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Book Review: 'The Warm Hands of Ghosts,' Katherine Arden

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Published June 26, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.


The Warm Hands of Ghosts by Katherine Arden, Del Rey Books, 327 pages. $28.99. | Katherine Arden - COURTESY
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  • The Warm Hands of Ghosts by Katherine Arden, Del Rey Books, 327 pages. $28.99. | Katherine Arden

Place your finger anywhere on the wheel of time, and you will find an era when people thought the world was coming to an end. No matter what marvels we dream up to make our lives fuller, more connected or longer lasting, humanity's ingrained fear of impending doom overshadows them. And nothing makes us herald the end like war.

In Vermont author Katherine Arden's chilling novel The Warm Hands of Ghosts, the Great War rages in continental Europe. Chaotic fighting on the Western Front reaches a pinnacle in late 1917, as soldiers on both sides die solitary deaths in ditches, shell holes and mud fields. Those who survive are hardly the lucky ones. Post-traumatic stress disorder is rampant, though it has no common name. The world is falling apart.

Combat nurse Laura Iven, honorably discharged and sent home to Halifax, Nova Scotia, after a debilitating leg injury, is now her family's only survivor. Her parents have recently died in a maritime tragedy in their home city's port when a French cargo ship, the SS Mont-Blanc, collided with a Norwegian freighter, igniting a massive explosion that incinerated nearby homes. And her younger brother, Freddie, serving in Belgium, has been pronounced dead.

But something isn't quite right about the news of Freddie's death. When a soldier dies overseas, one military ID stays with the body, while the other is sent home to survivors. Both of Freddie's IDs arrived with his personal effects.

Laura has been boarding with three elderly women, the Parkeys, who perform dubious séances. During widow Penelope "Pim" Shaw's desperate attempt to contact her missing soldier son, Laura receives a message from their Ouija board: Freddie is alive.

A skeptic and a pragmatist, Laura doesn't believe her brother survived, or perhaps she won't let herself believe it. But she thinks there's more to the story than she's been told, so she heads back to the fray — not to find Freddie, she insists, but to learn what happened to him.

On something of a whim, Pim joins Laura and uses her connection to a formidable Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse, Mary Borden, to help them return to the front. As the three women travel from Halifax to London to the Continent, Laura follows clues that lead her toward her brother.

Meanwhile, in a parallel narrative set several months earlier, Freddie is indeed alive, but he's in trouble. Trapped in a pitch-black pillbox destroyed by a shell, he clings to life. Among the piles of dead bodies Freddie can only feel and smell is critically injured German soldier Hans Winter, who speaks excellent English. Though the men are sworn enemies, they work together to free themselves.

In a daze, the unlikely allies traverse battlefields and blown-out villages, desperate for safety. But whichever side they find it on, one will become a prisoner and probably face execution.

At various points in their travels, both Freddie and Laura encounter a mysterious, violin-playing fellow called Faland. A hotelier of sorts with an impish, otherworldly quality, he offers refuge and abundant wine to weary travelers in his shabby-chic lodge, though he doesn't seem to charge. Many people know of him, yet his whereabouts remain oddly elusive.

As Laura seeks her brother and Freddie becomes entangled with Faland, both confront the darkness in their lives. Laura obsesses over the day her parents died, while Freddie lingers on the horrors he's seen — and perpetrated — before and after meeting Winter.

Arden's ghosts are often figurative and occasionally, perhaps, real. They may exist in both states simultaneously. She uses the hellscape of World War I to conjure demons and devils from history, myth and the depths of the human psyche.

The Warm Hands of Ghosts is Arden's first stand-alone novel. She previously penned middle-grade horror tetralogy Small Spaces and the Winternight historical fantasy trilogy — for which she made use of her Middlebury College Russian degree.

Visceral language seeps from the pages of Ghosts like the viscous fluids that flood the trenches and ooze from bedridden soldiers. The textures, odors and unspeakable horrors come in unrelenting waves, such as one that Laura witnesses:

[T]hey'd bundled a dead man up into a sheet, with orderlies preparing to lift him, and a sister lurched forward, calling, 'No, wait, be careful' ... But they'd lifted him too quick, and his broken body simply — slid apart...

Laura and Freddie are marvelously drawn. Laura is sharp, both in intellect and manner. She smokes and drinks heavily, indifferent to her own health and appearance. She stands up for herself and her choices even as she buries her feelings.

Freddie was never meant for war. A poet and painter, he would have died if not for Winter, a handsome, stoic man with whom Freddie forges an unbreakable bond. War often creates strong attachments between soldiers, but Freddie and Winter's connection runs much deeper.

The novel's supporting characters, some fictional and others based on real figures, are equally vivid. The Parkeys echo the ominous trio of witches in William Shakespeare's Macbeth. Pim is buoyant and sanguine. Arden portrays Mary Borden as commanding and no-nonsense. And Faland, with his mismatched eyes, checked suit and transcendent melodies emanating from his instrument, transforms from a Puck-like sprite into something intoxicating and dangerous.

Arden balances history with fantasy, never going too far astray into either. Her focus is her characters, their journeys, and how their circumstances — both mundane and magical — inform their choices. She paints context with care, showing how even before the war broke out, portents of doom abounded. To Laura's mother, Halley's Comet streaking through the sky in 1910 was a sign of the end-time. Laura's father was haunted by the experience of sifting through the wreckage of the Titanic. And rapid advancements in technology, such as moving pictures and flying machines, created an unsettling feeling of rapid acceleration, even as they excited young men like Freddie.

Arden's precision and imagination recall British author Susanna Clarke's sweeping masterpiece Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a tale of magic set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. The Warm Hands of Ghosts suggests that ghosts are all around us, though they cling to some more than others. But those specters may not be as scary as they seem. They could offer us hope, showing us who we are, who we've chosen not to be and why the difference matters.

From The Warm Hands of Ghosts

The floor creaked. A hush lay like a hand over Blackthorn House, and in the silence, almost imperceptibly, the planchette crept toward yes. Laura hadn't felt them manipulate it, but that wasn't unsurprising. The Parkeys were professionals. Mrs. Shaw had gone white.

"Who is here?" demanded Agatha.

J-I-M

"Jimmy!" cried Mrs. Shaw. "Jimmy! Where are you? Are you — Have you passed on, dear?" She had begun to shake. Laura felt it through the table.

The planchette drifted to yes. Then it kept going. L-I-S-T, said the planchette. Mrs. Shaw's gaze was locked on the moving arrow.

"Listen," gasped Lucretia. "But listen to what?" The world outside was utterly still.

B-E-W-R, said the planchette.

"Beware?" echoed Clotilde, sharp.

Mrs. Shaw said, "No, but — Jimmy? Darling? Are you alright?"

BWR MSIC MROR, said the planchette. HIM.

This was strange even for the Parkeys. MROR? Mirror? The detritus of Laura's brain offered her a vague association with the Lady of Shalott, Freddie declaiming the verses from Tennyson while she pored over an anatomy textbook: The mirror crack'd from side to side, "The curse is come upon me," cried...

"No, but—" Now Mrs. Shaw was searching the empty air with frantic eyes. "Jimmy? Is it really you?"

DED, said the Ouija board. BUT HES ALIV.

"Who's alive?" demanded Clotilde.

FRED, said the planchette. FREDI FRED FR FIN FIND FIND.

And if there was any more, Laura didn't see it, because she'd wrenched back her chair, awkward on the carpet, turned away, and left the room.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Fog of War | Book review: The Warm Hands of Ghosts, Katherine Arden"

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