The Ghost Clause
By Howard Norman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019
Howard Norman’s new novel The Ghost Clause is a ghost story, a crime drama, an academic story, a marital study, and a portrait of small-town life, and yet it’s as compact and almost quiet a thing as all the author’s other novels, as effective a combination of powerful human understanding and four-square storytelling as, for instance, The Northern Lights or The Bird Artist. How readers react to it will be in part a measure of dependent they’ve become on the showy narrative pyrotechnics that too often characterize so-called “literary fiction.” As an author, Norman seems to have no interest in sharing the spotlight with his story.
The closest he comes is perhaps serving as a partial template for one of his main characters, 40-something “writer’s writer” Simon Inescort, who’s taking the ferry from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Nova Scotia for a writing conference when he suffers a fatal heart attack. Inescort’s professional biography, summarized in an obituary written by his artist wife Lorca Pell, bears some structural similarities to Norman’s, and it’s possible that some of Inescort’s reflections about living in Vermont might reflect affections Norman developed over years of teaching there. “In my life in Vermont,” Inescort recalls, “everything I loved most happened most every day: village life, I mean, where familiarities become expectations.”
Before his death, Inescort for a time shared with Lorca Pell a beloved old 1845 farmhouse in Calais, Vermont, a creaking, drafty old house where “every nook and cranny archives time.” When Inescort dies, Pell decides that she needs to give the place up. She sells it to a young couple: Zachary Anders, an investigator for the Green Mountain Agency, and literary doctoral candidate Muriel Streuth, and Pell moves to the apartment over her local art studio.
The only slight complication is that Inescort is still hanging around the house, watching Zachary and Muriel go about their lives (and watching them cavort in bed), catching up on his reading (he’s constantly tripping the motion-sensitive house alarm the young couple installed), and incidentally wondering how he can be doing any of that. “Every waking moment, I’m astonished that I have any consciousness,” he thinks at one point. “I feel like a stenographer of the afterlife - what am I to call myself now, a revenant? An apparition? An entity? I need to find a word in any language that might work.”
The word, of course, is “ghost.” Inescort is a ghost, haunting his old home. The novel’s title is a nod to this, with a couple of the book’s characters mentioning Vermont’s folkloric “ghost clause,” which stipulates that if the new owners of a house discover it has some kind of supernatural presence in it, the original owner is legally obligated to refund their money. In the bulk of the novel, set thirty years ago or more, nobody affects to believe in such things, but Norman’s straightforward narration presents ghost-Inescort as entirely real: he can move books, he can re-set alarm codes, he can upset cats (admittedly no great accomplishment), he can maintain a personal journal, and he can even, at one quietly heartbreaking moment, type on a manual typewriter - he just can’t be seen or heard anymore. He’s a ghost who can write about himself and read Thomas Hardy novels but who never needs to make small talk at parties: every bookworm’s dream of the afterlife.
In Norman’s deft handling, he’s not the only ghost in the book. Zachary is also haunted by a missing girl named Corrine Moore (“a child of eleven, a child of minimal comportments”), whose case he can’t stop studying, and Lorca Pell is haunted by the lingering regrets about her marriage, her natural desire to idealize it losing to her unflinching honesty in assessing its failures. The novel has some fine, nuanced examinations of married life, although one of Pell’s choices at the end of the book will strike pretty much any grieving person as flat-out unbelievable.
The Ghost Clause is smart and no-nonsense; it’s not fussy, and it sets about telling its multiple stories with a clean workmanship that feels both old-fashioned and a bit revolutionary. We come to care about its half-dozen main characters, flaws and all, and the passage of time in the book feels natural. The familiar claim that all old Vermont houses are haunted a moving and very real-world memorial here.
Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.