Expansive and Imaginative, a Collection of Short Stories That Tug at The Veil of Mortality

An expansive short story collection which explores the past, future, and mortality with imagination, compassion, and humour, Gregory Norminton’s The Ghost Who Bled, is ‘a tour de force of literary worldbuilding.’ A lecturer a Manchester Metropolitan University, Norminton attempts to uncover the deeply personal through the prism of a (sometimes distant) witness.

The opening story to the collection begins with the narrator speaking directly to the reader. The Poison Tree tells the story of a Vietnam veteran named Roger, whose life is saved by a man who, after the war, becomes his neighbour until Roger perceives the life-debt he owes to be too much of an unspoken burden. However, in lieu of being told by Rodger, the tale is told to us by the current owner of his house and done so with the authority not only of a biographer but of a conduit to Roger. ‘It is his part of the story – the story of friendship – that I feel compelled to set down, as though his ghost were hovering over my shoulder.’

It is this sentiment that drives the remarkably compelling paradox of the collection. The narrator admits to never knowing those involved in the story, but still recalls every detail of Roger’s life, including his inner thoughts, his moments alone and even his death, which occurs surrounded only by those who cannot speak his language or communicate his story. Norminton’s follow up to Thumbnails and Serious Things, The Ghost Who Bled attempts to imagine the lives of characters on the periphery of famous or world changing events (both fictional and real), whether that be due to their forgotten presence at that time or their obsession with it. The Soul Surgeons revolves around a trio of inquisitors who pursue Christopher Marlowe for the crime of atheism while The Time Traveller’s Breakdown follows a stranded time traveller wandering the Northern England of his youth.

these are still inherently sad stories, to the point where the collection at times feels unbalanced

The stories have a fascination with honing in on characters as they deal with death (most usually their own), and by doing so, Norminton is exploring the difficulty of an individual to connect with those around them, even those they love, as the immovable veil of mortality is drawn to isolate them. The characters involved in the tales are ghosts, in some description or another, either due to their proximity to their death or their physical or emotion exclusion. Take the title story, The Ghost Who Bled, about the ghost of a victim of the Hiroshima nuclear attack, who watches not only his own funeral but must witness the death of his entire family from the hellish consequences of the bomb. He is unable to properly interact with the world around him and must wonder it separate and untouchable.

That is not to say the collection isn’t full of humour and imagination. The Fall of Caesar tells the story of a Shakespearean actor named Peter trying to sync his theatrical death as Julius Caesar with his own and hires a hitman to do so; a thug he must run lines with so that he comes in with the dagger on cue. 

Confessions of a Tyrant’s Double follows the doppelgänger of an oppressive despot, who, after having his death faked on his behalf and being told he can no longer see his wife, must learn the ever-changing mannerisms of a dictator he will never meet. Norminton’s prose is drum tight, taking the reader through wit and pathos in a single scene.

But as the title suggests, these are still inherently sad stories, to the point where the collection at times feels unbalanced. The comical The Fall of Caesar is followed swiftly by Zero + 30, the story of a survivor of the Cambodian genocide, Vaing, returning to the village she was interned in after her parents were murdered. For me, this was the truest summation of the book and by far one of its strongest stories. She is accompanied on her trip by her American husband, Henry. Henry is supportive, patient and compassionate when it comes to his wife’s attempt to face what so traumatised her, but he is tormented during their journey by his inability to really understand what she is thinking or feeling. ‘Henry attempted to gauge, beneath her shades, what passed through his wife’s head,’ says one line as Henry struggles to grasp why his wife resists finally crossing the threshold to the village and finding closure. But what makes Zero + 30’s work, and why so many of the other stories in this book hit, is that it is through Henry that we experience Vaing’s story. He loves her but can never truly know her. The narrator can tell her story, including the emotional details of her suffering and give us a description of the once desolate village, but neither Henry nor the author’s voice can ever express the true horror of what Vaing lived through. 

Maybe the tragedy is that no one can.

The Ghost Who Bled by Gregory Norminton is published by Comma Press and is available now.

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