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Review: Poltergeist: Ask the Dust

AskTheDustCoverAs an indie author, I don’t pay much attention to genre anymore. I write the story I want to write, and let the genres fall where they may. I wrote “Drumlin Boiler” long before I knew what a “space western” was, but that’s what it turned out to be. Bending genres has become a thing, and I’m seeing the guldurndest categories. You may not have heard of the steampunk zombies weird western genre, and if you haven’t, I encourage you to read James R. Strickland’s Brass and Steel: Inferno. It’s a helluva good book, and you’ll never see zombies quite the same way after you’ve read it.

Well, Jim’s put his genre-bender in gear once again, and he’s given us a genre that I’ve not encountered before: the paranormal noir murder mystery. Chew on that for a moment while I caution that there is another James R. Strickland who writes children’s books like Does God have a Favorite Pet Dog? Emphatically not the same guy.

Enter Jim’s latest book: Poltergeist: Ask the Dust. 14-year-old Nina Cohen goes down with the Titanic in 1912. Her higher (mind) spirit, or ruach, flees for parts unknown. Her lower (body) spirit, the nephesh, wanders the seas, possessing sharks and other fish, eventually finds the land and arranges to be born into a feral kitten. The kitten is taken in by a young Romanian woman in Las Vegas, and becomes Viviana’s constant, affectionate companion. Viviana, however, is deeply depressed, and after a few more years puts a pistol in her mouth and commits suicide. Nina’s nephesh cannot abide the thought of losing her human, so she leaves her cat body and enters Viviana’s. Nina is a body spirit, and in a living human being the nephesh handles much of the task of healing injuries. Nina furiously works to repair Viviana’s damaged brainstem, which is complicated by still having a .22 slug in it. She does her best, but the struggle to keep the body’s heart beating and lungs breathing is ongoing. After considerable work, Nina inhabits a (mostly) functional body. Viviana is gone, leaving Nina  without a partnered mind spirit. Nina is thus a dybbuk; i.e., a poltergeist. Most dybbuks get bored, make noise, and throw things around. Nina has a body to maintain and lacks time for mischief. But she needs a job to keep body and nephesh together.

Enter Tom Fletcher, a former cop and current chain-smoking private investigator in the Raymond Chandler mode. Except…he is also a powerful occultist, and when he spots Nina at a bus station, he looks at her in the lumina (the realm of spirit and life force) and immediately knows what she is. Fletcher takes her in, moves her back to Minnesota with him, and begins teaching her how to be a private eye. Nina gets her license, and learns from Fletcher that there are some powerful advantages to being a poltergeist gumshoe who can see the lumina and the numa life force that glows within it.

That’s a lot of backstory, and peculiar backstory at that. Jim has a fairly rare talent: He can build a backstory and major universe details in bits and pieces dropped into the primary narrative, without an infodump anywhere. The story proper begins two months after Fletcher dies of throat cancer, leaving her the private investigator business and the building he owned plus all his goods inside it. A man calls her and asks her to find his son, who has been missing for ten years. Nina takes the cold case with an eagerness bordering on naivete. In searching for Mike Berg, she runs afoul of the local drug-running gang, hitmen, conniving relatives, various lowlifes in the bad part of Lakeport, and the limitations of her poltergeist talents. Poltergeist tricks like psychokinesis cost her in numa, which accumulates slowly but can be spent very quickly. She can leave her body and travel through walls to look around, but her body doesn’t breathe while she’s not in it and so the clock is ticking. Although a local Lakeport cop befriends her, Nina soon finds that there is more than mere friendship involved—and that the spirit world is a great deal more complex and treacherous than even she knew.

The background has a startling richness. Its internal consistency is one of those things you don’t always see in fantasy yarns. It isn’t abracadabra magic so much as spirit physics, with limitations implicit in its laws. The idea content is dazzling, granting that I’m an ideas guy and I love that sort of thing in fiction. Jim has a new take on physical invisibility based on the workings of the human eye and brain. Numa energy can be transferred between humans by a mechanism that sounds a lot like electrical circuitry. And a poltergeist inhabiting a body generates a lot of static electricity. Anything Nina touches that has transistors in it croaks as the junctions die. She thus uses antique dial phones and radios with tubes, and wears limeman gloves while working on her snotty AI-driven computer.

Nina’s POV has a wry if sometimes naive voice, with lots of low-key humor and affectionate flashbacks to the late Tom Fletcher’s kindness and his quirks. She is devoted to her cat Djinn as she in cat form was devoted to Viviana. In fact, there is a great deal here for cat lovers. We see the lumina universe through her inner eyes, whether the view is of great beauty or molten terror. The terror is real, and at the climax she must face and fight it at the possible cost of her very existence.

Jim has indicated that Poltergeist is a series, and he’s working hard on the second book. I’ll let you know when it appears.

It’s a wild ride. Take it. Poltergeist: Ask the Dust is the best new fiction I’ve read in a long time.

Highly recommended.


    1. George Hodous says:

      Do you have any other books? Ask The Dust was excellent!

      1. I recommend Jim’s book Brass & Steel: Inferno, which is a weird western introducing a concept I can only describe as “steampunk zombies.” Great read!

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