Simon R. Green is, of course, the author of the wildly popular and well-regarded Nightside series and the equally popular Secret Histories that features the James Bond parody Eddie Drood. His most recent entry in the fantasy games is the newer Ghost Finders series, which features three British ghost busters who battle things that go bump in the night. Ghost Finders has received more mixed reviews than Green’s other work—most of the complaints I’ve seen deal with the lack of character development and repetitive plotting, valid criticisms of a series. In this case, those criticisms are not exactly on point. The Ghost Finders books are meant to be cheesy, popcorn fantasy, and in that they succeed.
Anyone looking for something high-minded and literary shouldn’t read these books because there’s absolutely nothing of the sort to be found within their pages. This is straight-up adventure fantasy, with over-the-top plotting, and it’s meant to be fun. They’re formulaic, to be sure, and the main characters are more caricature than realistic. If you’re thinking at this point, “Wait. WHY are you telling me to read something like this? Where’s the merit?” then I’m going to respond, “The merit is in the utter ridiculousness of it all, that’s where it is.”
I read Ghost of a Chance when it was first released, and my first impression, about 50 pages in, was “He has got to be kidding”, thought in a much more sarcastic tone than I can convey on this page. By page 100 I realized he was kidding, in a good way, and I settled in to enjoy the ride. Ghost of a Chance is almost a spoof of traditional horror novels. I say almost because it gets pretty bloody and ugly at the end, when all the joshing and jokey dialogue suddenly runs up against some seriously nasty stuff.
The second entry, Ghost of a Smile, takes a different turn—it’s a bit more sci-fi than horror, and we meet the Mr. Evil of this set piece for the first time here. By the third entry, Green goes off on yet another tangent—Ghost of a Dream is part Steampunk hat tip (steam trains, mediums, steam-driven science, Victorian villains) and part Nancy Drew mystery, all served up with a heaping helping of a wink and a nudge, as if he’s saying “watch this if you want to have some fun.”
If you’re anything like me, sometimes some cheese just goes down really well. We have three people here—a technogeek girl named Melody who has nothing lyrical about her, a depressed, neurotic telepath named Happy, and their charismatic leader JC (who always wears flowing white garments and has long hair…)—who are so standard it’s silly. It also can’t be an accident that they’re written like Scooby Doo characters and placed in similar plots—Green is a much better writer than that.
So I am forced to conclude that all of this is deliberate on Green’s part. And why not? He’s proven in his previous work that he’s a clever, clever writer. Once you get past the idea that there should be something serious about all of this, you can see the glee just dripping off the page. The guy’s having a good time writing these, and it shows. They’re engaging, you don’t really have to think while you read them, and they have just enough substance to keep them from completely floating away. In the most recent entry, Ghost of a Dream, for example, the action takes place first at a haunted train station, followed by a haunted theatre. You kind of expect some old guy to pop up at the end, shaking his fist at “those meddling kids” in a setting like that, but instead what you get is Green’s most interesting creation, The Flesh Undying, an otherworldly creature determined to destroy all of humanity in order to return to its own dimension, and, at the root of it all, a rather serious theme about how dreams of fame and accolades for oneself, when placed above the needs of others, can lead to tragedy.
One other notable characteristic about this series. In general, stories involving the supernatural or creatures from another dimension tend to imbue their ghosts with monster-like tendencies. They attack because they can; it’s in their nature to destroy because they are miserable or angry, either at the idea of being dead or at being trapped in a dimension they don’t want to be in. The chills and horror come from that unpredictable nature, and even the best ghost stories seldom give shape to their spirits beyond a physical manifestation and a goal of scare the crap out of the characters. Green goes well beyond this. His ghosts are not all monsters (although some of them most certainly are monstrous), and in a rather amusing bit of irony, are often better developed characters than his trio of heroes. Some are scary, like The Flesh Undying and his corrupted minions, and others from the series are sweetly human, like Kim, the ghost-girl JC falls in love with. Still others are invested with a dignity that invokes sympathy in the reader. The comparison between his ghostly creations and his human ones suggests to me that Green finds the possibilities in those other dimensions more worthy of exploration than the ones we already know in the here and now. And you know, when you look at it that way, we probably are fairly two dimensional, cardboard-like creatures by comparsion.
I freely admit that this series is not going to work for everyone, and people who are huge fans of his Nightside and Deathstalker series are especially not going to appreciate what he’s doing here. Plus, Green’s shenanigans can get a bit tedious, and the complaints about repetitive plot bits really are valid—JC, Happy, and Melody are limited in what they can do to bust those ghosts—but as something to amuse yourself with on a rainy Sunday, or to cleanse your palate after something a little more serious, you can do worse. Make yourself a big bowl of popcorn, put up your feet, and go adventuring with JC, Melody, and Happy. Have a little fun.
My copies of Ghost of a Chance and Ghost of a Dream were generously provided by the publisher during my tenure at RT Book Reviews and initially reviewed for that publication.