Seanan McGuire’s novella Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day (2017) is a sensitive tale of love, loss, and regret — the kind that haunts people, turns them into ghosts, makes them flee thousands of miles from their homes, makes them linger somewhere long after it’s time for them to leave.
In 1972, Jenna Pace’s older sister Patty committed suicide in New York City, far away from her family home in Mill Hollow, Kentucky. Jenna, wracked with grief, ran out into a freak thunderstorm and tumbled into a ravine, where she died. Because her life ended before it was supposed to, though, Jenna remains in the living world as a ghost, able to make her body corporeal or insubstantial at will. She moved to NYC shortly after her death and (flash-forward to 2015) found work at a suicide intervention hotline, where she tries to help people live a little longer, thereby earning time that ages her closer toward her own death. This time can also be given away or outright taken from her, the mechanics of which are gradually explained as they become relevant to the story.
Jenna has made a few acquaintances during her new life in the city: Sophie, a homeless woman; Danny, a ghost who frequents a comics store; Delia, her landlady and a fellow ghost; Brenda, a corn witch from Indiana. There are many kinds and types of witches in Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day, taking power from all manner of things like corn, swamps, cities, animals, and much more. Witches are anathema to ghosts, but Jenna is forced to put aside her natural aversion to Brenda when nearly every other ghost in NYC goes missing, and the two women must work together to find out why.
The bustling metropolis of NYC and the sleepy small town of Mill Hollow each come to life in McGuire’s capable hands, participating in and contributing to the story in essential ways, just as much as the characters do. Jenna is thoroughly complex, filled with longing and grief for her lost sister, unwilling to connect with anyone too deeply and yet compelled to serve penance by helping others. Through dialogue and judicious placement of background details, McGuire fully realizes every character despite the short page count. The reason behind the ghosts’ disappearance is handled well, with a satisfying amount of suspense and action, and the conclusion of Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is achingly beautiful.
McGuire packs a novel’s worth of plot, drama, and character into one slim novella, but at no point does Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day read as incomplete or over-stuffed. Frankly, I feel as though I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is a beautifully-told but slightly illogical novella about ghosts who can’t ― or won’t ― yet pass on, some of the surprising powers ghosts have over humans, and the fearful powers that human witches have over the ghosts. But on a deeper level it’s about those who are unseen and homeless, and about the power of love and of finding inner peace.
In 1972, Jenna dies in Mill Hollow, Kentucky as a young woman. Distraught over the suicide of her sister Patty, she runs into a stormy night in her nightgown and straight into a tragedy. Because Jenna died before her time, her spirit lingers on earth, eventually making its way to New York City where Patty had died. Since in this world, as imagined by Seanan McGuire, ghosts can be tangible at will during the day and pass as human, Jenna spends her days waitressing in a coffee shop and her nights as a suicide hotline volunteer.
Ghosts who die before their time are able to catch up to their fated time of death by touching living people and taking some of their time, leaving the human younger and fresher and the ghost closer to its fated time of death, when it can pass on to the other side. But Jenna feels such a huge burden of guilt over her failure to prevent Patty’s suicide that she’s not willing to take time from humans unless she’s “earned” it by helping suicidal people regain the will to live. Then one day Jenna realizes that almost all of the other ghosts in NYC have disappeared, and her home town of Mill Hollow seems to hold the answer.
Seanan McGuire does some nice world-building in this novel. In addition to the ghosts and the rules that both empower and bind them, there are humans with the power to see and even control ghosts: street witches, corn witches, water witches, and more. McGuire also weaves in some old superstitions about ghosts, like the need to cover a mirror used by a person who has died, lest their spirit kill the next person who looks in the mirror.
My biggest problem with Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is that the internal logic of the story doesn’t hold water for me. There are too many coincidences and events that don’t really make sense to me, even within the context of the tale. The stealing and giving of time by ghosts never made logical sense to me, particularly in the way it works at the end of the story. And more questions: why would someone purposely kill another person before his or her time if they aren’t then taking steps to capture the ghost? I never saw an answer to this; it’s a stray plot thread that raises what seems to be a significant question, but then never leads anywhere. HIGHLIGHT TO REVEAL SPOILERS: Why would the witch who captured the ghosts of New York City go to Mill Hollow? And how on earth could that one witch find the right mirrors to capture almost every single ghost in NYC? That last item really made no sense to me at all, and was important enough to the plot to create a major needle scratch in my reading enjoyment.
If you’re not overly fussy about the internal logic of a fantasy tale, there’s much to appreciate in Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day. Though this novella lacks the wry humor of what I view as her best work, McGuire’s writing here is evocative ― even poetic at times ― and insightful. She appreciates the people who go unnoticed and unappreciated by the masses, and that’s a needed reminder to our sometimes thoughtless world.
Like both Jana and Tadiana said in their reviews, great world-building is at the center of this novella. Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day made me, a self-aware character focused reader, absolutely fascinated by the world therein. The unquestionably unique world of ghosts and witches is grounded in humanity through sharply realized characters. I can’t help but echo Jana’s sentiment at the end of her review — given the chance, I would read more in this world in a heartbeat.