Long-form ghost stories are rare, probably because they’re difficult to pull off. You have to keep the tension ramped up. You have to work within a story archetype, but surprise your readers and keep them on their toes. You have to write in such a way that not only do the characters have no idea what’s going to happen, but neither does your audience. In short, you need a lot up your sleeve.
Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky moves in tightening circles, spinning closer and closer to a rabbit hole of a drain. We follow Leah Shepherd, who has returned to her semi-fictional hometown of Crow Station, Kentucky after a stint in graduate school and a broken-off engagement. Her job as a social worker with a tiny nonprofit feeds bits of surreal, small-town humor into the text: a woman asks for a felony charge to be dismissed because it’s her birthday; a dead dog is found on the side of the road and becomes the all-encompassing conversation topic for a day. Throughout the novel, Leah is reminded of her little brother Jacob who went missing when they were children, and behind every plot advancement is the lurking knowledge that something bad is going to happen.
Good ghost stories, from Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw to those told around a summer campfire, involve children. Ancient Oceans roots itself in Leah’s childhood almost self-consciously, with Leah telling Jacob ghost stories after bedtime until her guilt outweighs the amusement of his fear. Leah’s story is not the only ghost story, of course. There are haunted houses, creepy characters, and whispered urban legends around every corner in Crow Station.
Nahm is at his best when writing scenes from Leah’s childhood. They’re vivid and they hit all the right notes, like the “the first yawn of summer,” “the slurp of half-stifled sobs,” and “a cement bowl filled with chlorinated water and urine” in reference to a swimming pool. Leah experiences the severity of emotions as only children can, including “secrets worse than a pocket of candy” and the paralyzing fear of footsteps after dark. Even the adults are more interesting through the lens of Leah’s childhood, like her enigma of a distant father and her mother who wakes the children up every morning by singing hymns. By comparison, present-day Leah’s life is a hazy caricature of adulthood complete with “non-dairy creamers of unknown vintage” and a description of a cell phone’s ring as “tiny pearls of need.” The scenes with adult Leah are held together by snippets of dialogue from often-unknown speakers and poetic lists of minute details about Crow Station, lists that flesh out Crow Station and really nail its small-town atmosphere. These same lists are often frustrating, though, as it’s unclear which of the innumerable details presented, if any, will be important to remember.
It’s not surprising that Leah’s childhood is an order of magnitude more alive than her present, as Leah herself is still living in the past and seems to be experiencing her life as a disjointed blur, like the writing. The narrative cuts abruptly and frequently between past and present, between Leah and the faceless citizens of Crow Station. Sometimes these cuts are hard to follow, but they make sense when paired with adult Leah as protagonist. Her job, her car, her social interactions are all shaped by events that splashed down in her childhood and continue rippling forward today. Nahm even points this out, telling us that “There were two Crow Stations, one superimposed atop the other, one seething with light and color and people walking along real sidewalks in the new rays of the young sun and it was not the one [Leah] saw out the window of her office.” The newer Crow Station is one that Leah can’t figure out how to belong in, but then, no one else seems to have figured it out either. Crow Station is an uncaring mass of desperation and poverty.
Nahm has done two difficult things with this book. He has written an accomplished ghost story and placed children in the spotlight while maintaining a clever narrative that holds a reader’s fascination. Ancient Oceans is full of the hidden richness of a small town childhood, and it’s that immersion in the innocence, naïveté, and wonder of children that makes this ghost story work.
– Graham Oliver is a graduate student in Austin, Texas. His work has previously appeared, or is slated to appear in, the Harvard Educational Review, Ploughshares’ blog, the Front Porch Journal, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about family, legacy, and genealogy.