If you have ever considered living in a house because it’s rumored to be haunted, then Edgar Cantero’s The Supernatural Enhancements (Doubleday, August 12, 2014) is next up on your “to read” list.
The story, set in November and December 1995, begins when our hero, A., unexpectedly inherits his long-lost cousin’s mansion “and all of its contents.” A., a slightly shiftless 23 year old student, makes a beeline from Europe for Axton House, located in Point Bless, Virginia. A. and his traveling companion, Niamh (pronounced “Neve”), happily take up residence in their sprawling new home. Encounters with the locals indicate that the house has a “history,” that A. and Niamh may not be its sole occupants, that they might be sharing their space with a ghost, the eponymous “supernatural enhancement.”
But The Supernatural Enhancements is not merely a ghost story. A.’s relative, Wells, committed suicide at age 50–on the anniversary of his father’s suicide at the same age. Yet more eerie, Wells left in his study a note with an encrypted clue, the significance of which A. and Niamh only discover after a burglary. Wells was up to some strange stuff, pursuing the study of some occult knowledge, access to which is available to A. and Niamh only through hints and accidents.
Early in the novel, when it is just becoming clear that Axton house may have a ghost and that Wells was up to some pretty odd stuff, A. comments on one of his favorite TV shows, The X-Files. An avowed atheist, A. nonetheless echoes the sentiment of the famous poster from Mulder’s office: “I want to believe.” Looking around at the congregants at the church service Niamh forced him to attend, A. feels not contempt, but envy. Really, as A. and Niamh find themselves in ever more complicated and bizarre situations, the story becomes about credulity: Are you able to believe that there might be more to something than its surface might suggest?
Cantero narrates the story using a variety of “documentary” formats, including A.’s journal entries, letters home to Aunt Liza, Niamh’s notepad (she is a mute and communicates through writing), and audio and video recorder footage. The effect may take some getting used to on the part of some readers, but it works: Cantero achieves a smooth narrative flow early on. Cantero’s decision to approach the story this way is canny: It roots the reader in the world as A. and Niamh experience it, and also limits the reader’s exposure to outside knowledge. In effect, readers know what A. and Niamh know, at least insofar as they report their findings in their letters and journal entries. Ultimately, this results in a deepening of the mystery, as, for instance, readers read a transcript of a video that (purportedly) shows A.’s encounter with the ghost. Of course, exposure to primary documents is a fraught exercise: Can you trust what the authors are telling you?
Part of what makes The Supernatural Enhancements so fun to read is the fun Cantero has with his characters. A. is immediately recognizable, a young twentysomething male with a slightly indifferent air, who is nonetheless thoughtful and well-intentioned. Niamh, 17, is something of a pixie, engaging in such cute activities as sledding across the mansion’s roof. Afflicted with muteness, it is Niamh who acquires the audiovisual equipment that is employed throughout the house and which is ultimately responsible for large parts of the story. A. and Niamh do what any young people in possession of an old mansion might do: They make spaghetti dinners and eat in the large formal dining room, they map the floors (leaving a trail of chickpeas on the floor to the bathroom on their first night), and they watch The X-Files. There is an obvious romantic subplot that A. scrupulously avoids, adding tension to their relationship.
The Supernatural Enchancements defies expectations. The novel becomes darker in tone as A. is drawn deeper into Wells’ mysteries, but only the canniest of readers will have a notion of what’s to come. The story’s climax is swift and shocking, and all the more affecting for it. Of course, I can’t divulge details here (no spoilers!), but when an author has you yelling, “No! NO!” it’s a sign that he has successfully pulled you into his story.
The Supernatural Enchanements is less a ghost story than it is a tale of the fantastic, of encounters with the occult, and of solving puzzles and finding treasure–all while young and, supposedly, carefree. Cantero balances the darkness with whimsy, so readers expecting creeping dread and buckets of gore are warned away. So, too, are readers who might be put off by the epistolary style. That said, The Supernatural Enchancements is a fun book (and that’s meant in the best possible sense) and a fine story: A great success for Edgar Cantero. Highly recommended for fans of the fantastic.