Scary ghost stories? Has somebody been hitting the eggnog too early?
Nowadays, it’s true, we’ve corralled our spooks and specters within the confines of Halloween, but for centuries the long, dark nights of winter inspired tales of supernatural visitors. In 1963, enough of that ancient practice of telling scary ghost stories during Yuletide still lingered for Pola and Wyle to include it in their lyrics. And even today, the tradition haunts us in what remains the season’s most popular holiday tale: “A Christmas Carol,” written by Charles Dickens in 1843.
“Marley was dead,” Dickens begins. “There is no doubt that Marley was dead.” When Scrooge endures that spectral visitation from his old partner in chains, the man has been underground for seven years.
But now — to borrow the words of another great Victorian writer — the rumors of his death are greatly exaggerated. Marley lives. Jon Clinch has revived the life behind the famous ghost in a prequel that fleshes out the early relationship between the two old misers in “A Christmas Carol.”
When it comes to such literary pickpocketing, Clinch is a regular Oliver Twist. His first novel was “Finn,” a gripping, often lurid tale about Huckleberry Finn’s pap. Like Gregory Maguire, who gave us the backstory on the Wicked Witch of the West in “Wicked,” Clinch creates wholly original stories that snap together with the edges of classics we all know.
In “Marley,” he begins when Jacob and Ebenezer are students at Professor Drabb’s Academy for Boys, a boarding school even grimmer than Mr. Gradgrind’s classroom in “Hard Times.” (Allusions to Dickens’s novels appear throughout these pages like Easter eggs.) With an amusing imitation of Dickens’s style, Clinch writes that the academy has “all the qualities of a prison but the warmth, all the qualities of a graveyard but the fresh air.” The founder is a strong proponent of “Manly Self-Determination,” which in practice means that the “children toiled like the damned.” Alone and naive, young Ebenezer falls under the protection of a savvier boy named Jacob who quickly takes advantage of him, and with that, the foundation of the partnership between Scrooge & Marley is set.
Although Clinch relies on the details provided in “A Christmas Carol,” he never seems cramped by them. Whereas Dickens describes Scrooge as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner,” that still leaves plenty of room to imagine what he was like when he was getting started in 1800. Clinch doesn’t merely introduce a younger “covetous old sinner”; he presents a Scrooge quite unlike that flinty Grinch. His Scrooge is hard-working, even chilly, but he’s also sincere and honorable. What’s more, as we know from “A Christmas Carol,” he’s in love with a young woman. In Dickens’s version, we see the bitter end of their relationship, but in “Marley,” we follow the full arc of Scrooge’s affection.
How this ambitious businessman eventually ends up pleading with a spirit for the salvation of his soul is just one of the questions this novel sets out to answer. Clinch is more interested in Scrooge’s partner, Jacob, who “possesses a grace that his partner lacks.” He’s a veritable chameleon. “His coloration, his appearance, good God his very dimensions, seem amenable to modification in service of the moment’s need,” Clinch writes. “Jacob Marley can be all things to all men. And especially to all women.” We come to know him as more cunning than Fagin and cleverer than Mr. Tulkinghorn. And unbeknown to Scrooge, Marley is a master forger who has built a vast enterprise of front companies, shell businesses and phony proprietors that would impress even Donald Trump’s accountants.
But Dickens never specifies the exact nature of Scrooge’s business. Almost two centuries later, that omission allows Clinch just the space he needs to imagine something lucrative, repellent and historically believable buried deep beneath all the fraud and accounting shenanigans: slavery. That clever bit of speculation provides the moral complications the novel needs to plumb the dimensions of both men. Scrooge is determined to separate their business from the unspeakable trade, while Marley hopes to continue draining profit from African captives — even if he has to hide those transactions from his partner’s eagle-eye.
If “Marley” has any flaws, it’s that this Battle of the Bookkeepers is not sufficiently dramatic to carry along the whole story. To its own detriment, the narrative concentrates too much on genteel domestic scenes and refined romantic conversations. Inexplicably, a potentially fantastic story line involving Marley in America takes place offstage. Alas, we hear just the barest details of that New World adventure, which gives us more time for drawing-room chatter. Unfortunately, that’s typical of this novel: Its violent acts are related with Victorian decorum; its emotional range is as tightly drawn as Mother Scrooge’s corset.
The result is a costume drama that pleasantly mimics Dickens’s tone and presents a plausible backstory to his most familiar creation but fails to generate enough of its own energy. “Marley” remains a derivative side story. We’re never chilled by anything close to the terror that Scrooge feels before his own gravestone. We never feel anything like the elation of his early-morning reformation. We never brush away embarrassed tears at anything like Tiny Tim’s sappy blessing.
Dickens, after all, offers more than complicated plots and comical characters. He knew the profound pleasure of succumbing to unbridled pathos and joy. If you can’t give us that, well, then . . . bah, humbug.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Jon Clinch
Atria. 285 pp. $27