cover image The Ghost Variations

The Ghost Variations

Kevin Brockmeier. Pantheon, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-5247-4883-8

Brockmeier (The Illumination) imagines the vicissitudes of the afterlife and the phenomena that haunt the living in this sonorous collection of 100 brief stories. In “The Office of Hereafters and Dissolutions,” a ghost is hounded by a series of celestial clerical errors. First, he is repeatedly billed an already-paid $25 fee to earn the right to haunt Earth. Then, his birth certificate is postdated by a millennium, and “the genial middle-aged man ceased not only to be but ever yet to have been.” In “Every House Key, Every Fire Hydrant, Every Electrical Outlet,” a toddler sees the faces of the dead in wall sockets. In “Dusk and Other Stories,” a poltergeist communicates with a retired publisher by disturbing books on a shelf with such titles as The Household Spirit. Not every story contains a ghost. The children in “The Sandbox Initiative” are haunted by “the tang of salt air and the blood sound of waves” on oceans they’ve yet to see. In “The Census,” a highlight, Brockmeier imagines God’s alarm at the disproportionate number of ghosts in the world compared to living people, and makes some adjustments, including turning himself into a spirit (“The majority of theologians regard this as His most impressive feat to date,” the narrator wryly concludes). Brockmeier’s luminous sentences and potent metaphors animate the phantasmagorical material. These eloquent dispatches show the writer’s remarkable range. (Mar.)