Ravenous Ghosts by Kealan Patrick-Burke
291 pages; Delirium Books
As those of you who were lucky enough to purchase the original 3F edition of this book already know, I had the honor of writing the afterword for this marvelous collection which had the misfortune of falling between the cracks when its publisher encountered a series of problems and was forced to close up shop.
Ravenous Ghosts had the good fortune to be picked up by another publisher, in this case the smart folks at Delirium Books, who have re-released it in an attractive new package with cleaner copy and an additional 20,000 words of material Burke wrote especially for this edition, comprised of the short stories "The Drowning Room" and "Leftovers", and the novella "They Know."
So the big question here is: does the 20,000 words of additional material (and the much cleaner copy) make it worth your time, effort, and money as a reader to purchase and read this new edition?
Before answering that, I want to wander off the highway for a moment. Bear with me.
Almost twenty years ago, when I was directing a production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, I happened upon a review of another production, done some twenty-plus years previous, that had been directed by Beckett himself. The reviewer, while respectful of Beckett, the material, and the actors' performances, was not overall complimentary of the production; most of his complaints centered on Beckett's direction, which he found to be stiff, self-conscious, and uninspired. "One must remember," he wrote, "that the Samuel Beckett who directed last evening's performance is not the same Samuel Beckett who wrote the play some twenty-five years ago."
That always stayed with me, and seems appropriate to mention here in light of this collection's contents, because the Kealan Patrick-Burke who had the chance to revise and expand this new edition is not the same Burke who put together the original edition; his prose has gotten smoother (as evidenced by the new material), his ideas more daring (and they were pretty damned daring to begin with), and his technical acumen sharper. The new material adds a great deal to the overall balance of the collection, and makes it very much worth your time and money to invest in and read this excellent collection
with only a few caveats.
While Burke's skill as a writer has been more sharply-honed in the interim between the 3F edition and this Delerium Books edition, some the new material-while entertaining and suspenseful and sure to please-rang a bit shallow for me. "The Drowning Room" and "Leftovers" (both admittedly written in the EC Comics spirit) seem incongruous when compared to stories such as "Haven" (which remains one of the best stories I've read in the last five years) "The Barbed Lady Wants For Nothing", and the tour-de-force "The Defenseless".
I say "incongruous" because there is nothing about either of these stories that has the definitive mark of Burke's other work, work that throughout Ravenous Ghosts boasts a singular and definitive narrative voice: while both these stories are solid and provide good, fun scares (this is supposed to be fun, after all; witness the wonderful shaggy-dog humor of "Editor's Choice", with its laugh-out-loud punchline), if one were to remove Burke's name from the byline and read them cold, they could have been written by, well
anyone. They're good, I liked both of them-though "The Drowning Room" does take a bit too long to reach its inevitable conclusion-but they're ultimately characterless in both tone and execution, making them perplexingly generic.
The same cannot be said for the closing novella "They Know", an atmospheric, tense, moody (in the best sense of the word), and hauntingly surreal exploration of the madness that accompanies grief. This novella, for a solid 98% percent of its length, ranks among the finest work Burke has ever written, faltering only at the end, when a sudden and unnecessary shift in viewpoint not only lessens some of the mystery and effectiveness of everything that has come before, but ends the story on what was all-too obviously meant to be a chilling note that instead rings as nebulous.
Still, these are, in the end, minor quibbles (and arguably my disagreeing with stylistic choices made by Burke) that in no way should dissuade you from seeking out this exceptional collection.