December's Ghost

By Glenn Rutland

Reviewed Apr 2, 2018 on The Litt Review.

The first page of December’s Ghost’s prologue sets the scene: Gabe, our narrator, describes how he stays out of trouble and how journalists crashed his 15th birthday party, trying to get the scoop on his and his brothers’ story, which Gabe then starts by describing an event 106 years ago where Spyro Bazzi was born on a canoe on a lake in the middle of a thunderstorm in 1911 after his two immigrant Albanian parents were trying to escape from a gunfight between cops and robbers (a mixture of local soldiers of fortune and Kinzu indians) who were trying to steal the Bazzi’s land which had been granted them by a Spanish prince (whose galleon later sank) for saving his daughter in the lake years before.

If you like creative flights of fancy told in a rambunctious style, I would keep reading. That’s only the first page, and only the prologue. The book is split into four sections; the first and third are set in 1945, and the second and fourth take place today. Yes, 1945: there are Nazis, and Hitler, and a league of evil cryptics called the Thule society who are trying to take over the world. They have help from aliens from the planet Seti, which is where our story starts. On Seti, the creator, Crael, has divided up the planet into five types of beings - Ark, Chay, Kesseni, Malak, and Thule - and assigned them a magical Book of Life to guard and cherish. But some of the Thule had other plans! They stole the book and jumped to Earth, where some Kesseni and a Malak followed them hoping to save the Book of Life, which they managed to mostly save, but only after one of the Thule - Dr. Victor December - stole ten pages. He used these pages and Hitler’s power to set up a secret hospital for wounded WWII soldiers in upstate New York, near to the summer camp that Spyro Bazzi founded for children, where he killed soldiers and wrote their names on the pages hoping to fill them all out and thus create a super race of 500 undead warriors who would then rule the earth forever. Luckily, some of the Kesseni managed to steal the pages before they were completed, gave them to Spyro who hid them with his chest of gold doubloons (also a gift from the Spanish prince), and then hid out for a while. The Malak turned into a talking owl.

Gabe and his brothers end up on a magic quest to find the lost gold, unaware of aliens and Hitler and the incipient army of the undead. They do this largely because of hints from the owl, and because their father’s camp is about to go bankrupt as there was a poorly-written clause that the camp’s ownership would revert to the main benefactor if it went too far in debt. It turns out that the benefactor, a millionaire New York executive named Mr. Pearlman, was actually related to the Kinzu Indians who originally owned the land given to the Bazzi’s by the Spanish prince, and he evilly gave millions of dollars to the camp as a way to defraud it and claim back ownership. He’s also in cahoots with a local unsavoury witch doctor, who may or may not have raised the deformed, surrogate son of Dr. December the Thule Nazi and an SS officer, entirely in tunnels in the hospital where the Thule society keeps hundreds of bodies in frozen stasis.

There are also talking German Shepherds, Iranian terrorists (who are also, predictably, alien Nazis), instantly gifted perfect archery skills, women who become fish and communicate by stones they grow in the bottom of oceans, ghost detection science experiments orchestrated by the school, and Methodist pastors who have the financial ability to drop $300 collecting antique atlases as a hobby without blinking an eye.

Yes, really. The “name the dead so that they rise up to kill everyone” plot fails, because only God holds the keys to life and death. And the boys do find the buried treasure and save the camp. And the aliens do end up going back to their world, and the Nazis are thwarted and Hitler stays dead. Our Pastor Jack - who, as it says in the book, “studied undergraduate Linguistics and graduated from the University of Edinburgh as did Edward E. Hull. The Wall Chart’s author. What a coincidence!”, which is a coincidence, because that’s also my particularly degree and alma mater - does get to keep his book.

If my retelling of the plot seems largely slap-dash and lacking an adequate backstory, you’re focusing on the wrong thing. The book is narrated by a 15 year old, and it reads like it. It’s a Young Adult fiction. I know that, because in the final few paragraphs, the narrator of December’s Ghost tells us in a parenthetical note that “[this book] is Young Adult fiction or Speculative Nonfiction according to my publisher. Seriously. Nobody really believes us.” I was curious how to classify this book at first, too. By the way, 58 books on Goodreads have been labelled as speculative fiction, ranging from Atlantis: Insights from a Lost Civilization to Eat, Pray, Love, and there’s only 2000 odd results on Google for the term - so there’s no real help from external sources for defining ‘speculative nonfiction’. Let’s suppose it means that the narrator believes what they’ve written to be true, but they’re also speculating about a lot of it, starting with interviews with most of the characters involved and extrapolating the rest. Ok, so it must be a literary device.

This sort of bewilderment - did that really happen? - is a common experience while reading the book. However, with a sense of humour and a love of adventure and story-telling for it’s own sake, the book is a pretty wild, fun read. My only wish is that there were more stories told by the campfire in the actual book, because that would be a good setting for this book itself to be told - at dark, by a fire, with some kids who would appreciate “and then this happened!” storytelling.

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