Despite producing a sizable output of genre horror under the pen name Nick Cutter and Precious Cargo, a 2016 memoir about his year as a bus driver for kids with special needs (a book that was featured on this year’s Canada Reads), The Saturday Night Ghost Club represents Craig Davidson’s first work of fiction published under his own name since 2013’s Scotiabank Giller Prize nominee Cataract City. The new book is a nostalgia-driven coming-of-age thriller in the vein of Netflix’s hit series Stranger Things and golden-age 1980s Stephen King.
Set in Niagara Falls (a.k.a. Cataract City), the novel is narrated by Jake Baker, a neurosurgeon. Jake recounts the formative summer of his 13th year, describing his preteen self with words like “gullible,” “chubby,” and “awkward.” Jake appears as the archetypal ’80s-era geek, with a “Dead Alive poster on the wall and [a] stack of Fangorias on the bookshelf.” He also admits to believing in monsters – a belief he shares with his eccentric uncle, Calvin (Uncle C). Uncle C is the proprietor of a shop on Clifton Hill called The Occultorium, which specializes in such items as spell books, voodoo dolls, ritual chalices, and the like.
Along with a band of misfits – including new-kid-in-town Billy Yellowbird, Billy’s tomboy sister Dove, and video-store owner Lex, who traffics only in Betamax – Jake and his uncle comprise a spirit-hunting gang called the Saturday Night Ghost Club. The goal of this group is to explore the many haunted places in Niagara Falls “where the barriers between [the natural] world and the spirit realm are full of holes.” Assuredly, Uncle C dubs himself the group’s “knowledgeable guide.”
Uncle C is a comic figure of sorts – a “merry jester” with “bone-white” hair despite his age (late 30s) and “a long, horselike face.” He moves “as though threads were attached to his limbs, trailing up to a novice puppeteer.” He puts one in mind of “Doc” Emmett Brown, played by Christopher Lloyd in the Back to the Future movies, especially when he says things like, “Be well, and may your purchase serve you faithfully on your journey,” or “Let us venture boldly forth.”
The origin of Uncle C’s peculiarity is the root of the novel’s mystery, and the very thing that keeps Jake’s story from sliding too far into YA territory. Davidson writes so convincingly from a 12-year-old boy’s perspective – vividly capturing those first pangs of love and the torture of being bullied – that it takes the puzzle of unravelling Uncle C’s troubled mind and the scalpel-sharp sections in which adult Jake describes his work as a brain surgeon to remind readers that this is, in fact, a book about the disquieting nature of memory and the stealthy ways the past can haunt someone.
For sheer storytelling prowess, and the chops to scare readers screwy with monsters both real and of our own imagining, the label of Canada’s Stephen King – if we insist on handing it out – belongs to Craig Davidson, claws down.