American Ghost

American Ghost

by Paul Guernsey


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An inventive metafictional novel, in which a drug-dealing biker must solve his own murder from beyond the grave.

Thumb Rivera is in a bind. A college dropout, aspiring writer, smalltime marijuana grower, and biker club hang-around, Thumb finds himself confined to his rural ranch house in the desolate Maine countryside, helpless to do anything but watch as his former friends and housemates scheme behind his back, conspire to steal his girlfriend, and make inroads with the Blood Eagles, a dangerous biker gang.

Thumb is also dead.

A ghost forced to haunt his survivors and reflect back on the circumstances that led to his unsolved murder, Thumb discovers he has one channel through which he can communicate with the living world: Ben, an unemployed ghost hunter. Ben soon convinces local curmudgeon Fred Muttkowski, failed novelist turned pig farmer, to turn Ben’s Ouija-board conversations with Thumb into an actual book.

Thumb has two things on his mind: To solve, and then avenge, the mystery of his own violent death, and also to tell his story. That story is American Ghost—as told to Ben, then fictionalized by Fred. It's at once a clever tale of the afterlife, a poignant examination of the ephemeral nature of life, and a celebration of writing and the written word.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781945863394
Publisher: Talos
Publication date: 10/23/2018
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Paul Guernsey is an author, editor, and college instructor. His first novel, Unhallowed Ground, was a finalist for the PEN Nelson Algren Fiction Award. When not writing, Guernsey teaches writing and communication at Unity College in Maine and runs the popular website The Ghost Story, home of The Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award, a highly regarded international short story competition. American Ghost is his third novel.

Read an Excerpt


Once you're dead, ghosts are everywhere. The first time one of them whispers to you from out of the darkness, you imagine your blood turning to slush just as it would if you were alive. You want to scream and run — but you are forbidden to make a mortal sound and there is nowhere you can go.

A few days before I haunted the informal gathering of family and friends that followed my memorial service, as I toppled in the underground river where we dead spend so much of our time, a voice reached me across the currents like someone speaking in a dream. For a moment I thought it might be my father — I had been thinking about him — but then I realized it was a spirit I did not know and I was afraid. I tried to swim faster, to get away. But escape was impossible and the voice clung to me as if the words were those of the water itself. He or she — I couldn't tell which — sounded like the slow stirring of stones in the depths of the river.

"Thumb Rivera. Do you hear me?"

When I didn't answer it said, "You won't escape, you know. I'll be with you forever, if that's what it takes. I'll cover you like a skin." A moment later, when I still hadn't replied, the ghost added, "Forever is a long time, Thumb."

"I hear you! What do you want?" I was only thinking these words, but the ghost clearly caught them.

"I wouldn't ordinarily talk to the likes of you — a criminal — but I've been given a message for you."

"Who are you?"

"I'm no one you would know."

I had no idea what to make of this voice, whether to believe it, or trust it, who — or whatever — it belonged to. No telling what it might really want from me, or want to do to me. Yet I was alone, in despair, and I seemed to have no choice but to listen, and try to understand.

I said, "Who's the message from?" I felt a surge of hope as I imagined the possibility of forgiveness from — I did not know exactly. From whoever mattered here in the world of the dead. Of course there was a lot I'd done that needed forgiving; I was under no illusions about that. But maybe my situation wasn't hopeless.

"Right now you are in the first circle of the spirit world. But your time here is limited. You can either move up, or fall below. Either way, you will not stay where you are."

"Move up to where? Fall below to what?"

"If you fall below, it's a much blacker death than this. You will never see a face. You will never hear a voice, or music. There is only night."

"So ... is it nothing, then?" The thought of oblivion was less frightening than many other possibilities.

But the voice gave a gravelly laugh and said, "Not nothing, no. Because you will know that you are there. For eternity you will feel the crawl of every moment."

Once again I visualized my blood, thickened with crimson needles of ice. "All right. So ... what then? Tell me."

"You were murdered." Although I'd figured this out, it was still a horrible thing to hear.

"I already guessed."

"In the coldest of blood."

Without a body, I could no longer shudder. But as the ghost spoke these words, I imagined myself shuddering.

"Yours was a complicated death. It left other lives in great disorder. To set things right, you first will need to learn exactly how and why you died. All the parts of the puzzle. You will need to connect those bones and make sense of the creature you construct."

I was silent for a while, my suspicions flaring anew. Finally, my outburst: "A puzzle? Like in a mystery novel, or a movie? Like, even though I'm dead I'm supposed to be a detective, or a character in a video game? Why? Who, exactly, in any kind of serious afterlife, would want me to do that? Who are you, really, and how do I know you're not just fucking with me?"

After a pause of its own, the spirit answered, "I'm just a messenger, and I have no further answers. You are free to believe whatever you want. It makes no difference to me."

There was another long silence during which I began to fear the spirit had gone away. In a voice that might have quavered had I still been alive, I said, "Why the dramatic setup, anyway? Won't it all just come back to me? Naturally, I mean, the facts of my murder? I was there, after all — and my memories about other things have started to return."

A moment later I added, "Hello? Are you there? Hey ... messenger ..."

"You've got a difficult journey ahead of you. But remember the consequences of failure. You will need to find a way to accomplish it. And finally, you will need to come to terms with what you've learned."

"So if I succeed? What happens then? Where do I go?"

"I have not gotten there myself."

"And coming to terms. Tell me what that means. Does it mean giving up on vengeance? Or do I have to forgive? Or do I have to carry out my revenge somehow?"

"You will have some choices. If you choose correctly, you might move on from here. If not, you will sink."

I already felt as if I were sinking. "And how am I supposed to get this done? I'm just a ghost. I have no power to do anything. I can't even leave the house I'm haunting. I'm a fucking ghost." But he or she did not speak again. The river ghost was gone — and I felt more forsaken than ever.

Much later — nearly two years later, after I'd learned not only that my first, frightening messenger had been telling the truth, more or less, but also what I needed to know about my death, although I was still far from "coming to terms" with it — I heard from yet another messenger, one of many I'd spoken to deep in that watery lightlessness. This ghost had a voice like the rush and gurgle of the river current.

"Thumb Rivera. You are giving thought to murdering a man."

By then I was no longer afraid of unfamiliar spirits. On several occasions, I'd served as a messenger myself. I said, "I'm only a ghost. I can't fire a gun. I can't light a fire. You know I can't murder anyone."

"Don't play games, you stupid boy. You are a ghost — and you've got the power to create fury and terrible fear." After a moment I admitted, "I've been considering it."

"I've been told to warn you. If you cause a death out of revenge, you will remain a ghost forever. A solitary ghost who sits in the dark."

I said, "Thanks for your warning, spirit. But it's a sentence I might be willing to serve."

* * *

Ghost story. Murder story. Love story. The mystery at the heart of each is my own killing, all details of which, for long weeks following my first, incomplete illumination as a ghost, I was completely unable to remember. In fact, it was through hazy deduction rather than by hard evidence that I eventually concluded I had probably died violently, at the intentional hands of others. My first, obvious inference: At twenty-two years of age and in excellent health, I was far too young to have launched out on so abrupt and final a trip without having had help in packing my bags. Nor had I been in the habit of doing dumb things like playing with firearms or driving recklessly while under the influence — although I'd be a liar if I claimed I was never, or even infrequently, under the influence. Also there was the broadly circumstantial fact that, in having given over every bit of my time and attention to the first-hand research of the book I planned to write, I ended up willingly and even eagerly immersing myself in an environment and a way of living that had brought countless other risky lives, including that of my own father, to an early end.

The similarity to my father's fate was no mere coincidence: During the two years that preceded my death, I had more or less intentionally followed a parallel though far less glamorous course to the one my old man had navigated over a decade before — a life's journey that stopped short the day he and the stripped-down, twin-engine Beechcraft he was piloting, along with his cargo of Colombian cocaine, had all disappeared together and forever somewhere over the blue Caribbean Sea.

* * *

At this point, there are a couple of things I need to tell you. The first is that my full name is Daniel Starbird Rivera — though even in death I go by the road name of "Thumb." Rivera, of course, is Spanish; my long-gone, drug-smuggling old man came from Venezuela. He spoke perfect English, but with a staccato Caraqueño accent that made him sound impatient. The Starbird part comes from my mother's family name, that of a clan, all but extinct now that I'm dead, which for nearly two centuries clung like seaweed to the rocky midcoast of Maine. My parents met in Florida, which is where I was born and grew up until I left to attend an expensive college in a small Maine city I'll call Riverside. It's the same school at which my late Grandfather Starbird, a third-generation alum, had spent thirty years teaching mathematics.

College was fine; college was a pimped-out cage of whitebread privilege. Yeah, I guess that's my ultimate excuse for the slide I took to the criminal side: From my father I'd inherited the inflammable legacy of a risk-taking gene, and it was the absolute, suffocating safety and predictability of life at school that became the match to light the flame. Anyway, for the longest time things at college went normally for me. I was a biology major with a minor in English; my grades were satisfactory, and I had a smart, loyal girlfriend along with a handful of close college buddies who, I can say without exaggeration, all loved me. Then late one night a little over halfway through my college career I was lying awake and staring at shadows when in my imagination I heard my long-dead father speaking to me from out of the darkness. "Hijo, qué verguenza," he said. "What a shame. You don't even know who you are."

A few nights later, as the headlights of cars swooped and stalled along my bedroom walls, I thought of him again. This time I could almost see him standing at the foot of my bed in his creased canvas pants and his leather flying coat and his teardrop sunglasses. I imagined him saying, "Daniel, Qué te pasa? You're not living your life like a man. Stop being afraid. Get up and take your fate in your hands. Do something bold."

After that I grew so restless that I found it impossible to quit imagining myself as an overfed jaguar in a zoo, pathetically longing for the sight of moonlight stabbing in bright blades across the damp leaf-litter of the forest floor. Even while wide awake I began to hear my father's call in the sound of every wind-driven rain. As if by predestination, I met Chef in one of the seedy clubs down along the broad river that divided Riverside. The bar was a spot of darkness where other students seldom went. Chef was a fellow southerner, a slow-talking, heavy-set biker boy from Alabama who was looking to get something going; he was hoping to join one of the three outlaw motorcycle gangs operating in the state or, failing to spark enthusiasm as a biker-club prospect, he planned on assembling his own little unaffiliated outfit and starting to make a living — at weed cultivation, on a little methamphetamine production, on some repackaging of prescription medications. The usual petty-criminal bullshit.

Chef had Cricket with him then. I remember how she stood next to his barstool with her fingers saddled over the shoulder of his jacket, saying little and looking from one to the other of us as we conducted a conversation punctuated by the crack of billiard balls. Although she wasn't a girl who at first glance struck you as smoking, when Cricket smiled — which she did infrequently — she would blow you away with her sudden bloom. The other thing about her was that, although she had a pale complexion and an Anglo last name and had grown up in some backwater potato town up along the Canadian border, there was something to her — some indefinable quality like an aura or an aroma — that told me there was no way she was not at least part Latina.

At some point later that night, when Chef's attention had been drawn elsewhere, I spoke a few words to her — So, Cricket ... te gusta bailar? — and she smiled. It was obvious from her eyes that she had no idea what I'd said to her, but nonetheless her gaze rested on mine, and after a moment we both looked away as if we'd been seared to the backs of our skulls.

No, dude, I cautioned myself. There's no future in that. But as always, I had difficulty following my own wise advice.

* * *

After you die, and before you become fully illuminated as a ghost, you start out as a kind of ghost larva. You are no bigger than a fleck of dust, and formless. You don't know where you are, and you no longer see or hear in the usual ways. At first you can't remember much of anything, including your own name. You have to relearn almost everything.

At the outset there is also an awful sense of isolation and abandonment. You find yourself fantasizing that you might somehow be still alive — in a coma, maybe, or merely having a nightmare. Then, when denial temporarily fades, you wonder if you might not actually be in hell. But after your mind finally begins to clear and you are able to string together a few coherent thoughts, you tell yourself, No, hell is not like this. Hell is a howling man in a red suit and tights. Hell is giant spiders and prison rapists. Real hell is being a child and left for an interminable weekend in the resentful "care" of Tiabuela — your Venezuelan great aunt — while your dad is off on a "business" trip. However, you are also aware that when it comes to defining what hell really is or is not, you have no idea what in hell you're talking about.

A further facet to the whole post-death experience is a helpless, out-of-control toppling and tumbling that you eventually decide would be like what a body might feel as it was being dragged by a strong current along the murky bottom of a river, caroming off rocks and the waterlogged trunks of trees. So I wondered, shortly after the first few, feeble thoughts began to congeal in my mind, whether I might have died by accidental drowning. But this, as I soon would learn, was wrong.

My mortal memory began to resurface piece by shattered piece through that subterranean river of disorientation and confusion. How long did it all take? It was hard to tell. Time, though it still ticks on after death, is very different to us, the dead. Sometimes it moves in both or even multiple directions at once, like an eddy in the middle of an ocean, complete with boils and undercurrents — but this is something that you, as a linear, living person, are probably better off not even trying to wrap your mind around.

In any case, all at once "my eyes opened" — just a metaphor, since I no longer had real eyes — and my fully conscious and freaked-out essence found itself suspended at the exact point where three vast, gray planes came together. As my perspective began to adjust, I imagined — accurately, as it turned out — that I was either hanging or floating in a corner where two walls supported a ceiling. I was the size of a spark and everything else was so huge as to be almost unrecognizable. All around me, a dozen or more weightless gray streamers seemingly miles in length rippled through space like ribbons of greasy smoke, and these, I eventually understood, were the tatters of a dusty cobweb dancing in a current of air.

At first there was silence, and just as I'd begun to wonder whether I was deaf for all eternity, I heard the familiar sound of a car hissing past on a nearby street. I could tell the pavement was wet. Just afterward, I heard a rumbling commotion that drew my attention to a blur of motion far below; it looked like a storm-filled cloudbank or a mountain surfing on the wave of an earthquake and it was barreling toward me at a scary speed. The rolling peak or boiling thunderhead closed the distance between us until, with a siren-like yet also plaintive whine it shifted shape and settled directly beneath my dusty corner. Then it startled me further by seeming to lift its lid, and suddenly it was looking up at me with an unmistakable pair of eyes that my mother, when I was much younger, and when she still was speaking to me, would have described as being "big as millstones." After a moment I realized that these were the eyes of my own dog, Tigre — a huge, brindle-colored pit bull and bullmastiff cross, and by the way they focused on my corner I could tell he somehow knew I was there. From above, his severely cropped ears looked like giant horns. Once I recognized Tigre — Tee-gray is how it's pronounced, although I always called him Tigger when we were among people who lacked my love of Hispanic language and culture — further memories and realizations began hitting me like shots of lightning. My own name was one of the first things that came jolting back.


Excerpted from "American Ghost"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Paul Guernsey.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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