Ghost Eaters: Sometimes the Void Stares Back
Updated: Dec 8, 2022
"Wanna get haunted?"
Not high, they insist. Haunted. Clay McLeod Chapman's Ghost Eaters is a brilliant new take on the idea that there are no haunted houses, only haunted people. Erin Hill, a well-to-do college grad, is just starting to get her life together. The only thing standing in her way? Her ex-boyfriend, Silas, constantly strung out on some drug or another, in and out of rehab, calling her and pulling her back down into his web. And Erin enables him, like she's always done. Until she doesn't. And he ends up a corpse, under a bridge. Overcome by grief and guilt, her friend Tobias tells her about a drug called Ghost, that he and Silas had been developing. One that allows you to see the dead. "Death doesn't have to be the end anymore," he says.
What follows is a bitter, bone-chilling tale of addiction, manipulation, and the lengths we'll go to for one more moment with those we love. It posits a desolate world in which there is no afterlife, only a monochrome limbo where those who die wait among the living, desperate to be seen and experience one last taste of being alive. And being set in the Civil War city of Richmond, Virginia, there are many, many ghosts to be found. Let's dive in.
The Paradox of Addiction
I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to tell you that Erin ends up battling her addiction to Ghost through this book. Tobias brings her and their friend, Amara, to an abandoned, half-finished home in a subdivision that had long since gone under. They conduct a séance for Silas in the wake of his funeral. Anything to see him again. Then, their first hit of Ghost. It all starts as "maybe once," which quickly leads to "never again." But "never" is such a long time. What fascinated me through Erin's journey was that she was always of two minds, at odds with one another. One was her addicted mind. The mind that said that she was home in this abandoned drug house, that she never had to leave Silas again, that they could have a life together if she just opened herself to it.
In the back of her mind is her real self, burning a tiny but persistent flame in the perfect illusion of addiction. "I need to get out of here," it says. "I need to put a stop to this. I want to live." Erin, in moments of lucidity, rebels against the house, against the drug overtaking her body, because she's not just seeing Silas. She's seeing every lost soul wandering Richmond, every murder, every tragic accident, every lynching victim and dead soldier. Hundreds of years of death, just behind the eyes of what our rational minds see every day. And it's hell. When she's thinking clearly, she wants to recover. She never wants anyone to go through what she's experiencing. But when faced with the idea of never seeing Silas again... she falters. It's this paradox between the logical mind and Erin's grief powering her addiction, where Chapman truly shines. Erin's world is so believable, so intensely relatable, even though I've never experienced addiction or withdrawal.
The author pulls us down into the world of addiction and shouts the truth in our ears: addicts are just people. People fighting a larger problem. In the case of Ghost, it's grief over the loss of a loved one. But it's really the same with all drugs. We're fighting abuse, trauma, poverty, pain, mental illness. Any number of issues can be at the root of addiction, and anyone addicted is just fighting a battle they feel powerless to win. They're not dirty junkies who don't deserve our attention. Quite the opposite. These are hurting people who deserve to have help so they can win their own war. I love how Ghost Eaters drags us into this world, and insists that we pay attention. Because we should.
The Price of Grief
At the core of many of the horror books I've reviewed -- and indeed, many ghost stories in general -- seems to be grief. Grief of the death of a loved one. Grief over the loss of a life we'll never have again. Grief over the injustices of the world. Erin experiences all of these in Ghost Eaters at one point or another. The issue at the core of this book is what we do with this grief. The loss of Silas overwhelms her, not just with her sense of loss but with guilt, the eternal question of "is it my fault? If I had enabled him one last time, would he still be here?" "If I had only..." "What if...?" And any number of responses that someone going through the rounds of loss may experience to convince themselves that what's happened could have somehow been prevented, to give meaning to the meaningless.
As the story progresses, Erin is also aware of the life she's losing. Her five-year plan to get her life together, to join a marketing agency, to become successful. And then, losing the life Silas's ghost promises her while she's under the influence. Their life together. There's an element of Weltschmerz, the German notion of loss when one compares the world as it is versus the world as one wants it to be. But as she dives further and further into addiction, even at the end, there is no returning to the life she's sacrificed for one last moment with Silas. Happy endings just don't work that way.
The Ghosts of Virginia
Holy shit, fam. I love how modern horror authors use their platform to say something meaningful, and not just provide their audience with a few cheap thrills. Horror, at its core, is a twisted, macabre mirror of our world, that at its best, shines a light on ourselves, while in the process of scaring the pants off us. Chapman, in his modern, gothic tale, shines a spotlight on the history of Richmond and the Civil War. It's not done with hatred, not at all. In some ways, it's a love letter to the South, written with the care and knowledge of someone who honestly loves the area. In the book, Erin talks about how everyone in the South is a Civil War buff, because every street corner, every tree, every building, has a history. In describing the city's dead, Chapman shines light on battles long-forgotten, building fires, trees with Billie Holliday's eponymous strange fruit hanging from the branches. Anyone on Ghost sees these victims lining the streets, at dinner parties, on the side of the highway, in the stall in the ladies' room at work. And the kicker? Even after you're down from the high, you never stop seeing them. Erin is still seeing these shades of the dead even as her Daughters-of-the-Confederacy mother talks about how much of a shame it is that these Confederate statues are being torn down, that these children will never know their heritage. (I don't think that statement reflects the author's opinions, and it certainly doesn't reflect mine.) The effect of the dead victims of the "Southern Heritage" slithering along the dinner table against this conversation was certainly not lost on me, and even though it was graphic (there are many graphic things in this book) it was also incredibly poignant.
(Note: I cannot speak with any degree of authority as to the heritage of the south. I am from the Pacific Northwest. I have lived near Virginia, but have never been to Richmond. I am not in a position to have any more than an opinion, just like every other asshole on the internet. That said, I will always side with the marginalized, the powerless, and those who seek equity and justice, those who live with compassion and kindness in action and not just in thoughts and prayers.)
There's an interesting point made through the course of the book. Don't these victims, these shades of tragedies and villainy long-past... don't they deserve to be seen? Isn't that the least we can do, to ensure they're not forgotten? Those who espouse the drug's spread seem to think so, and although the price is far, far too high... villains with good intentions are the most compelling kind.
Writing a Female Protagonist
This is the part of the review where I give Clay McLeod Chapman a standing ovation. Sir, I am speaking directly to you. You have written the single best female character I have seen a man write. No weird body imagery, no fixation on her breasts, no random discussions of her period, no off-the-wall, it-doesn't-work-that-way-dumbass descriptions that really could have been solved by asking a real woman. And one mild sex scene that was well-written, brief, and important to the story.
Erin Hill is a real, full, dynamic character with a personality and motivations that make complete sense, and are not driven by her gender, her sexuality, or her anatomy. I was enthralled with this character from the word "go," and I found her relatable from beginning to end. She is a badass, and you have earned your Honorary Member of the Sisterhood Card for writing her so well. What's more, Amara is also very believable as a person, even though she's incredibly different than Erin. I know women like this. Hell, I'm related to women like this. How did you know? Do you possess a telepathy machine? A secret Doofenschmirtz-ian Gender-Empathy-Inator? (Okay, you probably just have a wife or a female friend that you listen to, coupled with an empathetic heart.)
Regardless of how you did it, you are a gem. And I thank you with all my being for writing a woman with such heart and spirit, and you deserve all the awards for this character. Thank you. You are amazing.
The Writing Style
Chapman's writing style is so clever. One thing I consistently loved is that I could be in the middle of a graphic, intense scene, and suddenly, there's a detail that just shocks the hell out of me, and I burst out laughing in simultaneous terror and glee. The way he juxtaposes the world Erin sees with her perception from the Ghost is so effective, and it's clearly-marked, so it's never confusing, even if the scene is complex.
He uses this interjection technique, usually where Erin is having a conversation with someone else. And then the paragraph breaks, and we'll see a different word, replacing the one she heard. Usually, it's something that will alter what she hears to resemble the phrase "do you want to get haunted." This is her addiction talking, her haunting. Chapman goes back, inserts the original word, so that the reader doesn't miss a beat, but it still does an excellent job of spotlighting Erin's unreliability as she falls further and further.
Apparently, first-person present tense writing is a thing now. And the more I experience it done well, the less I mind it. We experience the whole spectrum of Erin's thoughts and emotions in this book, and he writes in such a way that the reader can witness her descent. Even when she's unreliable and in the depths of her addiction, Chapman is in full control, and knows just where he's going. The book is set into five parts, which helps delineate the trajectory of the plot clearly. He effectively answered the majority of my questions by the end, and although there were a few things that were still unclear, I wonder if that was me, and not the clarity of the book. After all, reading with ADHD is a hazard for retention. Sometimes, details just fly out of your head as soon as they come in, and I don't always remember to take notes.
There was one thing that I will complain about. It wasn't Chapman's doing. I've been going through hard times the last couple of weeks, and so it took me some extra time to finish this book. To help me, I downloaded the book on Audible and listened to it while I was doing other things. I do not recommend the audiobook. The reader was mostly okay, but her dialogue ruined my immersion constantly, particularly with the male voices. Erin's dialogue was passable. But with Tobias and Silas in particular, the reader used puffed-up, cartoonish voices that were deep, but almost sounded as if a woman would if she were talking about a douchebag who approached her outside a bathroom in a dive bar, and she wanted to mock them to her friends. It wasn't just that it was in a deeper register, it sounded juvenile and unrealistic. It felt unnecessary, and I eventually just went back to reading the book on my own because I didn't like the sound of her reading those characters.
Ghost Eaters is a hit. It is, hands-down, one of the most original concepts I've read this year, and it is a superstar in regards to telling a story where the dead are the least unnerving part. (Except at the end. This is my trigger warning for extremely graphic descriptions between pages 284-286.) Everything that makes this book soar is Chapman's doing, so if you're interested in experiencing his work but aren't interested in this concept, he has a horror audio drama out on Spotify right now with Mac Rogers, from Jordan Peele's Monkeypaw Studios called "Quiet Part Loud." (I haven't listened to it yet, but if you've ever done anything horror, you've heard of Jordan Peele. This is a BFD.)
I warn you fairly that if you do decide to read this book, it pulls absolutely no punches, and it will wreck you emotionally, especially if loss or addiction has touched your life. It is very much a cautionary tale that is told with empathy and compassion, and it will leave you in tiny pieces on the floor. But you'll love every minute.
Purchase This Book
Powell's City Of Books (Out of Stock New and Audio)
Or buy/order it from a local independent store, or borrow from your library! They'd love your business!
Taken by my camera, by my wife, next to a little black cat pillow my sister bought me for Halloween. Just for funsies.