Written by: Bruce Priddy
Flawed but entertaining is the best way to describe the initial offerings in Bryan Hall’s Southern Hauntings Saga, The Vagrant, a long-form short-story, and The Girl, a novella. These flaws are found in the main character series and the setting. The writing is not the greatest you will find, but it is not bad either. However, one can see talent waiting to emerge. Hall has an understanding of what makes horror, horror and what makes the best horror. Given time and practice, Hall stands to become a great horror writer.
The star of the series is Creighton “Crate” Northgate, a vagabond roaming the South solving problems no one else can solve. Problems of a particular sort, the kind the authorities would not get involved with, much less believe. Because Crate can see the dead, only simply see, not communicate or otherwise interact with. The first spirit Crate saw was his brother Martin, who disappeared when they were teenagers, Martin’s truck found in a creek, body never recovered. For want of sleep, an escape from ghosts both quite real and of the conscience, Crate relies on the bottle.
Given the constraints of The Vagrant and The Girl’s respective lengths, we are not given much time to know Mr. Northgate, who he is as a person. We know about Martin’s disappearance, Crate’s hopes and cynicism regarding it, and little else. In the 90 pages between the stories, there is not much to distinguish Crate from any of the other flawed, substance-addled detectives that litter the landscape of our popular-culture. Even his ability-cum-gift-cum-curse is a not-uncommon trope. There are hints of a distinguishable personality peeking through; Northgate makes a decision at the end of The Girl that while not something I would do, I appreciated and was glad Hall allowed his character that moment. It told more about who Creighton Northgate is more than any other moment in the series.
Though Crate is the star of the series, he is an actor without agency. He seems more an observer to events rather than a participant. Find any of the innumerable accounts of “true” paranormal events on the internet, cable television or late-night talk radio and you will find this observer-not-participant status is, if anything, realistic. But realistic does not necessarily make for good-storytelling. In fact, it can make for a frustrated reader.
As the series title suggests, Southern Hauntings is set below the Mason-Dixon line. But the only way you would know this is because we are told the setting is the Southern United States. The stories could be set anywhere with the reader being unable to tell any appreciable difference. This is unfortunate; our collective virtue and vices, the amazing geography, the beauty and ugliness of our past, the fact our unique land has produced some of the greatest Americans, for good or ill, is a rich playground for any writer. I hope as the series progresses that the South becomes as much a character as Creighton Northgate and becomes as much about the South as it is about him.
Where Hall excels in Southern Hauntings is in his telling of the mysteries. This is when we see that aforementioned burgeoning talent and understanding of the genre. In The Vagrant and The Girl, Hall keeps the mysteries small, personal. But small does not mean unimportant or uncompelling. Hall makes the reader want to uncover the mystery as much as Crate does, and in the case of The Girl, the feeling you need the tragedy within to be resolved. There is an urgency to Hall’s writing, you can feel the desperation of the characters involved. Hall keeps you turning pages, or as this is an ebook series, your finger flicking across the screen. I finished The Vagrant on a short bus-ride to work and The Girl in one sitting later that evening.
The best horror uses its monsters as a reflection of our every day, seemingly mundane fears. Southern Hauntings’ initial offerings demonstrates Hall has an intimate understanding of this. While ghosts move about the pages of The Vagrant and The Girl, the real horrors are very human. The dead to not haunt us, we haunt the dead. At the core of both mysteries lie human ills. These ghosts are birthed in human sin, sins both depraved and understandable, though no less terrible. This has ominous implications for Creighton’s own haunting and what had he may have had in Martin’s disappearance. I suspect Mr. Northgate is heading toward a reckoning; I look forward to experiencing it with him.
And I look forward to reading more adventures of Creighton Northgate and seeing Mr. Hall grow as a writer. He will only get better.
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