“Showing fear to a ghost is like feeding a stray cat — once they get a taste, they’ll never leave you alone.” — Ellie Jordan
Reading J.L. Bryan’s Ellie Jordan: Ghost Trapper (JLBryanbooks, 2014) got me thinking about what monsters really want from us. Zombies, generally speaking, want to eat us, often with a (dangling) eye on our brains. Vampires also see us as a meal, but the better class of them at least make the evening feel like a third date. The Frankenstein monster, according to the novel and according to the creature himself (but do you trust him?), is “acting out” his pain at not being loved enough. Similarly, werewolves and Mr. Hyde give into their rageaholic tendencies. All of these creatures embody our base impulses: hunger, lust, venting pain, rage — and stories about mastering the monster remind us to master those urges.
What about ghosts? Do they fit this mold? They’re hard to pin down, but it seems like a lot of ghosts would rather simply be left alone than feed on or lash out at humans. Don’t get me wrong; there are sinister ghosts in folklore and fiction and film. Unless a writer is very clever, though, nasty ghosts can creep toward feeling like some other kind of supernatural creature.
Ghosts might seem like zombies, for instance. In Ellie Jordan: Ghost Trapper, the title character and her assistant, Stacey Ray Tolbert, need to locate a former inmate’s personal effects from an abandoned insane asylum, which turns out to be haunted:
The host of creeps closed in around us. I’d heard at least three distinct voices, but there could have been more specters than that. It felt like a dark cloud of them, a cluster of ghosts that had more or less lost their individual identities, their yearnings merging into a combined pool of hunger, anger, pain, or whatever emotions motivated them to stick around instead of moving on.
This host of creeps shoves and grabs and claws its two living victims. But the reason they do so is never really explained. To feed? To vent? To be really scary? Granted, this is one of the novel’s more unnerving scenes, but it also shows how the internal logic — or even internal illogic — of the fictional, ghostly world is never (forgive me) fleshed out.
This perfunctory approach to the novel’s own premises makes Bryan’s novel a very light one, and that’s something readers considering it should know. The author gives a similar “just go with me” feel to what might have been one of the story’s more distinctive and promising twists: instead of just exorcising ghosts, Jordan traps them! It’s part of a spectral relocation program. The traps are described as cylindrical, “about two feet tall, resembling a large version of the clear plastic capsule that banks send through at the drive-up window.” They’re three-layers thick: heavily leaded glass (which, Jordan explains, is tough for ghosts to pass through “for some reason”) surrounded by an electrified copper mesh (“an electromagnetic wall to imprison the ghost”), which is surrounded by hard plastic. That’s all the science we readers get, but we’re assured they work.
Now, if you recognize such ghost traps from the original Ghostbusters movies of the 80s, they actually go back even further historically. Gelett Burgess’ 1905 short story “The Ghost Extinguisher” — though comical like Ghostbusters — gives a surprisingly impressive explanation of the physics and metaphysics of ghost trapping. Bryan doesn’t. Jordan’s ghost hunter equipment suggests that phantoms are primarily energy, not much spirit at all, even though they retain malicious intent and other human desires. The novel’s spooks are clearly more than phantasmal echoes, though. And Bryan only brushes by the ethics involved in putting what-once-were-humans into fancy pickle jars to be released in a place not of their choosing.
Ellie Jordan, Ghost Trapper asks little of its reader in other ways, too. Jordan tells her own story, and her narrative voice has flashes of hard-boiled sassiness. But the novel reads almost more like a film treatment, leaning hard on physical description and the vocabulary of a Young Adult novel. It’s a breezy read, in other words. The haunted clients include a jerk of a husband who is only fleetingly portrayed as anything more complex than a jerk of a husband, and why the wife married and stays with such a man is ignored. Certain things seem very familiar: the psychic who became psychic only after a near-death experience, which is a standard motif, or the childhood trauma that immersed Jordan into a life of ghost hunting, which reminded me a lot of young Master Wayne on that dark alley in Gotham City.
If it sounds as if I’m coming down pretty hard on this novel, it’s because I simply look for more depth and detail and authorial commitment in something even as goofy as a ghost hunter fiction. To me, the realism (not the reality, mind you) is the charm — or, at least, the richness of the fantasy world is. I openly acknowledge that not all readers seek this. In fact, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, that very rich, oddly realistic novel about ghost hunters, has fewer reviews at Amazon than does Ellie Jordan: Ghost Trapper . . . which is a curious thing.
Of course, I might be especially prone to nitpick when reviewing a male writer who has created a female ghost hunter character, as I have. With that in mind, allow me to pick at one last nit. Shouldn’t a ghost who can say “Leave this house” also be able to say “There’s danger here”? Or how about “Flee this house,” since leave and flee have the same long e, the same l, and similar fffh and vvvh phonemes? Bryan’s supposedly crackerjack ghost detective spends quite a lot of the novel misled by this otherworldly communiqué. It turns out to be a misdirect, one that I and several of those Amazon reviewers saw through early — and it ultimately feels like a cheat. Again, maybe it’s just how two different ghost story authors work.
Ellie Jordan: Ghost Trapper, then, is light reading with some interesting ideas that float by quickly, like apparitions glimpsed in the corner of the eye. On the spectral spectrum, it’s much closer to watching one of those ghost hunting shows on TV than to, say, reading M.R. James or Shirley Jackson.