A Spectral Hue is a weird ghost story for adults – either a short novel or long novella. Xavier, a post-graduate art student, visits the run-down coastal town of Shimmer to research the history of African-American folk artists inspired by the town’s strange marsh bell flower. The flower’s distinct purple-pink colour appears over and over, across different generations, in the varied art of local artists. From the moment Xavier first sees a quilt by Shimmer artist Hazel Whitby, he’s captivated. And Xavier’s not the only person to be held in thrall by the distinctive artworks and the colour that inspired them.
This is a wonderful ghost story, with elements of Gothic, both in the ways it dances the line between sensuality and fear, and in its exploration of generational trauma. The prose is fluid and often beautiful and there’s a whole cast of queer black characters. There’s a real sense that Gidney cares deeply about his characters in a way that made me care about them too, from perfectionist Xavier, to grieving Iris, to wounded Linc, whose lives become entwined with Shimmer’s legacy and with each other. With deft pacing, we learn how each of the main characters came to be where they are, their strengths and their wounds, and the story of how racial trauma echoes down the generations. There’s solace and power in art, but also a grief that can overwhelm even the strongest person. The story offers no easy explanations or easy solutions, but a lot of complex humanity and satisfying speculative mystery.
If I’m going to be picky, my only real criticism of this story is it took me a while to get into the style of sliding back and forth in time with very little use of past perfect tense. I know it’s less popular in the US, but some here and there would have made for a smoother read for me in the beginning. Having said that, I stopped noticing a little way in, so I must have got used to the frequent temporal shifts. In the ebook edition I read, there were more than the average number of proofing errors – mostly missing words – but the fluid prose makes up for them. Hopefully later editions will be catch them.
This book is a treat for readers of queer fiction because there are so many great queer characters. Of the point of view characters, I especially enjoyed Iris, whose history of wrestling with a religious upbringing, a supernatural gift and a queer identity made for a rich and vivid narrative strand that managed to avoid all clichés. It’s also a book that takes speculative fiction seriously for the possibilities it presents. Going in, I wondered if the story might be a ‘Colour out of Space’ re-imagining, but it’s original in its take on the idea of a haunting colour and I was never able to fully predict where the story would take me.
Read as part of my Queer Horror Challenge – A Spectral Hue is more ghost story with hints of cosmic weirdness than full on horror, but it’s subtly unsettling with a whole ocean of darkness flowing under the surface. I’d definitely recommend it to horror fans.