{Book Review} A Spectral Hue by Craig Laurance Gidney

If there’s one thing I like to read about it, it’s art commenting on art. For some, this makes for an irritatingly insular read. But for me, well, I’m always a sucker for navel gazing. Fiction at its most popular is relatable, it follows characters we can identify with and their overcoming of an obstacle. We call these stories personal sometimes, when the superficial content matches with our vision of the author. The Shining is a personal story because of Stephen King’s own well-documented alcoholism. This isn’t up for debate (I doubt anyone would argue that the book isn’t a window into King’s own struggles). Criticism dictates what is and what is not personal, and what gets lauded as confessional, and therefore: real, is what the audience sees of it.

But, let’s talk about authors. Let’s talk about artists. Anyone who is either of those knows there is seldom anything more personal than art. We see The Shining, but we never see the thousands of books King read, the stories he rewrote a dozen times, to get there. As readers, we see the final product without having to acknowledge what it took to get there. But, all of our favorite works are built on the shoulders of others, created by devotees, obsessives, dedicated to them and their impact. For me, there’s no greater thrill than seeing an author use fiction as a platform to examine their original driving urge—art itself.

A Spectral Hue by Craig Laurance Gidney is one such book—a story following a group of African-American outsider artists in the town of Shimmer, Maryland. Their art is loosely connected, just as the artists themselves. Whether it’s a painting or a strange, shimmering quilt, their one shared trait is a color between purple and pink and an ominous connection to the surrounding swamp.

So begins our journey, largely following art school grad student Xavier Wentworth as he goes to Shimmer to study this forgotten cadre of outsider artists. The book unfolds as an exploration of timelines—quilter Hazel Whitby and painter Shadrach Grayson holding the most page time—but it’s most gripping moments are in its non-supernatural beginning, where Wentworth seeks validation for these fringe artists from his professors. To A Spectral Hue’s benefit and detriment, these are some of its most fascinating scenes. It’s hard not to hear Craig Laurance Gidney, the author, pleading with the powers-that-be to recognize and validate African-American art, to invest in its study and recognize it to be as precious and important as more conventional styles. There’s an honest love of marginalized creatives in A Spectral Hue and hearing these characters banter over whether the Shimmer artists were making art or merely crafts is a truly fascinating conversation.

Unfortunately, A Spectral Hue’s slimness and large cast of characters keep it from reaching its full potential, although not to the point of dismissal. Gidney’s a strong writer and his characterizations are quick and effective—populating his novel on fringe art with believable fringe people. Both black and LGBT characters are front and center, depicted unapologetically. The problem comes from the sheer volume of them, as well as the different timelines we explore them through. A Spectral Hue primarily takes place in three eras: the present, with our protagonist Xavier Wentworth; the 80s with the psychically acute Iris; and in the late 1800s, following the slave-cum-body-hopping specter Fuschia. At a bulimic 224 pages, this is a lot of story to unpack in so little time, and A Spectral Hue’s greatest fault is that there isn’t so much a story, as there are competing timelines of exposition.

But, where the journey stumbles, the ending wallops. With all the head-hopping and exposition, it’s easy to forget that Gidney’s final scenes are incredible work in their own right, particularly the cross-cutting Ensemble chapter. There’s some excellent stylistic choices at work here, and it makes for an intense climax as well as an original and unsettling perspective on our spirit antagonist. Sometimes, in stories like these, the supernatural element and the human element are at odds—with one being the clear victor in regards to the author’s attention—but Gidney’s supernatural conceits are as strong as his character work and because of this, the ending effectively chills.

A Spectral Hue sticks more landings than it misses, and when it zeroes in on the Shimmer Artists and the dialogue surrounding them, it’s at its most compelling. In an alternate universe, this could have been a Straubian 600 page epic, complete with interweaving plotlines, set in a rich world of outcasts and academics alike. But in ours, we get a tamer, but still appreciable achievement—a short, fast read that makes up for what it lacks with what it offers.

A Spectral Hue comes out from Word Horde on June 18, 2019. You can pre-order the book here. Looking for more horror novels that will make you think? The best way to keep up to date with all of our news, reviews, and analysis here at Signal Horizon is to follow us TwitterFacebook, or subscribe to our newsletter below.

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