Phantom by Thomas Tessier
Published: Atheneum, 1982
Awards Nominated: World Fantasy Award
“Ned has known about phantoms since he was very young. You have to hide from them, under your bed covers. You can’t peek, because then you’ll see that they’re real. Then there’s no taking it back.
When Ned is almost ten, his parents move him from the city to a small town called Lynnhaven. Lynnhaven has its own ghosts—stories of people long gone and a ruined, abandoned spa that still remains. Ned seems to adapt well, befriending several local old-timers and spending his days fishing and playing. However, he slowly becomes aware that there is something dark waiting for him, and he associates it with the decrepit spa. He knows that sooner or later he will have to face his phantom…” ~Allie
Phantom, a novel on the Horror Writer’s Association Reading List, is my second review for WWEnd’s Month of Horrors. Phantom, which represents a very different style of horror than Conjure Wife, is a quieter, slower-paced story that focuses more on the kinds of fear that are probably familiar to everyone.
One of the strengths of Phantom as a horror story was the way it was built upon a foundation of realistic fear. First, it featured the (possibly) baseless terror children often experience while alone at night. I remember being an overly imaginative child, spending nights where every little sound or shifting shadow filled me with an irrational sense of doom. The actual events of Phantom moved well beyond usual childhood fright, but its basis in this kind of common fear made Ned’s situation much more relatable. The other, more serious, kinds of fear at the heart of the story were of the rational adult variety—fear of death or of losing someone you love. While childish fear certainly drove some of the creepier scenes, the mature fears were the ones that truly lent the story weight and made it memorable.
Despite the fact that the story involved both terror and phantoms, it was incredibly slow-paced. Most of the story involved Ned and his family getting settled in Lynnhaven. His mother and father both tried to help Ned adjust, in their own ways. For his part, Ned coped with the move by forging a friendship with two elderly men, Peeler and Cloudy. The relationship between Ned and the two men was absolutely adorable. Peeler and Cloudy took him along to fish or catch bait, and Ned eagerly listened to their old stories about former Lynnhaven residents. The development of Peeler and Cloudy’s peaceful friendship with Ned, or ‘Mr. Tadpole’ as they called him, and Ned’s relationships with his parents filled a large part of the novel.
I enjoyed the focus on the characters and their relationships, but I was surprised at how much more emphasis was placed on everyday life than on frightening deviations from it. If you’re reading the story solely for thrills, I think it might become frustrating. The breaks between the more disturbing events are filled with pages of parental worries and conversations with Peeler and Cloudy. I don’t mean to say that exciting, creepy things don’t happen—Ned’s experiences with the spa are one example—but the thrills definitely take a back seat to character study and contemplative scenes of daily life.
The writing itself was concise and effective, but I was a little put off by the style of narration. The story is told from a third person omniscient point of view, and the thoughts and feelings of each person are generally described in every scene. The narration would hop from the mind of one person to the next between paragraphs, a style that I find personally jarring. It was never unclear whose thoughts were being related, but I felt that constantly moving from one person’s mind to another disturbed the flow of the story.
My Rating: 3.5/5
Phantom seems very much what I would expect from traditional horror, except for its slow, contemplative pace. It has a lot to say on the subject of fear, both the kinds of fears that plague small children and the inevitable fear of mortality with which I think most people eventually struggle. Rather than focusing on supernatural interference, the story focused more on the roots of a person’s fear and how it affects their lives. The thrilling, spine-tingling scenes were few and far between, but the bulk of the novel studied the relationships between Ned, his parents, and the elderly townsfolk Peeler and Cloudy. While it may not be packed full with action and suspense, the story of Ned and his phantom portrays many varieties of fear that will resonate with its readers.