Reviewed by Nathaniel Drenner
Ghost stories with chills that reverberate
In the opening story of Rebecca Turkewitz’s collection Here in the Night, the narrator ponders the truth of ghost stories. “Why not entertain the idea,” she asks, “that, for a few brief moments, the past can spread like a deep soft bruise into the present?” The influence of the past is perhaps the most prominent of many threads running through these stories, threads woven with such expertise that the smallest of details carry great reverberations.
The thirteen stories in this book share common themes of not just the past but also love and loss, among others. Most stories center on relationships between women: friends, sisters, or lovers. The specter of the supernatural—be it a ghost, monster, or demon—hovers in the background, more so in some tales than in others. But these are not horror stories. They are character studies grounded in realism. The demons may be real or not, and people may in fact be the true monsters. Like some of the best invocations of the supernatural, the point is less about the creatures themselves, more so what they say about us. For Turkewitz, the true ghosts are memories of the past; the real mystery is the power and limitation of human intuition.
“To know a place, you have to know its ghosts. As with people, you need to understand the particular ways in which towns are haunted before you can understand them.”
Ghosts evoke the idea of the outsider estranged from society, and Turkewitz often writes from this perspective. She breathes life into the trope with a careful handling of character. Her outcasts are bright, sympathetic, and flawed in their own human ways; her more conventional characters are necessary counterpoints.
In “The Attic,” popular girl Kayla struggles to understand her troubled classmate Anne. In “Sarah Lane’s School for Girls,” the narrator recalls her enrollment on a need-based scholarship at an exclusive boarding school full of children from wealthy families. In “Four Houses Down,” a girl and her sister new to a neighborhood investigate rumors surrounding a witch-like widow down the street, with a disturbing yet emotionally nuanced resolution.
But not all the stories center on children or teenagers. In “Deserving of You,” for example, the tension comes from adult best friends who occupy separate worlds of academia and blue-collar work: who is to say which represents the outsider and which represents so-called normalcy? The dynamic between these friends is complicated by a third party, a fiancé of one the women. As she does in this and so many other stories, Turkewitz expertly layers the conflicts and personalities at play.
“The various accounts, like most retellings of legends, did not attempt to understand what Mary had been thinking. They didn’t wonder about the night Mary went to confront her lover: whether Mary’s heart lurched when she saw the silhouette of the judge’s wife peeking out from behind the curtain of an upstairs window. They didn’t describe how the anger at this man who’d betrayed her must have grown large in her chest. How the love for him that already lived inside of her didn’t make room for this anger, so the two emotions mixed together like different colored fogs. The stories did not consider these things, but Sam did.“
And that is what is most notable in this collection: a deft and subtle interweaving of character and plot points. As each story develops, perspectives deepen, roles reverse, and motivations complicate matters. The result is a fresh and thought-provoking narrative each time.
“The Last Unmapped Places,” for example, traces the story of twins after the death of their mother. Their relationship pushes each to develop in an unexpected yet expertly observed manner. The aforementioned opening story, “At This Late Hour,” uses a network of three central characters and a careful evocation of place to meditate on age, truth, and love.
Astute readers will find many more ideas at play in this book’s tapestry of perspectives. However, the narratives are never bogged down by excessive philosophizing or intellectualizing. The small moments scream loudest. Each aspect of the characters’ lives is rather like a fine thread woven at just the right angle at the right time to enrich the story. The prose style, moreover, is smooth and accessible, inviting the reader along for the ride.
A town is not a community without its stories. A person is not a person without their own history. These foundations shape us, for better or for worse, into who we are, and Here in the Night explores this ground with empathy and perceptiveness.
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