Ghostographs: An Album by Maria Romasco Moore (Rose Metal Press 2018)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
“We were proud that a town as small as ours had an abyss of its own.”
Recently, I took my partner up to the place where I was raised, a string of little towns in the corner of northern Vermont on the edge of Lake Champlain. It was ten degrees colder there, beautiful and mostly empty. It snowed. As we drove around he was uncertain, a little nervous. I showed him the half-built mansion across from a dairy farm where the recession and disputes over money lead a couple to divorce before the crew could complete construction. I showed him row after row of cornfields, train tracks. To me it was familiar, comfortable. It always will be. As the product of that rural corner of the world, I don’t mind the emptiness, the eccentricities. My partner said, on our way home: “In some ways it’s kind of beautiful up there. You don’t have to assimilate. You can just walk in the woods, have your delusions. You can be your complete self.”
Reading Ghostographs by Maria Romasco Moore, I was reminded of the place where I come from – the rural magical, the rural strange. The book is a hybrid “album” of flash fiction and black and white photographs, which the author writes in a note she found as a girl at an antique market near her home in Altoona, Pennsylvania. The figures in the photos become the characters in a story of rural mid-century America, woven through with child-like mysticism, grief, and gossip. Despite their overwhelming strangeness, both the photos and the accompanying fiction feel frighteningly familiar.
Though Moore’s collection is frequently lighthearted, there is an over-arching theme of doom, and of death. In “The Bridge over the Abyss” townspeople discuss public safety after the suicide of an unnamed local, who the narrator imagines will never stop falling. A man drinks himself to death beside a cornstalk that he is convinced is the reincarnation of his long-dead wife. Women, trapped in their lives, escape into the wilderness for weeks at a time and gaze longingly out the window after returning. There is a strong sense both of desolation and of unfulfilled desire. A flash of magic – for instance, in the story “Tess,” in which a little girl begins to glow from within with an ethereal religious light – results in a slow fade from the spotlight, and from the physical world, when the magic is over. Each of the characters seem to express a desire for purpose – a purpose that can’t be fulfilled in this rural world, or perhaps in the physical world at all.
As the collection proceeds, Moore works within familiar tropes, but gives them startling twists. Many of the stories, for instance, deal with the narrator’s great aunts, all of whom are widowed. These aunts are eccentric and difficult to understand, best represented by one aunt who has positioned herself in such a way that the narrator and her sister can never see her face – she remains, literally, shrouded in mystery. Religious ideologies, like the wise word’s of the narrator’s grandfather, deal more with the metaphysical than the Biblical. And of course, ghosts abound – though they are just as likely to take the bodies of fish as old men or little girls.
Though magic and grief arise in many forms in Ghostographs, they appear more centrally when Moore writes about the loss of childhood. As the book progresses, her narrator grows up. The narrator’s friend Lewis literally grows until he is so tall she can’t talk to him without a ladder. She recognizes, in this physical change, a more concrete loss of their bond, and of his childish self. Similarly, the narrator speaks about her aunt’s castle, an enormous mansion where two of her great aunts moved after the death of their husbands. The house, once grand, gets smaller ever year. She writes:
“The problem was that the castle was shrinking. Every summer it got a little bit smaller. The moat had once rivaled the river, but by the time my sister turned five it was merely a trickle.”
In childhood, the once grandiose world appears infinite and full of potential. A large house becomes a castle, like the one abandoned near my home, with a moat and dozens of empty, beautifully decorated turrets. But as the narrator ages, and indeed as we all age, that once infinite house gains finite limits. We grow into it, and as we do we lose the magic of its older iterations. The change, though slow, is tangible.
Ultimately, this shifting understanding of the world is the premise and the central theme of Moore’s text. Though the town itself goes through a series of physical changes, Moore makes it clear from the start that the changes that take place here aren’t physical, per se, but personal: she writes, “The truth is that every single instant we are, all of us, obliterated and refreshed.” This idea takes the shape of aging and of dying, and of literal physical change, like the moment when Tess’s inner light goes out. But the hybrid nature of Moore’s text allows us to consider how stories, identity, and snapshots of human life allow us to interact with specific moments from the past, which ceased to exist as they were as soon as a photo was taken.
The world in which these photos were originally captured no longer exists, but Moore’s fictional world exists. Even that fictional world, though, changes with each reading, with each individual reader. In an instant, all is lost and rebuilt again. You should read this book if you are interested in nostalgia, and in rural life, and in magic. You should read it, too, if you are interested in the ways that our unique delusions color our world with inconsistencies, which we are eternally making and remaking. This is a text more interested in potential realities than the Truth. For this, and much more, I am thankful.