One of the unique pleasures of the ghost story is the willingness of the genre to risk or even abandon its identity. Once the supernatural begins to erupt in a tale, the reader invariably asks "Is it real?"
Sometimes, as in Ann Radcliffe's "The Mysteries of Udolpho," it is explained away; at other times, as in H.G. Wells' "The Plattner Story," it turns out--to our shuddery delight--to be the real thing. Occasionally, as in Poe's proto-Freudian "The Fall of the House of Usher" or Le Fanu's "Green Tea," it could go either way.
Now Jonathan Carroll, author of "The Land of Laughs," seems to have invented a new variation--the tale that is convincingly supernatural in some episodes, psychological in others, and totally ambiguous in still others. Not only is there no resolution, there is not even conventional Henry Jamesian ambiguity: just because the ending, for example, seems psychological does not necessarily banish the ghosts from earlier episodes back to their graves. Instead of the "gradual crescendo" advocated by ghost story writer M.R. James, Carroll gives us terrace dynamics--one experiment in goosebumps at a time, each one quite separate from the others.
All this is rather confusing, and indeed advance grumbles have it that "Voice of Our Shadow" lacks the magic of Carroll's first novel. There is some truth to this: "The Land of Laughs," along with William Hjortsberg's "Falling Angel," is probably the most imaginative supernatural novel in 10 years, and is a hard act to follow. On the other hand, Carroll clearly is attempting something different this time: the story is not about magic at all but the lack of it. The narrator, Joseph Lennox, is a "wimpy," guilt-ridden fellow so deficient in "a delight in life" that he must absorb it from others, like a psychic vampire. To make matters worse, his sources of magic have a way of turning up dead. In a flashback scene hair-raisingly true to the terrors of adolescence, Joe's sadistic big brother Ross is electrocuted because Joe accidently pushes him onto a third rail when Ross is about to tell Bobby, the bully of the school, that Joe masturbates to a yearbook picture of Bobby's sister. Later, when Joe moves to Vienna to outdistance the "guilt monsters" of his childhood, he blunders into a love triangle that produces another corpse, this time of his best friend Paul. Soon Joe and Paul's widow, India, discover to their dismay that Paul is as energetic in death as he was in life.
Carroll brings an array of apparitions to vivid, startling life--not just an avenging lover but animals, children and even animated magazines. A master of shifting tonalities, Carroll balances the grimness of his content against the deceptive amiability of his storytelling voice. He is rather like the narrator's charming but dangerous childhood tormentors: "In a different environment who knows what might have happened to the two of them. Both Bobby and Ross had an e'lan, the magician's touch; that special rare ability to turn cruelty into pink handkerchiefs and kindness into thin air."
One of the novel's most menacing turns involves a typical Carroll conversation: "Once, when I asked him if he ever saw himself growing old and dying, he said no. Instead, he said, he envisioned an old man with gray hair and wrinkles who was called Paul Tate but wasn't him . . . 'It's like working a shift in a factory, see? I'm working one of the middle ones--the thirty-five to forty shift, get it? Then some other man checks into my body and takes it from there.' " Suddenly Paul stops in mid-sentence: "His face was bloodless, but what really struck me was a kind of terrible stillness in his eyes and on his lips. It was gone in an instant, but it left his face looking drawn and blurred, as if something important had gone out of him, leaving him only half filled."
This brilliant little sequence provides a mythos for the spine-tingling supernatural scenes that soon follow--and fans of Carroll's first novel will be delighted. But later the novel takes another turn, as apparitions melt into each other in ways that fulfill psychological patterns Carroll has set up just as carefully as his supernatural ones. For my money, the psychological explanation is more satifying simply because the narrator's saturation in guilt is more frightening than any spook. But what about that ghostly white boxer, that "moving patch of snow in the night"? And what about those Playboy centerfolds piled on the bed, seen by India as well as Paul, whose sexual organs have become leering faces?