“Frances the Ghost,” the six-page story that opens Demons in the Spring (Akashic Books), is what we must by now be justified in calling “classic Joe Meno.” He’s been writing in the public eye for some time now (including the rapturously good The Great Perhaps and the dangerously overpraised The Boy Detective Fails), and it’s no slight to him to say he’s got certain mannerisms, certain preoccupations. All writers do; the only strange thing about Meno’s is how old-fashioned they are – he likes recognizably human characters, he likes to try them but not usually destroy them, and he’s fond of happy endings (hard-fought or otherwise).
His ironies are gentle and reader-friendly (indeed, the greatest irony of Demons in the Spring is that a volume so lavishly illustrated should have such an appallingly ugly cover), as we can see in this first little story. The Frances of the title is a silent, problematic little girl who’s recently taken to wearing a sheet with eye-holes and pretending she’s a ghost (Charles Burns, in his story illustration, makes the perfect little artistic decision to remove the eye-holes). Janet, her mother, often feels like she’s dealing with two ghosts: Frances, and her “imaginary” husband off serving in a faraway war (“Do not get killed or I will never forgive you.”), and so Frances’ eccentricities can be draining.
Meno is superb at conveying the realities of how one person can drain another – and how those same invisible wellsprings can be refilled (the last ten consecutive winners of the Nobel Prize for literature couldn’t manage it – Meno should remember that if he ever gets depressed). Frances – wearing her ghost costume at her own mute insistence – gets in a fight at school; she then gets into a looks-scarier-than-it-is accident that momentarily freezes her mother with confusion. But there are epiphanies that Meno can’t wait to dispense:
Of course, it is true: If you cover your ears, a whisper does not feel the same as a kiss. A laugh does not make the small hairs around your neck startled the way it does when someone is shouting. When someone cries, it feels like you are waiting for the rain. When someone sings, it feels like the shape of a heart being traced along the center of your chest.
And there’s a hard-fought happy ending, in which it’s possible to hope that Frances, Janet, and everybody else will somehow be OK. That’s classic Meno, and it’s damn refreshing after reading a small mountain of contemporary short stories that manage to be both inept and arrogant.
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