When she was en route to the prom wearing her green silk gown and matching shoes, hair lightened in streaks with a touch of lemon juice, Rose Marshall met death. He looked an awful lot like Hollywood movie star Bobby Cross, and he drove a big, mean car. Bobby Cross had been the seductive beast of the silver screen, a James Dean smoldering type of man who decided to make a deal at crossroads for eternal youth, but the twist to that deal is the need to keep his car’s gas tank filled up with souls. He killed Rose but did not manage to collect her, and this is a mistake he has been gunning to correct in the sixty years since. Now a hitchhiking ghost, Rose is on the run. She escaped Bobby on that day and numerous times since, and she has never really stopped running. Now, Bobby Cross is back with a vengeance and a plan . . .
Long time readers of this site will know I was charmed as all hell by Seanan McGuire’s dark fantasy SPARROW HILL ROAD. That was a book that grappled with ghosts and monsters, a nifty vision of the afterlife, and folklore in some fun ways. When I learned a sequel was hitting bookshelves this year, I was thrilled to get some more adventures of Rose Marshall, the hitchhiking ghost with a dozen identities. THE GIRL IN THE GREEN SILK GOWN is a solid follow-up to the original piece, presenting a more linear narrative than the episodic structure of the first. It’s a fine Hallowe’en read, and I’m pleased to consider it as my final review for October.
In fact, this is timely because Hallowe’en actually plays a part in the narrative. But before I get ahead of myself and talk about that, let’s start with an overview of this particular book.
Rose encountered Bobby at the end of the first book, bolstered by the support of a bunch of allies she has made in the spirit world. However, she was not quite ready to handle him there. She did embarrass him, however. For an egotistical sumbitch like Bobby Cross, that’s an unforgivable crime. Bobby Cross again serves as the driving force (hee hee) Rose is responding to in this novel, though he’s less of a force of nature than he is an actual motivator. This time around he has a plan, you see, and it’s a complex one.
Rose is under supernatural protection. She has a tattoo on her back, a warding mark that prevents Bobby doing her harm. This was given to Rose by the routewitches, magic makers who are tied to the god-like roads that run throughout the eerie world next door known as the twilight, the midway point between our daylight world and the heavens and hells of final judgment. Bobby will need to mar that protection before he can do a damned thing to Rose. He is unable to remove it entirely, but he can reduce its effectiveness, which he does by convincing a foolish young girl to play with forces beyond her experience and control. He’s a seducer and a fiend, that Bobby Cross is.
Once this is done, he can count on Rose’s instincts to run. He uses those instincts to his advantage, and manages to convince Rose to take the one chance on restoring her tattoo’s strength, which involves returning to corporeality on Hallowe’en. October 31 is a special day for the dead. Although ghosts of all kinds have a plethora of holidays they recognize, some of which may be familiar to the living and many of which are not, and while those ghosts will argue about this or that day’s importance . . .
And yet all of us agree, without argument, on one thing.
All of us agree on Halloween.
Halloween, when the veil is thin; Halloween, when the rules are different. Halloween, when the clamor of the living seeps through into the twilight, hanging heavy in the ancient air. I’ve never been a fan. The worlds of the living and the dead were never meant to mindle the way they do on Halloween. Traditionally, I’ve spent that holiest of nights hiding as deep in the twilight as I can, staying away from the surface,. I don’t like consequences of being in the mortal world when the clock strikes Halloween. (68)
And what possible consequences could frighten a ghost? Well, there’s a bit of a macabre game, you see, where dead folks can come back to life for that particular festive day. It’s a game because there are some strange stakes: A resuscitated ghost who kills someone on that day can have one year of life, a mortal who kills a resuscitated ghost on that day can have another year of perfect health as well (a real prize for folks with debilitating diseases), a ghost who manages to survive the festival will return to the twilight empowered as though by ritual sacrifice. Sounds all right, so far. However, the stakes are pretty high for the reincarnated spooks: a ghost who gets herself murdered by a mortal is forever gone. No heaven, no hell, no wandering the ghost roads between: you get reprocessed as raw power and completely consumed.
Rose decides to take the plunge, and falls right into Bobby’s plan. Resurrected into flesh once more, she is highly vulnerable, alone in a world she is over sixty years removed from, and on the run once more. The novel tracks her journey through the human worlds in an attempt to return to the lands of the dead. She cannot just out and kill herself, of course, because there’s no guarantee she will be able to make it back to the way she was. Instead, she has to find a way out of Bobby’s plan, out of Bobby’s path, and back to being the Phantom Prom Date she once was.
At first brush, THE GIRL IN THE GREEN SILK GOWN is a mission-oriented fantasy (aka a quest) that relies on a bad man’s overly-ambitious villainous plan falling into place. That may be one of the weaker bits in the book, since Bobby Cross has never been presented as much of a mastermind. However, this is one of those elements that we have to simply accept. It’s the kick off for the events to follow, and McGuire uses those events to spin a fun novel that follows Rose through supernatural wonders and mundane world weirdness with a gee whiz excitement. Bobby’s presence is stronger in this novel than in the previous. He had parts to play in various episodes before. And while he remains off camera/off the page through much of this book, he nevertheless pushes and pulls Rose into action. One of the nicer touches in this book is Rose’s character learning to break some of her habits. She’s used to operating alone (though she does have friends and allies), she’s used to thinking she should be in love with the boy who wanted to take her to prom and made a big sacrifice to be with her in the ghost worlds (though she doesn’t really know him), she’s used to being a ghost. The narrative attacks all these comfort zones and pushes Rose into several uncomfortable places. Sometimes this is done for humorous effect, such as when Rose has to acclimate herself to that necessary evil of mortality:
When I open my eyes, the door to her room is closed, and there’s a pain in my abdomen that makes me sure—absolutely certain—that I’m about to die. I stagger to my feet, shoving Laura’s afghan aside and feel the pain shift downward, from my lower back into my—
The less said about what happens next, the better. Urination is not the worst thing a human body is capable of. This is disgusting. Everything about life is disgusting. The good parts—the cheesburgers, the milkshakes, the laughter, the sunlight—just lead to more of the bad parts. Cause and effect and why are humans afraid of going to hell? They already live there. They already rot there. (132)
Yeah, that first bowel movement in sixty+ years is a nasty surprise. It’s a funny perspective on our human existence. However, not all is fun and funny. Several of these moments are written to chill the reader’s marrow. Rose’s existence is one that straddles the line between high comedy and a dark yet fascinating supernatural terror.
All of these challenges are gear toward nudging Rose in ways that will allow her to grow and change as a character should. That is to be expected in a competent narrative. Where THE GIRL IN THE GREEN SILK GOWN excels is in the subtext. If there’s one theme/motif to the book, it is related in some way to the many faces and forms of sacrifice. The book includes bloody tokens to dark powers as well as more subtle sacrifices of pride for a fellow person in trouble. Emotional, physical, spiritual . . . people sacrifice and are sacrificed all over this book. It’s an interesting meditation on the cost of being part of a community, on relationships between folks, and on the difficulty in achieving lofty goals. This thematic ribbon running through the entire book holds the narrative together and sets it apart from its predecessor volume (which was no stranger to sacrifice as well, but earned less narrative mileage from the topic). I rather enjoy that aspect of this work.
Some authors have distinct voices and tones for the books they produce under their own name or pseudonym. The series we have been running on mystery/thriller/caper/science fiction/etc. writer Donald E. Westlake has shown some of those differences when we’ve considered his own work as well as those published under the Richard Stark, Tucker Coe, etc. names. Seanan McGuire writes under the Mira Grant name as well, and when it comes to a book like SPARROW HILL ROAD or THE GIRL IN THE GREEN SILK GOWN, I will be damned if I can tell whose name it belongs under. In McGuire/Grant’s case the names are less strict in their interests and executions. I suppose Grant’s works are darker in general while McGuire’s output offers a bit more hope, but there seems to be no easy division. Readers who like the “lighter” urban fantasies in McGuire’s InCryptid series will find much to enjoy in the Ghost Roads books. Likewise, fans of Mira Grant’s zombies and mermaids will find plenty of chilling evil in the books as well though perhaps not as much outright bloodshed.
Will there be more adventures involving Rose Marshall and her twilight world of ghost roads? I certainly hope so. I had a ball reading this adventure and look forward to hearing more from this character.
Next week, we will return to the ConsideringWestlake series by jumping into the final book in the Grofield series penned under Westlake’s mean-spirited alter ego Richard Stark. LEMONS NEVER LIE returns Grofield to the classic heist gone wrong subjects that populate Stark’s thrilling Parker series with some grim and grotty twists and turns. Grab a copy in eBook, paperback, or audio. It’s well worth reading.
McGuire, Seanan. THE GIRL IN THE GREEN SILK GOWN. New York: DAW. 2018.