The Spirit Photographer by Jon Michael Varese
With dramatic twists and reminiscent of Gothic novels, The Spirit Photographer is replete with fugitive hunters, voodoo healers, and dangers lurking in the swamp. Varese’s deftly plotted debut is an intense tale of death and betrayal that will thrill readers as they unravel the mystery behind the spirit in the photograph and what became of her.
Boston, 1870. Photographer Edward Moody runs a booming business capturing the images of the spirits of the departed in his portraits. He lures grieving widows and mourning mothers into his studio with promises of catching the ghosts of their deceased loved ones with his camera. Despite the whispers around town that Moody is a fraud of the basest kind, no one has been able to expose him, and word of his gift has spread, earning him money, fame, and a growing list of illustrious clients.
One day, while developing the negative from a sitting to capture the spirit of the departed son of a senator, Moody is shocked to see a different spectral figure develop before his eyes. Instead of the staged image of the boy he was expecting, the camera has seemingly captured the spirit of a young black woman.
When Moody recognizes the woman, he is compelled to travel from Boston to the Louisiana bayou to resolve their unfinished business. But more than one person is out to stop him…
The Spirit Photographer is a Southern Gothic literary novel, which has outstanding detail and truly brings alive the era. The fact that it is a debut novel only makes it more astounding. As I would recommend this for fans of The Underground railroad by Colson Whitehead. It is that good! The novel details the confederate states, the difference between northern/southern states of the US in that era. The racial oppression and fight for civil rights is covered in resounding accuracy. Yet, it also has this huge hook, of having an occult theme within. Can ghosts be captured on camera film? And if so does this mean our loved ones are still with us? For one unlikely lady, it is too much of a question to bare and she dares to seek the answers.
Which leads her to uncover all her secrets and personal shame. . .
The novel opens with Mr Moody, taking a photo for Mrs Lovejoy. A lady that wishes to be reunited with her deceased cousin. There are several articles within the novel that detail Mr Moody’s reputation and success as a spiritual photographer.
Slowly but surely, he is acquiring fame and fortune.
The novel centres around a married couple, the Garrett’s. Their desire to be reunited with their beloved and only, perished son William Jeffrey. Who passed away 18yrs ago, at just 3yrs old. His last words haunt his mother Elizabeth and she has never been the same woman, since he passed.
Can Mr Moody help her overcome her grief?
‘It will be gone soon’ – William Jeffrey’s last words
But the Garrett’s aren’t just any couple, for they are the political elite. Senator James Garrett is quite the radical given the historical era and setting. He has won clear legal victories against the Klan and championed the election of Hiram Revels a black Mississippi minister. James has a desire to secure fundamental rights for all the country’s citizens. He is not afraid of who this may involve taking on. Even his closest friend and loyalist ally Benjamin P Dovehouse.
Elizabeth’s roots are in southern plantations, whilst some may call her a hypocrite she uses her privilege to speak out against the harsh and unjustifiable treatment that takes place on the plantation crop fields. Which only adds to James political power. Make no mistake James and Elizabeth Garrett have political power, but they also have secrets.
‘These women could talk, and pretend to understand federal policy all they liked. But they would never be able to perceive what they were incapable of seeing. Elizabeth had seen’
Mrs Lovejoy makes the necessary introductions between Mr Moody and the Garrett’s. Once the photo is taken, it reveals a spirit. But this is not the spirit anyone could have foreseen, least of all the Garrett’s. This is the spirit of a slave girl, named Isabelle. But who is Isabelle? Why is she in the photo of the Garrett’s?
‘It was Isabelle – His Isabelle. She had finally returned’
Mr Moody becomes acquainted with Joseph Winter. Winter hopes to expose Moody as a fraud, but until he can achieve such an act he must place himself in the position of Mr Moody’s assistant. This is made much easier via negotiation, after the discovery of Isabelle in the photo. For not only did Winter know Isabelle, he is a black man and therefore able to infiltrate the black community of the south.
‘She is a powerful spirit’ – Joseph Winter
Moody hasn’t heard from Isabelle in 18yrs, since she sent him a letter before heading for Boston. He was unaware she had even passed on.
Does this photo mean that Isabelle, his love, is dead?
Winter is quick to determine their must be a link between Isabelle and the Garrett’s for her spirit to show in their image. Whilst Moody and Winter, set about their investigation.
The Garrett’s are also making plans. . .
‘If he publishes that picture, it could lead to our ruin’ – Elizabeth Garrett
The Garrett’s are extremely concerned for their reputations. They know their elitist society thrives upon rumour, speculation and assumptions. Elizabeth becomes irrational and anxious, urging James to take action. It is then that James summons Dovehouse to retrieve the image, at once.
Benjamin P Dovehouse is James best friend since their years at Harvard law school. However, Dovehouse holds rather different opinions about the negro community. He is a conservative republican and long-standing member of the American colonization society. Dovehouse believes the negroes should know their place in society.
‘A semi-barbarous race of men who worship fetishes and practice polygamy, intent on subjecting all white women to their hot unbridled lust’
‘The negroes are little more than children’ – Dovehouse
Moody and Winter quickly become aware that if they are going to uncover the truth, they must act quickly. They also know that they must head south, to where all Isabelle’s trouble began. . .
‘She had a power over them, as she has a power over then now. They will want this photograph destroyed’ – Joseph Winter
At this point I was fully engrossed. I was desperate to know the link between Isabelle and the Garrett’s. I also wanted to know what was so shameful, that they’ll go to such lengths to cover it up? As stated above the historical accuracy is second to none. But it isn’t just historical accuracy that makes a novel of this calibre succeed. It also requires outstanding characterisation, which you will find when you meet Moody, Winter and the Garrett’s and the people we meet along the journey.
The conversations between the characters often reference the racial bias of the generation. The ignorance however wilful, is laid bare for all to see.
“It’s a wonder to me that the women of the south can abide such barbarism”
“And just who do you think is sewing the hoods?”
As Moody and Winter make their journey to New Orleans, they both reflect upon their memories of Isabelle and what made her the woman she was. The kind, decent and honourable woman she once was.
‘Every year a hundred thousand newborn babies are brought upon the auction blocks of Richmod, Charleston, and New Orleans. Every year, tens of thousands of lives are sacrificed to the lash in the south’ – Isabelle
The answers Moody and Winter seek lay in BelleVoix, New Orleans. But they upon the journey Winter must dodge Wilcox, a notorious slave hunter. They come across a wide-range of characters, that just enhance the story in its entirety, such as Yellow Henry. What starts as a simple mystery evolves into a much bigger case, with its roots leading right to congress.
This is an outstanding novel, that I highly, highly recommend!
‘It was convenient – to blame the negroes. It was a trick that always worked’