The Ghost Sequences by A.C. Wise
A.C. Wise’s 2021 story collection The Ghost Sequences delivers a sampler of her short fiction. As the name implies, nearly all are ghostly or eerie. Wise pays homage to North American (Lovecraftian) Gothic with two stories in particular, and examines the serial-killer/slasher genre in others. Despite the disturbing subject matter, Wise’s prose glimmers like a piece of abalone shell. The stories are disturbing and moody in the best way.
The book has sixteen stories; one, “Exhalation #10,” is novelette-length.
“The Way the Trick is Done:” A magician returns from the dead with the help of his girlfriend, but the ghost haunting him has other plans.
“The Stories We Tell About Ghosts:” In spite of the narrator’s promise to his vulnerable younger brother, he continues to use the “ghost finder” phone app the neighborhood kids use to track ghosts… with results that are truly haunting.
“The Last Sailing of the ‘Henry Charles Morgan’ in Six Pieces of Scrimshaw (1841):” A story told as notes on six artifacts, involving a becalmed ship and its visitor.
“Harvest Song, Gathering Song:” A group of military veterans embarks on a trek into the Arctic in search of a mysterious substance. They find it, and things even more terrifying.
“The Secret of Flight:” An old, once-famous stage director is haunted by memories of his life and his enigmatic play The Secret of Flight, by his companion starling, and more.
“Crossing:” Emma Rose first encounters the strange woman in the sea when she is four. Is it evil? Does it mean her harm? She’ll spend the next twenty years wrestling with these questions, as she trains to swim the English Channel.
“How to Host a Haunted House Murder Mystery Party:” Just what the title says. Except, who is the “you” of the story, doomed to repeat this game?
“In the End, It Always Turns Out the Same:” An exploration of the Scooby Gang in a world where nothing is quite as we remember it from the show.
“Excerpts From a Film (1942-1987):” Does art uncover the truth of evil, or just commercialize it more? A director and a young film star wrestle with this question.
“Lesser Creek: A Love Story, a Ghost Story:” Every year a ghost and the devil make a wager.
“The Nag Bride:” Two friends who grew up together confront a local folk-monster. What does it want? What has it already done?
“Tekeli-Li, They Cry:” Another Lovecraftian offering. In Antarctica, after the world has changed, a scientist learns the worst monsters may be our own fears.
“The Men From Narrow Houses:” Gabby is haunted by the men from narrow houses, who come to her at night. Her quest to figure out who they are leads her away from her too-perfect fiancé, into the dark and the truth.
“The Ghost Sequences:” Four artists plan an art installation, based around the idea of ghosts.
I won’t review all the stories. Every one except “In the End, It Always Turns Out the Same” worked for me. In that case, I simply didn’t grasp the point of the story. Certainly I got all the Scooby-Doo/Buffy the Vampire Slayer references, but the tale itself never gelled.
While I’m not going to discuss them at length, I’ll mention a few others. “Tekeli-Li, They Cry” is a perfect Lovecraft pastiche that enfolds Wise’s vision and voice. As strange creatures flood into our world, the main character confronts the biggest monster — her own dark impulses. “Harvest Song, Gathering Song,” strikes the perfect note of weirdness.
“The Last Sailing of the ‘Henry Charles Morgan’ in Six Pieces of Scrimshaw (1841)” succeeds at a style I admire terribly — telling a story via ephemera or objects. The story within the story is not a new one, but the change in the curator’s tone as it progresses is masterful. I snickered when, early in the story, the notes opine that the webbed hand rising out of the water to seize the side of the boat must “symbolize” the ocean holding it in place.
Many of these pieces use ephemera — letters and articles, objects and found footage. “I Dress My Lover in Yellow” exemplifies this. Using excerpts from police reports, letters, an art history student’s research notes and her roommate’s marginalia, the story circles the mystery of a 19th century artist’s scandalous portrait. The portrait is absent from the story, absent the way a black hole is absent.
Now for my favorites:
“The Secret of Flight” has many of my favorite ingredients: a magical woman, ephemera, live theater, and birds. In 1955, a new stage play ends with an amazing effect. In full view of the audience, the lone woman on stage transforms into a flock of starlings and flies out over the theatergoers. In the present time, the play’s director writes letters to his long-dead lover, trying to come to grips with his own long life and why his “pet” starling seems to haunt him. He reveals that the murder at the heart of the play was not fictional. The final image in the story stayed with me. Like many of these stories, it left me wondering. Does art bring secrets out into the open? Or, by fictionalizing, does it keep secrets alive?
In “Exhalation #10,” Henry is a sound editor with extraordinary hearing. His police detective friend Paul sends him a video recovered from a wrecked car. In it, a woman chained to a wall is filmed for one hour a day until she exhales her last breath. Paul desperately hopes that Henry will hear something in the film the police haven’t been able to pick up, and he does.
Henry and Paul were film students together, planning a movie, until Paul’s cop father was killed and Paul chose to enter law enforcement. Henry has loved him since school, but Paul is not gay. In fact, he’s married, and Henry likes his wife. Henry accepts that friendship is what he’s going to get from Paul.
The story flashes back to show us how extraordinary Henry’s hearing really is — and what a burden. In the present tense, he does find something on the film, and he and Paul set out to track it down. The mood is bleak, quiet and increasingly tense as they find more films and finally the house of the murderer. Ultimately, the police uncover nine bodies, but the remains of the woman in Exhalation #10 are never found. In spite of the tension and creepiness of the serial-killer plot, the big plot twist, for me, was when Paul reveals that he knows Henry loves him and regrets not loving him back the same way. This completely flipped my understanding of their relationship. It flips Henry’s too, perhaps freeing him. If I have a quibble about this longer story, it’s that for a story about sound, it relies on sight — notably angles of sight, light and shadow — both to advance the plot and develop the mood. That, as I said, is a quibble. This story stayed with me.
I wasn’t liking “The Nag Bride” at first, because I thought it was much like many other creepy tales I’ve read. The setting and atmosphere were wonderful, and I appreciated the two main characters. As it progressed, I saw the ways it was different. The main character’s choice at the end elevated the entire story.
I liked “The Men From Narrow Houses” because of its approach to a folkloric creature. Like others in this collection, the story draws on stage performance and illusion to uncover the truth of Gabby’s origins and her power.
The Ghost Sequences is an excellent introduction to Wise’s prose, and how her mind works. There is a concentration of murders and serial killers, but the overall tone is quiet, moody and disturbing. I bought the paperback edition from Undertow, and the collection is well served by the baffling and beautiful cover.