Ghoul N’ The Cape by Josh Malerman

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STORGY’S NOVEL OF THE YEAR 2021

Utterly brilliant – a masterpiece of epic proportions!

Well, how can one describe something so brilliant?

It’s the task I have now and one that I love to do, but describing this book that traverses genre with ease is going to be a tough task, but I feel after leaving it a day I am now capable of speaking in coherent sentences.

Describing this book is almost as if I am trying to describe the beauty I find in a painting, in nature, in the small things my children do that make my heart melt – because beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that’s what makes things special, spectacular and unforgettable for the one experiencing that moment in time.

How can I adequately put across the shimmering brilliance of this novel, the ebb and flow of the plot and characters, the transportive prowess of the wordsmith who helms this voyage into the unknown, the conductor whose symphony sings loud from the page and finds root in the reader’s heart and soul like a dandelion seed caught in a summers breeze, finding a place by chance to bed down, take root and bloom.

I’ve previously referred to Malerman as a chameleon, his books never the same, he adapts, he shakes things up, his books are canvasses each one a different time and place and genre – he’s not content in becoming stagnant, always searching for the next story or the next piece of art to create, and what we get with Ghoul N’ The Cape is his Sistine Chapel, his magnum opus – a literary opera that can’t be easily defined, because it’s a living breathing thing, a book that has a message, a book that is a new gospel, one that proves the power in words and storytelling, one that is transformative and revolutionary.

I messaged Josh when I was coming to the end of this book. I said he was writing as if he were possessed by the greats, and I meant every word. This book not only shows Malerman at his whimsically best, it shows him as a writer who has reached those heights of the greats that placed those stepping stones for him to traverse. There are notes of H.G. Wells, Hunter S Thompson, John Steinbeck, Stephen King, J.R.R. Tolkien, Roald Dahl, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Charles Bukowski and they’re just a few the list is endless. There are also the works of the screen that one can’t help but reference, The Wizard of Oz, the Westerns of old, the madcap adventure films, War of the Worlds, Star Wars, Thelma and Louise and of course Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But let me just say this, the comparisons are there, but this book is wholly Josh Malerman.

I have to mention the book’s length, at over 700 pages it’s the biggest book I’ve read in a long time, I sometimes feel a little daunted by large books, I fear them, not that they scare me as such, but more I’m concerned that I’m not going to be engaged, that somewhere along the way the book is going to run out of steam and having invested so much time in it that I’ll have to begrudgingly bring myself to finish it, rarely do I give up on a book. What I can say about Ghoul N’ The Cape is that not once did I feel like putting it down, there were no bumps in the road, the storytelling was crisp and beguiling. But there were times that I had to put it down, not because I was bored, but because I needed to eat and drink and sleep – Ghoul N’ The Cape has a habit of getting its claws into you and not relinquishing its grip.

Ghoul N’ The Cape gripped me from page one, the story opens with one of our protagonists Cape as he enters a bar in New York, it’s perfect scene-setting by Malerman and I got serious Star Wars Cantina vibes, not with aliens and such, but the rogue’s gallery that is painted so well, where scoundrels lurk and criminals bed down, where if you look closely enough, you’ll find an odd-looking specimen, one who’s given into the drink, his lot in life, the weight of people’s expectations – you’ll find Ghoul. From Cape and Ghoul’s first exchanges you soon realise that this is going to be one of the partnerships that people will talk about for years to come, a literary partnership that will span the decades, a Robin to a Batman so to speak.

There’s a sequence early on as Ghoul disappears into his own thoughts, a procession happening in his mind, the thirty-plus years of his life and the faces and figures he’s met come to him in a kaleidoscopic haunting vision. It was at this point in the book, the energy to the prose, the awe I felt at reading Malerman’s words that I knew this book had me, it had ensnared me and I couldn’t be the same person I was when I started it, I’d be changed, I’d have my eyes opened and enjoy the ride, and what a ride it became.

This is a great American novel, in scope and landscape. We witness a road trip before our very eyes – we traverse our way from New York to the West coast, it’s a journey that delves into the heart of America and shows us many sights along the way, some good, some bad and some downright ugly.

Not long after setting out (fleeing Ghost Star / The Naught – I’ll let you find out about that yourself) Cape and Ghoul find themselves on a train, then in a counterfeit money laundering facility, we get given scraps to feed on, as I mentioned before the dandelion, these seeds bed down and are revealed in time, breadcrumbs on a journey of discovery. We have questions too, who is the man in the red flannel shirt, what’s under Cape’s cape and where on earth are we heading, who are we going to meet next and how on earth are our unlikely duo going to get out of this one alive?

Malerman takes us to places we never expect, and that’s the beauty of this road trip – we find ourselves traversing America and Malerman’s Ghoul and Cape are our tour guides, taking us off the beaten path and discovering the real America along the way. We find ourselves on trains, in planes, on boats and cars (Medley – what a stunning character in her own right, she sometimes steals the show for me). We go from caves in the mountains to used car lots, to bars, haunted jails, cowboy graveyards, church, a retirement village, a biker club, homes of the rich and famous and a barge that carries the Statue of Liberty to America in pieces. And there are more, but the best thing about the book is that you get to experience the length and breadth of America through Cape and Ghoul’s and Malerman’s eyes and the view is spectacular.

There is so much to talk about that I could spend an eternity (quite literally) talking about how brilliant this book is, but I just wanted to touch on one more singular part of the book before delving a little into the characters Malerman has crafted. There are three parts of the book that blew my socks off, the writing alone was crazed, poetic, frenzied and damned right masterful, I couldn’t look away and stood back in awe at what Malerman had accomplished (that word again… Awe!) – Part two through to four were just astounding, there are scenes in these parts that will stay with me for a long time, I won’t put any spoilers here but the Mary Finn sequence just unnerved me and had me slack-jawed in appreciation of the writing and vision of Malerman. The Prison, Warden Fitch and what befalls our duo here is some incredible work too, and then we have the introduction of Sissy and the person keeping their appointment in the dive bar Ghoul finds himself. There are more brilliant scenes too, the Statue of Liberty section had fierce The Terror vibes that caused me to have moments of unease and dread, but there are more and as I said beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so I’m sure you will also find your own slices of brilliance along the way.

Characters. Well we know Malerman does characters well, he has a way of painting them so they literally step off the page or eventually live rent-free in your mind, and well, my mind is now full of the eccentric characters from Ghoul N’ The Cape. We have our dynamic duo Ghoul and Cape, we have Sissy, Mary Finn, we have Cadaver Jack, Val Sherry, The Wyoming Green Skulls, not to mention the agents are harbingers of the Naught and not to forget the stranger in the bar. It’s exquisite, each adding to the story, each deserving their place in the half cosmic half vaudevillian vision that Malerman has deftly crafted.

Also, the cover to this book contains many hidden gems for our cast of characters and the journey that is about to unfold, so pay attention and keep flipping back to the cover, it’s like a magic eye puzzle.

With a book this size, there are opportunities for the reader to interpret the text as they see fit, guided slightly by the original author of the piece, there are a great many allegories to be found in this book, and ones that an invested reader may discover all by themselves, great books make you think, make you engage and this can be said for Ghoul N’ The Cape. One such thought I had is; no matter how small, damaged or different you may feel or how others see you, how the world tells you to be and act and engage, you can still be of use, you can still change things, you still matter. There are other deeper thoughts that spring to mind too concerning the agents of the Naught, the ignorance they spread, the lies, the death and destruction and the blurring of American history, the need to suppress, to forget, to consume and stay in place.

To quote David Foster Wallace “Good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” And that’s what Malerman has managed to do here.

Malerman has crafted a modern-day epic masterpiece that cements himself as a raconteur for the ages, I stand in awe of his brilliance and fearless imagination.

Josh Malerman

Josh Malerman is an American novelist, short story writer, film producer, and one of two singer/songwriters for the rock band The High Strung. He is best known for writing his post-apocalyptic novel, Bird Box, which was the inspiration of the Netflix film Bird Box.

Ghoul N’ The Cape is published by Earthling Publications and is available here.

Reviewed by Ross Jeffery

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