What makes a good ghost story? The ones we remember usually feature a troubled soul, an unfinished tale, a receptive listener, and, above all, a specific and fully realized place: a location for spirits to cling to and emanate from. In the most effective ghost stories the setting becomes a character, as it does in this latest offering from Michael Bedard.
The Green Man is a used bookstore, owned by an aging poet named Emily. The store is inhabited by the ghosts that reside in all such establishments – the spectres of long-dead authors and previous book owners, still present in scribbled marginal notes and bus-transfer bookmarks. There is also one particularly malevolent presence, whose role in the story grows as the novel progresses.
Our entry into this dusty world is Emily’s 15-year-old niece Ophelia, who answers only to “O.” Emily’s recent heart attack has left her in a vulnerable state, and O’s father has arranged the visit as much for his sister’s sake as for his daughter’s.
Upon O’s arrival, the story splits into three strands. In the first, O attempts to get her bearings – she has seen little of Emily over the years, and getting acquainted is not seamless. Still, the two quickly fall into a comfortable companionship, and O happily assumes cooking, shopping, and cleaning duties for both the chaotic bookstore and Emily’s cluttered flat above.
O also tries to make sense of odd occurrences including scents, sights, and sounds in the shop and apartment that link back to the aforementioned malevolent presence. Meanwhile, she encounters her aunt’s peculiar friends, finds out some family history, and organizes a series of poetry readings. She also meets a handsome, mysterious boy with a “smouldering edge” and a passion for poetry, apparently drawn to the shop as much for young O as for the literary spoils within.
A secondary thread presents chapters through which we get inside Emily’s head as she remembers the past, struggles with her sudden brush with mortality, and learns of a rare collection of occult books that she might be able to acquire – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that could save the struggling bookstore. We’re also given excerpts from Emily’s poems in progress (“The long dead come back / Dressed in rags of dream”), which add to the narrative texture.
In the third storyline we are told of a magician called Professor Mephisto, whose long-ago performances, intended for children only, promised “wonderful illusions, startling feats and astonishing transformations.” The darkly rendered descriptions of these evenings are creepily effective, setting the reader on edge and hinting at more sinister events to come.
The trio of plotlines dance along to the tune of a ticking clock. Aug. 8 is approaching. It is an anniversary. Someone or something is going to return. But whom, or what? All becomes clear as Emily and O begin to connect the dots between the spooky goings-on and the mysterious Professor Mephisto, culminating in a satisfyingly dramatic conclusion.
Bedard takes full advantage of the genre’s atmospheric creepiness and sepia-toned timelessness. O is a contemporary character, but the story is refreshingly free of hoodies, malls, product placements, and texting. The plot does an end-run around the school cafeteria stuff of YA fiction and hones in on themes of love,
regret, terror, poetry, guilt, and power.
Similarly, the novel escapes the usual first-person focus so common in YA. Emily’s point of view is given equal weight with O’s, and Bedard gets right inside the consciousness of a frail and failing elderly woman. “She hardly had a thought now that was not stamped by time, like those pathetic cartons of food in the fridge that lingered on beyond their expiry date, which she picked up, eyed skeptically, sniffed, and returned untouched to the shelf.” Bedard pays his young audience the respect of painting on a wide canvas and expecting them to have broad interests and sympathies.
For example, O feels her own impulse toward poetry and, troubled by the example of her aunt, wonders about the relationship between poetry and madness. Trying to sort this out she reads through A Treasury of Great Poems. She’s fine until she hits the 18th century and discovers William Blake’s poverty, visions of angels, and obscurity during his lifetime, which do little to allay her fears.
Ghost stories are the original crossover material, told to young and old alike and reminding us that not all our experiences end in what contemporary jargon calls “closure.” In The Green Man, Bedard recaptures this spirit of an intergenerational gathering in which the secrets and tragedies of the past are alternately concealed from and revealed to the present. It welcomes to the fire-lit circle of its audience young readers with a taste for the occult, and it reserves a few special seats for booksellers, as Bedard punctuates his narrative with musings on the book trade and tantalizing book references. The Corpus Hermeticum? The curious reader could Google away a happy afternoon finding out about that. But for more plot-hungry Goosebumps graduates, there are dark strangers, abandoned mansions, ghostly glowings, chilling coincidences, and otherworldly portals galore.