Strong Spirits

by Elisa DeCarlo
AvoNova, pb, 151 pages, $4.50
ISBN: 0-380-77405-4

Elisa DeCarlo's second novel is a pleasant little romp, short and predictable, but nevertheless fun. A ghost story set in England between the World Wars, Strong Spirits is a prequel to DeCarlo's first novel, The Devil You Say. DeCarlo's theatrical background is evident in the plot and pacing of the novel, which is structured more like a 1930s-era radio serial than like a conventional work of fiction.

When Aubrey Arbuthnot's baronet father dies, he is left with only a moderate inheritance, paltry compared to his expectations and his debts. Not only did Aubrey's father emphasize his younger son's worthlessness in his will; the old baronet's ghost won't leave the young man alone. The attentions of his father's ghost somewhat naturally lead Aubrey to a variety of London spiritualists. One becomes his teacher. Another provides the novel's figure of evil--the rich meddler in things best left alone. Aubrey covets the man's girlfriend, but acquires his butler instead.

The plot and language are consciously Wodehouselike, at times capturing the substance and spirit of Wodehouse, but too often echoing only the style. DeCarlo hasn't quite hit her stride as a novelist yet. Strong Spirits is charming, but as a work of fiction, the book offers more than it delivers.

Avon really was the wrong publisher for DeCarlo, at least at that time. Chain bookstore buying techniques being what they are, after two weak-selling books (however promising) she was never heard from again. Unfortunately, the modern trade publishing scene discourages authors who take several books to hit their stride. It's hard to imagine the emergence of another John Irving these days; his career would be over after Setting Free the Bears or The Water Method Man, long before The World According to Garp catapulted him to stardom.

I'm not trying to compare Elisa DeCarlo to John Irving, mind you.

First appeared in Horror magazine, March 1994.

Copyright © 2004 by Leigh Grossman