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Hell House - The New York Times

By Dennis Mahoney

If the existence of a ghost is proof of an afterlife, then one can argue ghost stories are ultimately optimistic. From the moment William moves into a haunted brownstone, there is no ambiguity as to whether supernatural phenomena are occurring or if there is some sort of afterlife. Yet one would be hard pressed to describe the somber tone and strange goings-on in “Ghostland” as optimistic. This pensive, surreal novel employs a decidedly ontological approach to the ghost story.

“Every room we enter is immediately haunted,” exclaims Charlotte, a librarian and occult enthusiast, in the opening line. Who — or what — is the source of the haunting is the central question posed by Dennis Mahoney.

Charlotte, obsessed with a 90-year-old library patron, Leonard Stick, frequently visits him after work in his purportedly haunted building. One night she doesn’t return home to her husband and 7-year-old son, William. She is eventually found in a secluded archival room of the library, lost in a fugue. It is revealed that Mr. Stick has been dead for a month. Charlotte returns home but suffers from dementia-like episodes. Three weeks later she wakes William, asks him to hold her hand, and dies. Fast-forward almost two decades and William’s father is killed in a car accident.

William, inheritor of his mother’s fascination with the occult as well as insurance money, purchases Stick’s “abnormally narrow but otherwise unremarkable” brownstone. The building itself evolves and reshapes, reacting to William’s moods and preternatural state of grief, loneliness and longing. It is host to a number of quirky characters and mysteries, both otherworldly and not: a three-winged pigeon that stubbornly visits the same windowsill; a recalcitrant but unseen basement resident; a large queen centipede with a personality akin to a loyal family dog; and the ghost of a young woman named June.

Through trial and error, William and June devise a way to communicate since she is not corporeal and cannot speak. Yearning for a connection, William resolves to help her solve the mystery of her death as well as find a way to release her from the liminal state in which she’s confined. But he is conflicted since he doesn’t want to lose her.

He discovers that a mystical book called “The Book of Elements,” one his mother spent her final days searching for with Leonard Stick, may provide a way for June to be released from her earthly bounds. The spells he must perform are tedious as well as physically and psychically punishing.

June and William’s awkward interplay will be painfully familiar to anyone who has ever been in a relationship. The couple’s playfulness, selfishness and codependency are authentic and claustrophobic. Mahoney’s twists and reveals, keen bits of insight and irreal imagery — with the grotesque often being presented as beautiful — prevent this odd couple from becoming cloying.

William, with his angsty loneliness obsession, at times veers toward being maudlin with aphorisms like “Nothing is more occult than someone else’s heart.” Ruminations about loneliness (“I’ve been lonely. I’ve been sad for no reason.” “You think we’re doomed to be unhappy”) occur seemingly on every other page. William even references a song by the famous goth/misery pop band the Smiths. It’s not “Girlfriend in a Coma,” though I think, perhaps, that was a missed opportunity. Nonetheless, as his personal if not spiritual apotheosis arrives within the last chapter, it is precisely William’s earnestness that makes those final pages feel so well earned. The novel itself acts as his ultimate spell, with the price of success being the greatest unknown.

Though there are moments of existential unease, Mahoney is not interested in the ghostly bumps and chills of a creaky old house. With its openly bleeding heart and philosopher’s spirit, the odd and undeniably affecting “Ghostlove” explores ways in which we haunt ourselves.

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