By Derryl Murphy, and William Shunn (PS Publishing; 2009)
A good book, this: well written, solidly characterized and imaginative. It’s a period novella set during an important but little-explored stretch of American history. I wasn’t too impressed by the final pages, which take the tale in a predictable and overly pat direction, but overall I like CAST A COLD EYE a fair amount.
The time and setting are well rendered and specific: rural Nebraska circa 1921, a region devastated by Spanish flu. Among the flu’s victims are the mother and father of the story’s protagonist, 15-year-old Luke Bryant, who’s having trouble adjusting to life as an orphan. He suffers from anger issues, is bullied incessantly and, worst of all, always sees graveyard statues open their stony eyes and watch him whenever he sets foot within. Luke’s mental state isn’t helped by his employment as an apprentice to Annabelle Tupper, a half-blind spirit photographer.
As presented here, the details of early 20th Century photography are thoroughly researched and fascinating, while the character of Annabelle is nearly as intriguing. She initially seems like a charlatan utilizing trick photography, at least until her true mission is revealed: she’s following the trail of her deceased husband’s wandering spirit. In Luke she’s found an ideal conduit into the spirit world, as ghosts can always be counted on to show up in the photos he takes–as he himself points out toward the end, if places can be haunted than a person can probably be as well, and apparently Luke is such a person.
Speaking of the book’s end, I’ve already stated I found it less than edifying. Without giving too much away, I think it ties everything up a little too neatly, with Luke and Annabelle finally getting a chance to face up to and put their respective ghosts to rest, and learning an important lesson in the process. It’s very Hollywood, and in direct contrast to the rest of the story, which works largely because of its richness and unpredictability.