• The Haunting of Suzanna Blackwell

    by Richard Setlowe

    Holt Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1984

    ISBN 0-03-057786-1     Buy This Book

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    Book World

    The Allure of the Ghostly
    Reviewed by Carolyn Banks

    The title of this book suggests a ghost story, and the book is, to be sure, that. But it's a love story and a war story, too. The wonderful thing is that we can't separate the three into distinct threads; the plot consists of their coincidence.

    The tale begins in 1958, when Suzanna Blackwell, shortly after he mother's funeral, is visited—not at all frighteningly—by her mother's ghost. In a way, Suzanna grows to become her mother, wearing the same perfume, adopting the same mannerisms. When she goes to Mare Island for the naval change-of-command ceremony that will see her father installed in his last post before retirement, still another ghost comes to call: that of her mother's lover.

    Like her mother before her, Suzanna yields to his clove-scented allure. "He wore a white formal officer's uniform, exactly as he had been dressed in the photographs over which her mother had wept, and he smiled at her as sweetly and shyly as a bridegroom…As if she were a magnet drawn irresistibly to its opposite pole, she moved into his arms, at first slowly and then in a rush. They embraced, then slowly danced. He was not a haullucination, not a ream." Not since "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" has there been a shade as appealing.

    But meanwhile, there's Suzanna's earthly lover, Michael, a television producer who had been a journalist in Vietnam. While filming a spot about the World War II vessels mothballed in the Mare Island harbor, the ghosts of the men who had died aboard those ships reveals to Michael the secret that provokes, for Suzanna's father, a haunting of another sort: guilt.

    Those ships! Richard Setlowe has made them—in part by juxtaposing them to the elegant "pillared mansions of the senior officers along Walnut Avenue"—seem as sinister as the House of Usher. They are "a great desolate armada—aircraft carriers, battle cruisers, assault transports, destroyers and submarines—all pack stem to stern in tight rows along the length of a narrow bleak pier." But more. Here are quartered the Great Horned Owls of Mare Island…"a separate species—blacker than the other horned owls that stalked California, and larger, with wing spreads of five feet." The owls "had horrible whims. There were mornings when the workmen clambered aboard and found the skeleton of a dog picked clean, or the corpses of two dozen decapitated pigeons, their plump bodies untouched, but their brains fastidiously tidbitted."

    But the author also gets us asking question, and the right ones. He drops just the sort of hint that will keep us reading. In the receiving line at the naval base, for instance, Michael makes his first appearance. He shakes Suzanna's father's hand and "Suzanna had never before seen a look of instant and mutual contempt flash between two men who had apparently never met before. It was as if they had immediately recognized one another." We wait for the inevitable confrontation between the two but are unprepared for it consequences. Setlowe expertly balances the need for fulfillment of our expectations with our yearning for surprises.

    Suzanna's father, because he is the official representative of War, is the closest thing the book has to a villain, and yet we feel for the man throughout. We are moved when he confesses to Suzanna that after he and his wife made love for the first time, "she cried. She cried as if her heart might break. I was tremendously touched by what I thought were her tears for her lost innocence. I admit I was a little slow. It didn't dawn on me for a long time that the reason she was crying her heart out was that it hadn't been him."

    Setlowe is an able and effective writer. He is not afraid to use the time-tested devices of suspense and occult fiction—cliffhanging chapter endings, for example—but never lets them become gimmicks. His story tests rather than strains our credulity. Be advised that "The Haunting of Suzanna Blackwell," even if you chance upon it in the occult-book section of the bookstore, is a thoughtfully done novel, not one of excess.


    The reviewer's most recent novel is Groomed for Death.




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