In a long-ago American village, an ordinary place settled by people with Anglo-Saxon names like Patterson and Abernathy, spirits occupied unlit corners of dank basements. Some of them trolled for sex. They picked out village daughters whose extreme niceness grew from fear of rejection. Slithering past intact hymen, the spirits entered the girls, impregnated them. They talked in false confidence with select villagers and conspired to divide friends. Some, they followed at a distance. They whispered, were heard by strangers and inspired fear, then turned dramatic; they allowed themselves to be felt and seen for moments at a time. What follows is, for a reader, Frankenstinian dread.
So it is that Ted Morrissey, in his new book, embeds us in a community of Germanic Midwesterners, a group that is function-oriented, studious and politely Christian. These are people who would covet a set of nice tools and then hope no one found out. The earliest generation of villagers revealed by Mr. Morrissey complies strictly with their town’s rules on how and when to quarantine Plague families. The town fathers commonly torched the homes of Plague victims, bodies sealed inside. Morrissey follows those who think they’ve seen ghostly movements in windows while houses were being consumed. Did some get burned who weren’t yet dead?
This is a book you can savor in different ways. Mr. Morrissey is a skilled storyteller and layers sequences that take a reader down a windy road that leads first past shame, then past comforting kindness, then cold isolation, then compassion and then, for some, death at the hands of dear friends. Or, you could read ‘Crowsong’ as a question about America’s vast center. What secrets hide behind the charm of rural gothic?
This is also a book for any writer in search of influence. Mr. Morrissey turns a phrase like a Shaker craftsman turns furniture. He foreshadows with sentences that have the feeling of a stubby pencil held tight in a fist and he follows with something pale and ambiguous that generates a shiver. He turns out characters as fragile as chandeliers and sends them, solitary, into shit storms. Mr. Morrissey is good not only at the little things, the words and the phrases, he’s good at much bigger things, such as incorporating events and possibilities designed to provoke odd feelings. There was, for example, the frigid sense that arrived when Old Man Stevenson, at a formal celebration of his 100th birthday, mused about how much more enjoyable his companions would be if he could please be dead already.
Mr. Morrissey also leaves you memorable little nuggets like this one, taken from a scene in which the burning of Plague families in their homes was being considered: “Pastor Anthony’s wife, Victoria, scooped congealed bacon grease into the frying pan and turned up the burner’s heat. She watched as the gelatinous, dun-colored glop began to liquefy and fill the kitchen with its richly cured smell, today almost sickening in its potency. She tried not to think of it but she wondered if that was what flesh did in the flames, turn to a fatty broth as it fell from the muscle and the bone.” As you read the rest of the book, you’re likely to hear a lingering sizzle.
This is not so much a novel as it is a collection of vignettes. There is no protagonist, except perhaps for the unnamed village itself. The twelve pieces, or sections, that make up the book do not establish plot. Some of the individual pieces don’t seem to have a protagonist or a plot. Together, they leave you with the feeling you might get from a visit to an infamous and abandoned mansion: You saw how the thin light of dusk cast weird shadows in a sitting room that faced west, the place where, you understand, mother’s body was found.
You have to admire a writer who does things his own damn way. There are very likely editors who advised Mr. Morrissey to make his book more conventional, to sketch a clearer narrative, to chose one clear protagonist and to bring his story to a close in a memorable climax. Let’s be thankful the advice was rejected. Every so often, you come across an exquisite piece that ignores convention and is structured according to the peccadilloes of a writer’s imagination. This is one. It already has a place on my shelf and will be pulled down whenever the limits of conventional prose seem inescapable.
Mr. Morrissey calls his book ‘a prismatic novel’ because (his words) the sections can be read in any order. I question the idea. Regardless of the order of your reading, it would be easy to forget what you learned about a character who played a minor role in the second section and who doesn’t surface again until the tenth. Given the limits of human cognition, it would not be reasonably possible to order the sections any old way without creating confusion, unless the writer too often repeated himself — reintroducing characters or places. A reordering would not change the book’s tone or feeling significantly. The existing arrangement seems not just appropriate but excellent. The early sections talk of the Plague and burning tainted houses. The later ones talk of ghosts with attitude. It leaves one feeling that the spirits of those consumed by flame, perhaps before they stopped breathing, had been creatively pursuing revenge, and for years.