A Ghostly Shade of Pale

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AGhostlyShadeOfPaleWritten by Merle Temple — We are in the Deep South, strutting that well-worn stage set where almost anything can happen – the land where Mississippi meets Tennessee meets Arkansas. Bugs the size of golf balls clatter into the kerosene lanterns and, out there on the river, vines hang from the live oaks as nameless creatures snuffle and snort in the brackish water. The King still lives in Graceland, and out there, down some back road, there’s a shotgun shack with a doped-up redneck biker sitting on the porch. This is the explosive and turbulent USA of the mid-70s, a country engulfed by the social and military repercussions of the Vietnam War. The new perceived peril which threatens to engulf Middle America does not come from the commies, however, but from the debilitating tide of cheap drugs in the hands of mobsters and crooked cops.

Michael Parker is an idealistic young man who has forged a career in law enforcement. After surviving a dangerous spell as an undercover narcotics agent, he is drawn into an investigation of clubs where cheap drugs and expensive women are provided for bent politicians and minor mafia characters. Michael’s nemesis Fredrick works security for the clubs. He’s barely human – a killer, and an albino. This alone might have driven his fragile psyche into a bad place, but he is also schizophrenic. The voices he hears belong to the epic psychopaths of the 20th century, including the deranged British satanist Aleister Crowley, and Adolf Hitler.

The writing is intense, lush and occasionally lurid. There is little room for nuance, ambiguity or irony in this book, but there is poetry in abundance. The pages where Michael goes home to bury his beloved grandmother are particularly memorable and moving. Temple certainly makes room for romance. The love of Michael’s life is Dixie Lee Carter. She is all fluttering eyelashes, a tart with a heart, a little girl in a woman’s body, and if she doesn’t feature in a heart-breaking country music ballad somewhere, then she should.

The story is pure melodrama, in the best sense of the word. There are no flawed heroes, no indecisive princes and certainly no villains for whom we might have a sneaking sympathy. Everything is straight down the line, with the good guys clearly on one side, and the scumbags on the other. The pace is uneven – the action scenes are vividly described in second-by-second realtime detail, but then we get a throwaway line indicating that several months have passed. I did love the cultural references, however. John Wayne, Richard Nixon, CS Lewis, Beowulf, William Blake, Edgar Allen Poe and Matt Dillon all make fleeting appearances, as does a celebrated side-burned entertainer who comes to pay his respects at a funeral. After being silhouetted against a lonely Memphis hillside above a cemetery, he returns to his limo, his bodyguards, and his mansion. Maybe Temple is showing off, but all the little asides struck a chord with me.

The writing is occasionally clumsy, but the story is delivered with such passion and conviction that the flaws become irrelevant. That could be one reason why the producers of the CBS show Criminal Minds are considering bringing it to television. All the extreme emotions and human qualities are invoked: repentance, purity, revenge, honesty, malice, regret and redemption all cry out to us for attention. A Ghostly Shade of Pale might not be subtle, and it is certainly a long read, but it is one which will repay a your perseverance.

Southern Literature Publishing

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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