This review of A Manhattan Ghost Story and I Am The Bird, both by TM Wright, was written in 2006 for the website Infinity Plus.
A Manhattan Ghost Story, Telos, 2006 Paperback, 276pp £9.99 ISBN 1-84583-048-2
I Am The Bird, PS Publishing, 2006 Paperback, 143pp £10.00 ISBN 1-905834-83-9
These two books by TM Wright, written nearly a quarter of a century apart, come with some pretty high-falutin’ recommendations from Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell, both acknowledged masters of the horror genre. Now, I can’t claim to be terribly knowledgeable about written horror – I barely know my James Herberts from my Guy N. Smiths, and I’d never heard of TM Wright before – but I do know King and Campbell, so I was more than happy to try something from beyond my normal reading horizons.
A Manhattan Ghost Story bears more than a passing similarity to M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. Abner Cray arrives in New York following an unnerving encounter with a mad woman on the train; an old friend has lent him his apartment while he’s out of town, and Abner arrives there to find his friend’s girlfriend is also, rather unexpectedly, staying there, too. Following some unusual encounters with the inhabitants of New York, Abner realises that the mad woman he met on the train may not have been as mad as he thought, and that thanks to the unwelcome gift she has passed on he may soon be able to sympathise with her more than he’d ever imagined.
If you’ve seen the end of The Sixth Sense then you won’t be surprised by Abner’s revelation, but the main difference in A Manhattan Ghost Story is that whereas The Sixth Sense ends with that revelation, A Manhattan Ghost Story only begins to get up a full head of steam when it is revealed, and manages to maintain that pressure right up to the very last page.
I Am The Bird is a rather different kettle of fish; not in terms of themes, for it also deals with ghosts and hauntings, but it’s quite a confused tale of ghosts and identities, and has a similarly wilful lack of a readily coherent plot. In that sense it’s almost a postmodern ghost story, asking who (or what) is what (or who…)?
The lead character in I Am The Bird is Max Gorshen, who lives in an apartment building with a rather clever parrot called Langley which has a remarkable taste for cryptic epigrams. Another man lives somewhere within the corridors of the apartment; he and Max don’t get on, and although they seem to know a lot about each other they’ve never actually met, communicating only through notes left to each other. Max never leaves the apartment or opens his door to anyone, and ‘interlopers’ are slowly taking over the streets outside.
Whereas I read A Manhattan Ghost Story at a cracking pace, I Am The Bird took me far longer. What’s interesting is that this wasn’t because I particularly enjoyed the former more, but rather because I enjoyed the latter in a very different way. A Manhattan Ghost Story is a pretty straightforward novel, albeit with some spooky ideas in it. I Am The Bird is absolutely nothing of the sort.
The reason I Am The Bird took me so much longer to read is because much of the time I was simply in the wrong frame of mind to want to pick up such a book. In any impatient, slightly tired or grumpy state, it can seem a deliberately contorted, protracted, nonsensical read – the kind of book that my dad (a very practical man) would dismiss after barely a couple of pages. And so I Am The Bird sat untouched, sometimes for days at a time, while I waited to be capable of doing justice to this intelligent and demanding book.
On the other hand, when in the right frame of mind, i.e. if you’re feeling receptive, naïve even – perhaps ready for the ‘cryptic’ crossword rather than its ‘quick’ twin – then you’ll find I Am The Bird to be a glittering bandolier of uniquely strange sentences fired straight at you from somewhere in the outlands of genius.
Does that make any sense? If not, then I hope you’ll agree that it is at least fascinating to see how an author develops his unique treatment of a particular subject over the decades, working out where the limits of the ghost story are to be found.
Both these books deal with similar themes, but couldn’t be more different, and while I found neither of them properly ‘scary’, A Manhattan Ghost Story has a more conventional spookiness to it, even if it is let down by an unsympathetic and slightly flat central character, whilst I Am The Bird has its own unsympathetic characters (which works rather well in this context) but is more unsettling in the long term, and is the difference between straight-up story and spooky existential puzzle.