The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick
Roaring Brook, 2015.
Marcus Sedgwick is a prolific and inventive writer. And a bit of a dish, judging by his cover photo. I have really enjoyed his two previous books: Midwinterblood, which won the Printz for 2013, is a collection of unsettling and creepy interlinked stories; and She is Not Invisible, a terrific mystery with a blind girl finding her way in New York, wrapped around the idea of “hidden patterns in the universe” and coincidences.
His new collection of stories, The Ghosts of Heaven, has a little of both – connected stories and a fascination with a phenomenon that promises meaning outside ourselves. There are four loosely connected stories, or quarters, set in different time periods. They’re presented in chronological order, though in an introductory note the author suggests that they can be read in any order. Within each quarter, spirals play a significant, though differing role.
In the free verse prehistoric story, Whispers in the Dark, a young woman accompanies an elder to the caves, where paintings are made to bring magic to help the people hunt. In the dark, she sees spirals like the ones she has drawn in the sand with a stick, and she stumbles on the thought of the written word.
The Witch in the Water is set in the 18th century in an isolated English village. A new priest, burning with fervent desire to root out witches, sees a young woman, Anna, dancing in a spiral after the funeral of her mother. Her mother was a “cunning woman” and Anna takes after her – and this, combined with her brother’s epilepsy and some vindictive villagers, leads to an inevitable Thomas Hardy-esque fate.
In the Gothic 1920’s tale, The Easiest Room in Hell, a naïve and altruistic doctor keeps a journal when he starts a new job at an insane asylum, which has a massive central spiral staircase. One of the inmates is terrified by this shape, which seems to go into the “darkest depths” at one end and into the “expansive heavens” at the other.
Finally, The Song of Destiny is set on a huge space ship spiraling through time and space as it transports 500 people to a New Earth. Keir Bowman (2001 references!) is a Sentinel who wakes up for 12 hours every 10 years to ensure all is well. On one of his shifts he believes he sees another person, and, on another, he hears a signal from space that suggests there’s another life form out there.
The quarters reference each other and are connected by thematic threads including solitude, both imposed and sought, discovery, connection and death. Though written in different styles, they all share a disquieting atmosphere of dread. I felt that the middle two stories were much more successful than the top and tail – I found the verse rather stiff and uninvolving in the prehistoric story; and the scifi quarter ends up in a swirl of pseudo-meaningful metaphysics.
However, that’s just my opinion, and I’m sure other readers will prefer different stories. But whatever floats your boat, this is a stylish and erudite collection that will appeal to mature teen and adult readers.