Thursday, November 08, 2007

Gentle But Chilling Horror With Heart

I grew up in Southern Oklahoma. We know from ghost stories there. They’re stories that scare us more than any serial killer/slasher/evil poltergeist/vampire/werewolf/zombie movie in the world. Because we know most of us will never meet a serial killer or slasher, and we’re fairly confident that evil poltergeists, vampires, werewolves, and zombies don’t exist. When we’re young and go for a walk across a graveyard at night, we don’t worry about those things.

We worry about ghosts. Because in Southern Oklahoma, we’re up to our ears in Gothic ghost stories that have been handed down through families for generations. Not everyone will claim to believe in them, though. In fact, a lot of people will say they don’t believe in ghosts, but get them alone in a house at night with a few unexplained noises in the background and they’ll have no trouble remembering when they did believe in them.

John Wooley grew up in Oklahoma too. He’s told some of the best stories about vampires and monsters out there. Not only that, but he’s an acknowledged authority on movies, pulps, and music. He worked as a journalist for years and, with Michael H. Price, does a recurring column on old horror movies for Fangoria magazine. Now he still writes and does a Western swing radio show, Swing On This.

I saw John this weekend at the Red Dirt Festival, an Oklahoma Library event that’s held every two years. We sat around and told stories, a few new ones, but also some of the old ones we pulled out and dusted off to tell again. While we were talking, he told me about his latest novel, Ghost Band. I hadn’t heard about it. We stink at staying in touch it seems, but we’re both busy guys.

The first thing I wanted to know was what a ghost band was. John told me that it was a band put together behind a dead man or dead band’s name. A tribute of sorts to those who had gone on before, but also something to give to the fans. Like Lynyrd Skynyrd’s present reincarnation.

So I picked up his book and brought it home. I read it while I should have been working. If I have to defend myself, I’ll swear that I was possessed. Tomorrow I’ll be haunted by deadlines, but today I was gripped by his seductive tale of a ghost woman that haunts a ghost band.

Miles West plays trumpet for the Sammy Patrick Orchestra, a big-band venue that tours Oklahoma and a few states over. Miles started playing in the band right out of college and hasn’t been able to break the habit even though playing with them has cost him a major chunk of his marriage. He’s middle-aged now and the miles on the bus don’t get any easier.

Told in first-person by Miles, Ghost Band proceeds the best way ghost stories can. I was gently brought along into the tale, eased in like I was shoehorned into a favorite pair of loafers. The chapters are short and the writing is compact, and just when I was about to close the book and get back to work, Wooley expertly lured me into reading just one more chapter.

While Miles is playing one night, he sees the ghost of a woman. She appears during one of Sammy Patrick’s signature songs, “Sweethearts Forever.” Then she gestures at one of the band members. Miles freaks out and blows the trumpet solo duet he’s supposed to perform. But that night, the band member the ghost pointed at dies.

At first Miles doesn’t want to tell anyone. Not the Duke, the band leader. And not Blair, the female vocalist touring with them, who’s half Miles’s age and who’s developing a mutual crush. But when the ghost reappears and a second band member nearly dies, Miles knows he can’t keep the secret to himself.

The band is haunted. And he has to find out why.

Wooley’s prose moves smoothly and the tale hooked me deeper and deeper, till I just couldn’t give up on the book. I needed to know what was going on, and why. And there was just enough of a gentle mystery to keep me flipping pages till I reached the end. Along the way, Wooley gets a chance to talk about old movies, more music, and other loves that he has in real life.

Although I’ve been gone from that small town I grew up in for almost thirty years, Ghost Band took me back to that small house where the wind blew and whistled, where the rafters creaked, and where momma left the oven on at night to warm the house in the winter and that caused the tick-tick-ticking of cooling metal that sounded just like footsteps. For a while there, even though I know there’s no such things as ghosts (right?), I was a believer again.

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