Now here comes the SPOILERY review, for those who have read the book and would like to discuss it on this community. It will be hidden behind a lj-cut and dotted red line, beyond which you should not trespass. If you do, you'll have major elements of the plot and ending SPOILED for you! Enter at your own risk!
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Someone - I think it may have been the Italian writer Ignazio Silone - once remarked that many writers only have one basic storyline, which they refine with each successive novel. I couldn't help thinking of this dictum when reading THE GHOST ORCHID, Carol Goodman's latest Gothic thriller, where she uses many of the tropes found in her previous work - atmospheric gardens, bodies of water, Greek mythology, drowned babies (OK, a drowned baby) and a central character who finds that, due to her previous actions or some blood legacy, she's rooted far deeper in the mystery than she could ever have imagined.
Here, the meeting of "heroine" and "mystery" is, on the surface, a little more random than Goodman's usual set-up. Rather than the heroine returning to a place that had loomed large in her past, here she - in this case Ellis Brooks - has come for the first time to Bosco, an artists' colony in New York State. Here, amongst the statues and elegant topiary, Brooks hopes to write a novelistic treatment of the mysterious story of Corinth Blackwell, a medium who came to the Bosco estate in 1893 and ended by abducting the owner's young daughter and disappearing without trace. As with Goodman's other work, shades of this past evil appear to be bleeding through into the present, with the riddled-rotten gardens of Bosco as concrete metaphor and Ellis as both the evil's trigger and its potential healer.
Where the problem lies with BLACKWELL - at least, where my problem lies - is that I could guess the potential "twist" of the storyline from the advance synopsis alone. If Corinth Blackwell kidnapped a child and is yet intended as "ambiguous" rather than completely evil, then it follows that the child herself must be one of Goodman's beloved "displaced children", and that Corinth is merely rescuing her own child and taking her home. (My own experience with Goodman's plots is that I could easily guess "whodunit" in both LAKE and SEDUCTION, but was sucker-punched by DROWNING TREE: I'd hoped that Goodman would fox me again, but sadly it was not to be.) To be fair, I didn't guess that Aurora Latham was behind Frank Campbell's murder, but that's because I couldn't understand why Aurora should want to invite Corinth to her own house purely to kill her. In fact, I still can't; why, if Aurora killed her own children, should she want to call them up in a public seance to accuse her? Why, with a crack-shot like Wanda as a servant, why didn't she just have Corinth assassinated privately and far away from Bosco if her primary aim was to get rid of her husband's mistress? (It always annoys me when characters go through an unnecessary charade in order to commit a crime: watching such a denouement, I feel like Scott Evil with his "Two bullets! Bang, bang!" caveat.)
Another problem I had was with the novel's somewhat matter-of-fact treatment of the supernatural elements. I don't know about you, but when I read about ghosts, I want to be scared. I want to see the meeting of the dead and the living as some sort of abominable transgression which harms, or at the very least threatens, the living. This didn't happen here, largely due to the fact that our heroine is very comfortable with "the Other Side" and suffers no sickness, paralysis or self-doubt whenever she encounteres apparitions. When ghosts are seen as a phenomenon as natural as rain or frost, of course we're not going to be frightened - and that absence of dread does leave an impression of something "lacking" in the novel. It's the same with the "spirit possessions": I was expecting at least one character to be "sacrificed" to the evil that haunts the grounds of Bosco, but in the end he doesn't suffer, just as no-one in the present day suffers from Aurora Latham's legacy of evil. Sadistic as it may sound, when you're writing in the Gothic genre people have to suffer and people have to be scared. If they aren't - if, indeed, ghosts are just the equivalent of "those people who ring up writers with stories to tell" - then there's nothing much at stake. Perhaps that is my problem with THE GHOST ORCHID, in a nutshell: unlike Goodman's previous work, I didn't get the impression that the heroine had much to lose - or gain - by researching the mystery.
Kindly put this reaction down to my annoyance that the ghosts here are just Plot Devices, rather than things which truly touch and change the central characters. I wanted real horror: I didn't get it. But what there is to admire in THE GHOST ORCHID are those elements which one has come to expect of Goodman: the imagery ("flow blue" - what a brilliant way of describing that translucent off-white shade!), the sure and meaningful use of mythology, the deft writing style which continually throws up treasurable phrases. It's nice to see some more examples of Goodman's poetry (as given to Zalman) and the inclusion of Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy was well done. It's these elements - together with the showy, operatic collapse of the garden as a symbolic washing-away of Evil - that give me hope for Goodman's next book. Though I did find this one a disappointment, the satsifying elements of this book show that Goodman is very far indeed from having "lost it": she's got the narrative power and ability to handle complexity that assures me that with the right subject she could indeed strike it big.