Title: Ghost Music
Author: Graham Masterton
Published: First published 1 March 2009; this edition published 28 November 2011
Publisher: Dorchester Publishing
Genre: horror, mystery, ghost story
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGally
My Rating: 5/10
Gideon Lake is a composer of advertising jingles and the occasional film score. It’s not quite as prestigious as the connotations you generally get from the word “composer”, but his work has been very lucrative and he’s just moved into a swanky new apartment. When he meets his neighbour Kate they’re instantly drawn to each other and waste no time in starting an affair, despite the fact that Kate’s extremely temperamental husband Victor owns the apartment below Gideon’s.
Kate is suspiciously keen on Gideon – soon after their first time in the sack, she invites him on a trip to Stockholm, where they’ll be staying with Kate’s friends. It’s the first of three such trips: each time the couple stays with a family in a beautiful home, but none of them turn out to be the romantic getaways Gideon expects. When he’s around Kate’s friends and their children, he sees terrible visions of them dead, dying or tortured, or he has encounters with them that are later revealed to be impossible. Kate, however, isn’t the least bit fazed when he tells her what he sees; in fact, she seems to have expected it. But why does she want him to see this? And what do all these people want from Gideon?
For the most part, I found Ghost Music to be an enjoyable, very creepy read that I got through pretty quickly. Admittedly, it’s a bit conventional. Gideon is of the familiar ‘I see dead people’ persuasion. Because of his creative nature, he is perceptive enough to tune into people’s “resonance”: “What they were, what they wanted to be. What they are now”. Essentially this means he can see ghosts, before, after and during their deaths, and being close to Gideon allows ghosts to take their old, corporeal forms. Gideon’s visions are not subject to a linear timeline, so he frequently sees someone dead or dying in one moment, and then healthy and alive soon after. Naturally he finds it incredibly distressing and disorientating, but Kate is usually there to soothe him and reassure him that she believes him. A little odd, no? Normally the peripheral characters won’t believe in any of the paranormal occurrences until they experience one for themselves, so Kate’s reaction is rather suspicious.
However, you will soon notice that Gideon is that kind of character who is supposedly intelligent, but often terribly, conveniently stupid when it comes to figuring out things that are obvious to the reader, asking glaring questions, or getting important information that’s easy to find. This sort of contrivance is a cheap tactic for maintaining tension and mystery within the narrative, because it would all be over a lot faster if the protagonist wasn’t so bloody selective about using his brain. It’s pretty damn obvious, for example, that Kate is not your average woman, and it’s not just her tendency to buy Gideon expensive tickets to Europe for romantic getaways that turn into nightmares. I can only assume that Gideon doesn’t want to disrupt his suddenly flourishing sex life by thinking too hard about Kate’s oddities.
Gideon does at least demand to know what’s up with all the horrible visions but – in another contrivance – it’s apparently against the ‘rules’ for Kate to tell him anything. He has to see everything for himself and then figure it out on his own. Thanks to the conventions of horror stories and constant hints and foreshadowing in the novel, you can enjoy the smug sense of being smarter and better-informed than the main character. The bloody title is “Ghost Music” so you know that his weird visions are of dead people. But of course you still need him to find out what exactly happened to the ghosts and why.
Despite it being conventional and contrived, I was having quite a good time reading the novel. Conventions after all, include the characteristics that define a genre, and although stories that avoid or subvert conventions tend to be more exciting, the ones that stick to tradition make use of the features that drew you to the genre in the first place. I love ghost stories and dark secrets, which perhaps makes me easy to please in this case, or at least more likely to ignore the flaws. Whatever the reason, I was liking the book, and I couldn’t wait to learn the backstory.
The resolution of the mystery, however, is where Masterton completely and utterly cocks it all up.
The creepiness and tense intrigue I enjoyed was, sadly, matched by my disappointment when all is revealed. It manages to be both mundane and ludicrous. This is something I want to discuss in more detail, but I can’t do that without numerous spoilers. For those who want to read the novel, you can skip to the end of the review. For those who want to find out exactly why this book let me down, I’ve written that section in white, so highlight it to read.
It was Victor, Kate’s jackass of a husband who killed and tortured the people whose ghosts Gideon saw. Victor didn’t do the dirty deeds himself; he has a goon named Jack Friendly who specialises in that sort of thing. The three families owned extremely valuable properties, and Victor blackmailed the fathers into giving him the properties and then made a fortune as some kind of exclusive realtor.
Why and how? Well, Victor and Kate had a baby boy with a weak heart. The fathers of the three families ran some kind of organ-transplant company, and Victor paid them three million dollars to get a new heart for his baby, a boy who was destined to continue Victor’s great family legacy, blah blah blah. But the baby died anyway, and the Victor had bankrupted himself paying for the heart, so he took his revenge on the three men and their families. And took their properties too. And had Kate’s parents murdered because they wouldn’t pay for a second heart. And then had Kate murdered (yes, she’s a ghost too) because she had told her parents not to pay for a second heart, convinced that God or fate had meant for the baby to die. Having a second baby was apparently out of the question, because Victor figured it would just have the same genetic defect. So he got mad and then got Jack Friendly to drown young girls and set people alight.
I think this is totally fucked up, but in a stupid way. Victor’s reaction to his son’s death is so outrageously over-the-top that it feels like another contrivance, as does his refusal to try for another child.
But more importantly, I felt that the story focussed on the wrong people. You might be interested to know that the fathers of the three families that Victor killed were running a company that massacred people in poor African villages to harvest and sell their organs. You find this out in an almost blasé manner – oh by the way, these three guys were super-evil capitalist monsters. What Victor and Jack did to them and their families was undoubtedly horrible, but in light of the organ harvesting, the villains look more like avenging forces for the hundreds of silent poor. Masterton almost completely glosses over the fact that hundreds of nameless Africans were butchered for the organs, and Kate seems to think that Victor was somehow worse than them for buying one of the organs to save his dying baby instead of just letting it die as God/fate intended. At best there’s a moment when Kate holds up the ghost of a ravaged Nigerian baby whose heart, eyes, etc. have been removed. But Kate is still speaking on their behalf, and she does it only to implicate Victor, not the people responsible for the Nigerian baby’s death. The three men who ran the company are portrayed almost entirely as the victims of Victor’s greed and cruelty, and not as the perpetrators of even more horrifying greed and cruelty. Does anyone else find the sense of justice here wildly unbalanced?
Another question – if Kate and the other ghosts can make an effort to get revenge on Victor, why couldn’t all the African ghosts take revenge on the people who murdered them for profit? There’s a potential answer to this, but again, it feels contrived. A rule for the dead is that they aren’t allowed to accuse the living, which is why a creative man like Gideon is needed to see the ghosts, find out what happened to them, and seek justice on their behalf. I guess the African ghosts couldn’t find anyone. Another one of the contrived rules is that every person has 3 years as a ghost before they move on. It’s up to them to decide what to do with that time, so maybe the African ghosts just didn’t bother.
I tried to imagine a more favourable interpretation – perhaps the real horror is in the irony that Victor and Jack are considered to be the villains while the men who are even more monstrous come off as their poor victims. But this is a stretch; the novel doesn’t support that reading at all.
This isn’t the first time I’ve enjoyed a mystery only to be disappointed when it’s solved. For most of the book I thought I’d be giving it 7/10. Once I’d finished I was debating how much the ending lowered the rating. I’m starting to wonder whether authors feel like all the good reveals have already been used and are scraping the bottom of the barrel in the assumption that being original will make up for being crap. Personally, I’d rather hear an old story. After all, the conventional stuff was working for me for most of the novel.