THE CASTLE OF LOS ANGELES - 2010
By Lisa Morton
Gray Friar Press
Trade PPB, 123 pages
Ghost stories are hard to do.
Not that there's anything inherently difficult about a ghost story as opposed to a vampire tale or zombie adventure, but people have told and retold ghost stories around campfires and drinking tables for thousands of years. That makes it hard to come up with something you haven't heard a hundred times with the names changed to protect the pedestrian. When was the last time you heard a ghost story you didn't already know the ending to?
Making stories, that's easy. Creating new material, that's hard.
Some folks have attacked it from the angle of making the ghost a plot device. In recent movies and TV shows, the ghost is part of the exposition, and we've come to expect a certain type of ending – as in Ghost Whisperer or Medium, for example. If we don't get some sort of resolution or closure to the associated mystery or love story, we feel cheated and that our time was wasted.
Other ghost stories, tales that don't necessarily follow a certain expectation (I don't care for the word formula), are difficult because there's only so much you can do with a ghost. I find the best, the coolest ghost stories are those in which the ghost is not necessarily forced center stage or reduced to a plot driver, but taking a secondary character position, as in Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost.
But a lot of these have been done. Some overdone. Then what do you do with the ghost tale? Ditch it? Toss it into the vast pile of overused tropes that just don't work anymore?
You don't if your name is Lisa Morton. She knows a good ghost narrative isn't necessarily about the scare-power of the earthbound spirits, but about the characters and the things that happen to them. She knows if you paint an interesting enough person, along with her dreams and desires, the story will follow as a matter of course.
Her THE CASTLE OF LOS ANGELES is one such book. I've enjoyed her other work, and I cracked Castle with high hopes and high expectations. I know she likes to spend her first few pages letting us get to know a character, and once we identify with and love that character, we find ourselves caught up in her story without necessarily even realizing it.
Beth Ortiz is a theater person. All her friends are theater people, such that she tends to spend her time with a local theater company run by a close friend of hers at the Castle, a community of artists, writers, actors and so forth all living together in a Bohemian group.
So Beth is a natural choice to take over the company when her friend, Eric, decides to move back to Michigan to take care of his ailing father. She moves into the Castle with high aspirations. She begins to write. She begins to work.
One morning, Beth bumps into a cute guy (who turns out to be gay, of course) who works for the world-class painter upstairs, Jessamine Constanzo. Jessamine takes an interest in Beth, an unwelcome role in her life that treads the line between mentor and stalker.
Next, Beth meets a hooker who has fallen asleep against her car. Beth takes her home, or at least to her home street, and establishes a relationship with her, deciding to pay her and her friends in exchange for background information about professional girls for the play she is writing. The deal works, until Beth's street contacts start to disappear, one by one.
At the same time, Beth begins to see and experience some unexpected and rather macabre things at the Castle, beginning with her getting chased down the stairs by an unseen figure in the creepiest part of the building.
Finally, every story needs a love interest, and Beth finds hers from an unexpected angle, which only serves to complicate things further.
The ending wraps up all four stories in a neat and unpredicted (at least by me) ending, which reveals the source of the threatening ghostly occurrences and the cause of the girls' disappearances, changing Beth's life forever.
I found Castle hard to put down. I carry books to work with me to read on my lunch hour, and as it sat on my desk, I found my eyes straying towards it time and time again, as though calling to me. As often as not, I'd look around to make sure no one was watching, and surreptitiously read a few pages.
Morton's characters are real, unforgettable people who haunt your imagination the same way her other creations haunt the Castle, and her writing is straightforward, always advancing the story, never impeding it. She has a way of stepping out of the way, letting her creations occupy the footlights.
And well she should. Lisa Morton, herself a bit of a theater person, is an experienced screenwriter and behind the scenes Hollywood production worker, even going so far as play an extra in one of her produced pieces. Her short fiction has appeared in multiple prominent mags and anthologies, and she is the author of The Hallowe'en Anthology, a nonfiction book of Halloween history and legend. She is the editor of Midnight Walk, and anthology of excellent short stories. Castle is her first published novel.
For her work, Morton has won multiple awards, including three Stoker awards and a Black Quill. She's shown mastery of her craft by delineating her characters and creating suspense. And like a magician who might have resided at her Castle, she shows an ability to point your attention in one direction while creating her story in another. Her plot twists are real and not the cheap result of withheld information, the way many modern authors do.
Castle looks like it may be a contender to garner her another Stoker nomination, and possibly the award itself. Four BookWyrms. It's an excellent piece of fiction, to be placed alongside other masterworks of the ghost story. I recommend it for anyone's collection.
This review copyright 2010 E.C.McMullen Jr.
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