By Charles Rammelkamp
Subtitled An Album, Ghostographs is like the memoir of an alternate universe. In her Author’s Note, Maria Romasco Moore mentions buying a Whitman’s Sampler box full of fading photographs of strangers at an antiques market in Altoona, Pennsylvania, when she was a child and imagining the lives of the people in the snapshots. That’s Ghostographs in a nutshell. The thirty-three short fictions that make up the book are all accompanied by the photographs that inspired them. Yet they all add up to a picture of a small town in post-industrial America, though with certain magical additions.
An example of how Moore’s imagination works is the story, “Aunt Beryl.” First, though, you must realize that there are a handful of aunts, as we learn in the story, “My Great Aunts,” accompanied by a photograph of five middle-aged women surrounding a child. “I had more of them than was strictly necessary,” she writes, displaying her sly sense of humor. “Everybody said so.”
Aunt Beryl is one of these aunts. The photograph that inspires her story shows two small children in the foreground, the black-and-white photograph overexposed as family photos tended to be back in the day, the faces washed out, hard to distinguish. The shadow of a woman in a hat stands before them; the sun behind her, her shadow shows a figure wearing a floppy hat. The story begins, “I’ve met her many times, but I couldn’t tell you what she looks like. I never once got a good look at her face.” She goes on to describe the floppy hat. “In my memories of her, it is the hat that stands out most. I would recognize that hat anywhere.” Indeed, the hat on the shadow figure hangs over each side of the face like forlorn donkey’s ears.
Moore sketches the town with its iconic landmarks – the abyss, a potent metaphor, like Hades in Greek mythology (“We were proud that a town as small as ours had an abyss of its own.”); the river that runs through the town. Back in the day, the river ran milk and people brought their glass bottles there to fill them. Then came the factories, and soon the milk was gone. In its place, molten glass, irregular jeans, clusters of caramel popcorn. And then the factories disappeared, and this indeed is how small-town America has evolved over time. This story is accompanied by a black and white snapshot of what appears to be a family swimming in a river.
“The River” is followed by “My Father,” with a photograph of a man standing in the river. “…my father made his living fishing for phantoms.” He “sold his ghost fish to the butcher, who knew how to prepare them….”
Thus Moore casually sneaks in references to her most potent theme – the haunting of the past that leaks into the present. And isn’t that what “an album” is? Take the photo album off the shelf, blow away the dust, look at the photographs of yourself and your family decades ago! Indeed, this is the secret of the title, Ghostographs – for just as “photography” literally means “writing with light,” these are the stories of ghosts caught by a camera lens.
It’s no surprise, then, that light and shadow, light and darkness are apt metaphors in Ghostographs. In stories like “Different Kinds of Light” and “Light” and “God in the Garden” we learn, via her grandfather, about the many kinds of light. (“Time is a kind of light, my grandpa told me,” she writes in the story, “Time.”) A girl named Tess, whose story is accompanied by an overexposed photograph of a little girl in a white dress, such that the girl glows, luminescent, is so radiant that “Moths migrated from miles around just to throw themselves at her…It hurt our eyes to look straight at her.” Later, Tess loses the light and in the children’s games of hide and seek, she is impossible to locate!
Three of the stories are entitled “Hide and Seek” and this is yet another of the threads Moore weaves through her collection. It’s easy to make the connection between visible and invisible, light and dark, the dichotomy of ghost and person in that pair of words.
Moore introduces a number of memorable characters, in addition to Tess. There is Lewis, a disdainful contemporary who grows in stature and at last becomes unrecognizable. There are the aunts, Edna and Ruth, Beryl and Millie, a woman named Hannah, the postman’s wife, who sends away for a mail-order baby. There is Rhoda, who adopts a baby pig, is rumored to suckle it at her breast. “Lewis saw her holding its front trotters in her hands, trying to teach it to walk on two legs.” (A photograph of a woman cuddling a pig accompanies this story.) There is Mabel, who “slept all summer and only woke up when it snowed.” And there are her father and mother and sister and grandpa.
The final story, “Ghost Town,” is almost elegiac in tone, accompanied by a photograph in which nothing can be clearly distinguished – only ghostly images. It’s about that unnamed hometown, which might be Altoona, Pennsylvania, but could just as easily be Potawatomi Rapids, Michigan, or a thousand others like them. “…they aren’t the people I used to know. The people I used to know are only ghosts.”
Maria Romasco Moore has a vivid and empathetic imagination. Her stories honoring that very real alternate universe are a delight to read.
You can find the book here: https://rosemetalpress.com/books/ghostographs/
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and Reviews Editor for Adirondack Review. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House) and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts ( Main Street Rag Press). Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from Future Cycle Press.