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Thursday, June 18, 2009

What I'm Reading: Ghost Radio

Recently I listened to Ghost Radio, the debut novel by Leopoldo Gout. This 2008 horror title worked very well on audio because it centers around the host of an occult call-in radio show called Ghost Radio. However, I should note that Gout, who is also a graphic novelist, included intricate drawings at the start of each chapter in the printed book that are also worth checking out. Gout has also set up the Ghost Radio website to continue the conversations begun the fictional radio show.

The plot revolves around a young man named Joaquin. When he is a teenager, on a trip from his home in Mexico to see his Grandma in Houston, TX, Joaquin and his parents are in a car accident. In another car, Gabriel and his parents are also involved in the accident. Only the 2 boys survive. This event unites them in a life-long friendship. Both boys also like the Dead Kennedys' song, "Kill the Poor," which later in the book becomes important.

The story alternates between the present, where a grown Joaquin hosts a popular Mexican call-in radio show called Ghost Radio, in which callers talk about their occult experiences, and the past, where Joaquin's and Gabriel's life from accident to the present is explained. In the present, however, Gabriel is dead and Joaquin hosts the radio show with his girlfriend Aolondra.

The novel alternates between these three characters' points of view, but the focus is very clearly on Joaquin. Joaquin moves the Ghost Radio show to America, but after relocating, Joaquin's reality quickly begins to unravel, and he goes on a quest to discover the truth. Along the way, Joaquin meets up with a Toltec Priest and finds archives of his own radio show from 20 years before he began working on it.

There is also a sinister, unnamed force which is stalking Joaquin and speaks directly to the reader off and on throughout the novel. And, as we find out, this is not surprising because the dead can hear all of the living's radio shows. This force is using Ghost Radio to move back into the world of the living.

The novel is in the 300 page range, but has 55 short chapters, so it moves briskly. The narrative is also interspersed with the stories from some of the show's callers recounting their own terrifying experiences with ghosts and other supernatural forces. I loved these asides. They added to the tension and unease which Gout builds relentlessly. Also, since I was listening to this novel, I felt like I was listening to the real radio show.

The ending is a perfect horror ending. The story is resolved, Joaquin completes his quest, but the supernatural force is left completely open ended. In fact, the reader is left questioning what the truth is and what really happened to Joaquin. The implication is that the entire book was really just the story of one caller into Ghost Radio. Gout left me completely unsettled, and I loved it.

For another reader's take on Ghost Radio, there is a review on the Fantasy Book Critic Blog.

Readalikes: I really liked the creepy uneasiness that permeated Ghost Radio. The book constantly has you questioning what is real and what is supernatural. The lines of reality are blurred and you believe everything (even the obviously supernatural events) is really happening. In this way, Gout's book reminded me of Stephen King's work. Like King, Gout is a storyteller first and foremost. Joe Hill's collection of stories 20th Century Ghosts is also a great readalike for Ghost Radio. I wrote about reading this collection here (middle of the post) and suggest a few more readalikes.

For the rabid Neil Gaiman fans out there (I am one of you), Gout should be a reliable new author for you to enjoy.

Bentley Little also writes novels in which the real world and the supernatural collide in an unsettlingly realistic way. Try The House.

While I was reading Ghost Radio, I also thought it was similar to the work of Dan Simmons, specifically, The Terror, and then there was a memorable scene in which a caller recounts a terrifying tale of his ship being crushed in the arctic ice. This solidified my feeling. But please note, The Terror is a much longer book, with a more measured paced since it is both historical fiction about the doomed Franklin Arctic expedition, and a horror book with supernatural elements.

For those interested in more about The Dead Kennedys, producing radio shows, or the Toltecs of Mexico, use the embedded links for more information.

And finally, please remember the wonderful horror radio programs of the past. Many have now been restored and compiled on CD. At the Berwyn Library we have this wonderful collection, Horror in the Air, available for checkout. Click here for more detail. You can take this 8 disc collection home and continue listening to Ghost Radio.

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