It’s the end of August, a time when each day seems noticeably shorter than the one before, when kids are getting haircuts and school supplies and heading back to school, when Thanksgiving and Christmas seem to be just around the corner. It’s a time for taking stock; for many of us, for those who loved the return to the classroom each fall with new resolutions to get good grades and excel at our extracurricular activities, it is more a time for such reevaluation of one’s life, hopes, goals and habits than is New Year’s Day. Perhaps that is why the coming-of-age novel is almost always set in the summer. Graham Joyce’s tale of a young man working at a summer resort, The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit,belongs on the same shelf as other great stories of haunted summers, like Stephen King’s Joyland, Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life and Dan Simmons’s Summer of Night.
In the summer of 1976, David Barwise, a 19-year-old university student, decides to spend his summer working in Skegness, a small town in Lincolnshire, on the east coast of England. He arrives in town for an interview with a resort, and is quickly hired as a Greencoat, that is, one of the employees who makes sure the holidaymakers have a good time, arranging games and entertainment. The ill-fitting uniform he wears prominently features a red, green and white striped jacket. It’s past the heyday of the institution that was the British holiday resort — a vacation that included everything, food, lodging, entertainment — sort of the way we think of a cruise today, only on dry land. But enough still partake of the tradition that David knows precisely what he’s getting into — or so he thinks.
David chose Skegness because it’s the last place he remembers being with his father before his father died. He was so young at the time — only three years old — that he remembers his father more as a mystery than as an actual father. His stepfather lovingly and happily fulfilled that role for most of David’s life, and David calls him “Dad” not because his mother demands it, but because it accurately represents their relationship. David’s stepfather was dismayed that David didn’t want to spend the summer working with him, but more than that, both parents are inexplicably upset at his choice of venue. There’s a mystery here that David doesn’t so much ignore as fail to notice, so caught is he in his daily activities, which soon include a lot more than merely entertaining the guests.
Beyond that, though, David is also haunted during this summer, and not just by the wife of one of his coworkers who seems at least a touch oversexed. There’s a man wearing a bright blue suit who keeps showing up, often in the company of a child. David has a bad reaction almost every time he sees him, growing dizzy, breathless and panicky. He notices that the two look odd, their faces indistinct yet suspicious. But when the moment passes, he finds he’s been looking at an old blue coat wrapped around a railway tie or something equally innocuous. Yet they appear again and again, until David must squarely face who they are and what they mean.
There is an elegiacal tone to The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit, the sort of happy sadness that goes along with the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. David is a well-drawn character, but so are the others who people his story, from the downright scary nationalists who seem just a swastika away from Nazis to Nikki, a beautiful young coworker of David’s. There isn’t much in the way of a plot, though; this is a tale of David’s last summer as a boy, and it is the description of his thoughts and feelings that matters here. Plenty happens, but the novel reads more like a memoir than a piece of fiction. It comes as no surprise when Joyce mentions in his Acknowledgements that he worked at holiday centers himself as a young man. What Joyce does do here is capture the fullness of the heart that goes with the heartache in this lovingly written ghost story.