Toronto: Knopf Canada, c2018.
As the fall draws in, it is a good time to turn to reads that are a bit spooky, a bit shivery perhaps. The Saturday Night Ghost Club by Canadian author Craig Davidson is one of those books.
It begins with a Stranger Things, 80s vibe – young boys on their bikes, exploring strange places around Cataract City (Niagara). The cover also gives off that retro feel. But the sense of nostalgia for an 80s childhood which comes from the narrator looking back at those years and telling us all about them has a deeper significance, because this story is also about memory and trauma and how our minds manage those things. Very conveniently, the narrator, Jake, has grown up to be a neurosurgeon, with lots to say about how the brain works and how it stores memories - expanding on the theme.
The heart of the book lies in the relationship between Jake and his Uncle Calvin. Calvin owns the Occultorium, a shop dedicated to the occult, conspiracy theories and the uncanny, and seems to be uncertain himself where that line between everyday life and the supernatural lies. He and Jake have a close relationship, partly because Uncle C seems to be a bit of a child himself, still believing in the kind of magic that gets "kicked out of you, churched out, shamed out - or worse, you steal it from yourself." As long as Jake has known him, Uncle C has never been ordinary. The summer that Jake turns twelve, Calvin invites both Jake and his new friend Billy Yellowbird to join the Saturday Night Ghost Club, in which they will visit haunted sites of Cataract City together.
After their first terrifying foray to a haunted railway tunnel, they almost call it quits. But Cal convinces them to keep checking out other locations connected to spooky urban legends. Sites which have deeper connections to their lives than any of them know. You'll have to read this fairly short book to get a sense of how these connections ultimately match up, and why.
The tone of the story is nostalgic and folksy, with recollections of innocent adventures and misunderstandings of adult life. Jake's coming of age is centred on this summer; he loses his innocence and a belief in the world as a friendly place over the weeks of the Ghost Club. He's also experiencing his first love, once he meets Dove, Billy's tough and independent older sister. All of that 80s nostalgia and boys noticing girls thing, rolled up together with a pinch of melodrama and heartache. Perfect!
Davidson has viscerally captured a sense of boyhood and nostalgia. The book reflects similar reads like Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, or Stephen King's Stand By Me. It's a story you won't want to put down; it grabs you and forces you to look clearly at a summer recalled -- and to consider how we remember things and how we shape our own pasts to suit ourselves.
I had a few quibbles with it: it did feel slightly emotionally manipulative in some ways - with dashes of sentimental writing and melodramatic revelations that made me wince slightly. And upon reflection, I'm not a fan of the golden haze laid over the intense masculinity of Jake's father and the other characters that the chubby, nerdy Jake encounters. It felt a little bit like a stage set of "the past" -- here's what real men are like, and Jake admiring it all the more because it's not what he is like.
But as a quick literary/genre blend, with some great characters and memorable writing overall, it's a great pick. The interest in the 80s right now, even from those who didn't grow up then, added to the clear compassion that Davidson feels for his characters, equals a sure fire read. Well worth seeking out, even if it is only available in Canada for the moment.