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A widower musician remarries but ghosts of the past won’t let the newlyweds be in Gordance Carpenter’s latest chiller set high in the California hills.
There are plenty of tense moments in Woodvale but there are just as many subtle dramatic turns, some so low key we feel guilty in our intrusion. It takes place during an undefined era that fits in nicely with the writer’s last few takes on the end of the jazz age with all its attendant deformities. Carpenter won accolades for two installments of this “quartet” of books which finally saw the light of day after sitting for years in his former publisher’s desk and with his screenplay turning heads at Can the author is riding high.
He’s also extremely busy. At least that’s how it sounded in our brief telephone conversation. I asked him if success made it easier or harder to stay true to yourself in your work.
“Much easier. It allows you to relax and just focus on doing what makes you happy in your life and that comes through. That becomes the path to you.”
If he sounds like he’s choosing the half full glass when he sums up the last ten years of his life who can blame him. With a touch that would make an old king jealous everything he’s worked on has glimmered and with his fourth novel in as many years with Hastings Books it’s easy to overlook the first half of this journey to “you” where it seemed no one was reading.
“Yeah, it’s funny. Woodvale is kind of a throwback. A one off spooker that I wanted to get away from back then (with previous publisher Moore & Sons) that I see in a totally different light as the next logical piece of the narrative chain.” When asked if he may have created his own irony by looking back to better recognize his way forward he’s amenable. “I’m a firm believer in the muse in all its various forms. If my subconscious is driving, I say sit back and hope it knows where it’s going.”
The story concerns grief but not for its own sake. It’s more of a life affirming, carpe diem fable than a scarefest. At its heart, the book and all its characters want life to go on. They shall suffer no spirit to languish, no hands to remain idle. So much light in what could be ghost story genre fiction keeps things from getting too dark; after all, this is mostly a tale of love, both lost and found, and the sometimes scary process of coming to terms with your partner’s closet skeletons.
A young couple are shown a home in an upscale community made up exclusively of artistic types from poets and painters to writers, singers, directors and piano players. All of them form a beehive of activity, a nonstop creative environment where the positive energy nurtures as many as it corrupts. Lavish parties blur the lines between creative and carnal pursuits, but even the most bacchanalian involve live music and dancing and often the spoken word. Into this simmering stew come the protagonists: He’s a composer, she “ruins canvases,” she tells the realtor, a man who’s all too happy to show them something closer to the beach until he learns they’re both the gifted and talented type. Sure they’ll “fit right in,” he hands them the keys and soon they’re house happy.
Until tragedy strikes one day in the greenhouse when she has a fatal brain aneurysm. He tries to carry on, moving across the country where years later he meets his future wife backstage at a recital. He was to be the featured soloist for the evening, performing two pieces, one of which was his own composition. Afterward, at a small table in a quiet corner he confesses to her he had gone onstage and improvised a new piece directly for her, directly because of her. He had thrown aside the piece he had written and instead spontaneously created a brand new work inspired by meeting her and seeing her for that first time just minutes before.
The two are quickly married and one rainy night he carries her across the threshold into the old manse. Time passes and the couple find themselves squabbling. Their arguing is petty and short lived but it’s symptomatic of larger issues. He encourages her to try her hand at an artistic pursuit of some kind but she resists, afraid she’s being shoehorned into a role meant for another. She responds by resenting the time he spends composing and touring as time spent away from her and their life together.
As their tensions rise so do the strange incidences: once, while cleaning, she was accidentally locked inside a broom closet for several hours even though the door had no lock; several times she thought she was losing her mind when she kept misplacing her glasses only to find them again and again in plain sight; sudden chills at the top of the stairs even on humid summer nights; loud, unexplained banging noises from one or the other end of the house; and most menacingly, a large potted plant inexplicably falling from a parapet on the side of the garage, nearly striking her.
Then there are the nights her husband spends at home shut up in his music room where he is never to be disturbed. Hours and hours spent composing, alone, sealed off from her, immersed in a world she cannot inhabit. A world he shared with his first wife. Even though she accompanies him in the beginning, she soon tires of hovering backstage and the grueling tour schedule becomes too much for her. When she asks if he’ll ever slow down and retire some day, he becomes upset, saying he’d never ask her to give up something she loved. But he’s doing just that as his career ambitions drive them further apart, asking only that she respect his privacy and accept their lives as they are.
She mistakes his secrecy for inability to let go of the past, specifically his love for wife number one. Convinced the deceased’s spirit is to blame for the disturbances as well as their marital troubles she attempts an ill advised “contact” only to find herself hopelessly overwhelmed. It would seem that decades of hedonism have left behind a residue that touches all who inhabit Woodvale and all those who once did so.
Carpenter evokes the stale champagne and flies on the caviar this seamy decadence thrives on as evenly as he keeps the couple’s love tangible; after all, Woodvale is as much about loss as it is about moving on. Time seems to stop there but only when it marches on is everyone at peace. All residents, both past and present, need to have a hand in keeping the spirit of creativity alive if their historic artists’ community is to thrive. If the balance shifts too far toward mindless inaction or should creative droughts last too long the living won’t be very easy.
A carefully plotted ghost story evocative of a bygone era, Woodvale keeps the reader guessing until the wonderful reveal in the music room when all is made clear. That the once happily married couple find a way back to themselves gives us all hope that maybe it’s not too late for any of us.