beyond the multiple ghost-hunting TV series to explore every conceivable question pertaining to a “real” ghost. That the ghost of Jane Manchester exists, and that her purpose in life-after-death is revenge, is the starting point of the novel. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers but stating that Jane stops haunting her “place” and starts haunting Stan no matter where he goes is sufficient to allow you to grasp the context of my further comments. It means the two of them are in constant communication with each other, and with you, the reader.
What sort of questions? Here’s a few of them:
… What’s it like being dead?
… How do ghosts see?
… Do ghosts retain their memories? Their personality?
… What do ghosts feel when passing through a living human?
… Can ghosts read the minds of the living?
… Do ghosts dream?
And many, many more. Part of the fun is that not only are the physical and psychological states of ghosthood explored, but the potential psychological reactions of multiple living characters as well. In one sense, an in-depth study of coping mechanisms as employed by living humans, and also by ghosts! This really adds life to Jane, so to speak.
What makes the book especially fascinating is that it annihilates all your preconceptions about ghosts. You find yourself pondering all sorts of possibilities that never occurred to you before. Or, at least, I did. Maybe I’m uniquely dense and obtuse. No problem. If true, something to be proud of.
The subtext of this novel is a philosophical essay on the topic of ghosts, and a highly entertaining one at that. Much more interesting than philosophy 101. I guarantee it.
The second “great thing” about this novel, part of what makes it so addictive, is the complexity of the characters. Stan is a very confident, very imperturbable, very organized kind of guy. He doesn’t see life as a threat so much as a challenge. Good thing, too, because the threats come fast and furious as the plot arc progresses. His Achilles heel is his high-functioning autistic daughter, a mid-twenties work-at-home real estate clerk, over whom he frets and worries because his instinctive need to protect her simply will not go away.
His daughter Jeanne thinks in a very linear fashion and finds it difficult to cope with people in person as they tend to communicate in a bizarrely random fashion, at least from her point of view. However, being highly intelligent, she can cope extraordinarily well once she has confined ‘the other” into the appropriate slot in her highly compartmentalized world picture.
Together they make an excellent team. Focused on different aspects of reality as they are, one often instantly picks up what the other misses. This is a superb authorial device because it provides credible motivation for the two to deliberately pair up when going into a potentially dangerous situation, which of course aggravates their deep concern for each other’s safety, which adds considerably to the tension of a given scene. Beginning writers take note of this excellent technique.
Jane? Well, at first, she’s “just” a ghost. We get to know her as Stan gets to know her. In a sense, she evolves with each passing chapter. Ultimately, we grow with her, and come to empathize and accept her as a full-blown character of great interest.
An ever-growing list of minor characters help or hinder the quest for revenge. Most are briefly described, but well enough depicted through description and action as to appear well-rounded characters living in the realm of realistic human beings and in no way mere stereotypes. They are not only interesting in themselves, sprinkled throughout the novel in a series of character-driven vignettes, but serve to reinforce and reflect the growing comprehension of the main characters of the reality of events as they spin out of control. In that sense advancing the plot and maintaining a rapid pace.
This is all the more remarkable considering that much of the book amounts to internal monologue/dialogue in which Stan and Jane attempt to understand events in order to guess what’s going to happen next and figure out what they can do about it. With Jeanne inserting rare but insightful comments and observations that hadn’t occurred to the other two. This succeeds in building suspense and tension, very much in the tradition of the best detective fiction. Even better, they are dealing with an ongoing mystery which gets more and more difficult to solve with every passing chapter.
This frantic—though logical—thinking is a good substitute for info dumps and makes for an easy and useful bridge between Stan’s frequent bold actions to confound the enemy. That he often gets away with it is a tribute to his calm professionalism. That it often doesn’t do any good and simply results in multiplying his problems is motivation enough for yet more excited pondering leading to even wilder action solutions. Creates a nice sense of momentum it does, not to mention an ever-expanding sense of impending doom.
To sum up, the complex and effective characters are the principal reason why this novel is so addictive to read. You share in their thoughts and actions as if you were inside their brain but unable to give them useful advice. This is both frustrating and enthralling all at the same time. Too often, in poorly written books, a similar effect is intended but the reader winds up feeling glued to a seat listening to a particularly boring lecture droning on and on. Not Ghost Dreams. You’ll wind up bouncing up and down in your seat in sheer eagerness to find out what happens next.
By the way, let me point out Matthew Hughes once made his living ghost-writing speeches for politicians. No wonder he’s a master at portraying villains who lie glibly and convincingly as if they were heroes worthy of respect and adulation. He is intimately familiar with the type. Knows precise their quirks and foibles in mannerism and turn of phrase. Darned useful background to have for an author. Helps explain why Matthew is such a good writer. You don’t so much read his prose as surf it, being carried along one wave to the next. Great fun.
The third “great thing” about the book is the tour of other worlds the reader may not be familiar with. For example, the worlds of organized crime, gunrunners, mercenaries, Caribbean hideaways, dodgy shell companies, even dodgier art collectors, New York art galleries, fences dealing stolen goods, intellectual poseurs, tax cheaters, and all the other sort of practical worldly role models you are looking for to make an early retirement, or grave, possible. It’s an interesting world out there, and Stan is determined to exploit the heck out of it. Why not you, the reader? Might pick up a few pointers.
I’ve tried to describe this book in all it’s fascinating complexity without giving away too many spoilers. This is especially important because so much depends on the escalating number of surprises which thwart Stan and Jane and Jeanne at every turn. I want each surprise to impact you as a genuine surprise. At any given moment you may think you know where you are going as a reader but, I promise you, you don’t.
So, I hope I have intrigued you enough to want to read the book, yet have managed to prevent myself from blurting out too much information as to spoil the genuine reading pleasure awaiting you. I perform this dance with every review, but the nature of Ghost Dreams makes it particularly important I get every step right.
My column is shorter than usual, for fear of giving too much away. I trust I’ve said enough.
I found Ghost Dreams a fun, entertaining, addictive read that was hard to put down. This the product of Matthew’s talent in regard to plotting and characterization. He does both superbly well. But what makes this book especially wonderful is his gleeful exploration of what it really means to interact with a ghost. That’s the icing on the cake, and it was already a great cake. I was bemused and amused the whole time I was reading it. You can’t go wrong if you pick it up. Definitely a “feel good” experience. A book to enjoy.
Check it out at: < Ghost Dreams >