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Buy A Spectral Hue from Bookshop.org3.5 stars

At barely 200 pages, A Spectral Hue is a novel with enough narrative complexity for a book twice its length. Though marketed as supernatural horror, that barely begins to scratch the surface. If you had to attach a single category label to it, perhaps “weird fiction” might be more to the point. There are elements of horror, as well as a kind of magical realist folklore. But for the most part, this is an almost indescribably rich, time-hopping, character-driven saga about surviving with a marginalized identity in a nation and a culture with an ongoing history of violence and oppression, and the use of art as both a means to retain the humanity in that identity, and to reach out across time itself to others who share it. It’s a story all about being “the other,” and how the psychic scars of that can resonate down generations.

Xavier Wentworth is a young art student who travels from the comfort of his Washington, DC home to the remote town of Shimmer, an entirely African-American community in the marshlands of rural Maryland. He’s researching a couple of outsider artists from the area, the quiltmaker Hazel Whitby and the painter Shadrach Grayson. Theirs is the sort of work that gets dismissed by the academic world as typical untrained folk art. But Xavier has always been driven to know more, ever since his first time seeing one of Hazel’s trompe l’oeil quilts when he was 12. It exerted a powerful hypnotic hold over him, the otherworldy pink and violet colors of its wild embroidery appearing to leap to life straight off the fabric, opening a portal to a marshy realm of strange lights.

Once in Shimmer, we meet other viewpoint characters. Iris is the elderly AirBnB host who offers Xavier a room. Since her youth, Iris has seen ghostly figures she calls caspers, human silhouettes filled with strange colors and patterns. She shared this knowledge with her partner of many years, Tamar, who herself began creating artistic collages as if the work was obsessing her, before fleeing Shimmer entirely. Lincoln is a drifter, thrown out by his family after getting involved with drugs and a militant LGBT group back home. He now works at a small museum in Shimmer dedicated to the work of Hazel and Shadrach, as well as other artists influenced by them.

Finally, we’re presented with scenes from Hazel Whitby’s life as a slave in the 1840s. Gidney faces this period of American history squarely on, but without resorting to the usual scenes of suffering and sadism. Instead we’re treated to something equally chilling: a real sense of the depersonalization that comes from being actual property, the sense that you’re never safe, that your children can be taken from you and sold to pay off debts as if they were spare furniture. There’s a level of despair in such an existence that’s impossible to conceive. Hazel finds what moments of peace she can, hiding out in the attic and pouring all of her trauma into her quilting.

But even here, she’s not safe and not alone. Hazel is being watched and influenced by a being calling itself Fuschia. This gives the book its most conventional horror hook, as we have some kind of ghostly entity attempting to cross over into the world of the living and using its influence over artists to make that transition. What’s interesting is the way only the black characters, and in particular the queer characters, are able to perceive the visions that come from looking at Hazel’s quilts. Gidney even uses this to humorous effect, as he describes the complete imperviousness of white people to these visions. Probably the book’s funniest line has Xavier describing the very well-meaning white proprietor of the museum as a “paranormal activity retardant.”

But Fuschia’s influence becomes more intense and more sinister. Many of the artists who fall under her spell can’t handle it, it’s all “too much.” Others revere the visions with a religious fervor. Gidney’s sensitivity towards character; his skill at constructing scenes across multiple timelines and putting them together without confusion; his vivid descriptions of the environment and its role in molding the identity and the fates of his characters, all transform this book into a completely absorbing and unsettling experience.

He only falters at the end, which feels much too abrupt. Unresolved narratives aren’t a bad thing, but they take a lot of finesse. And A Spectral Hue feels as if it’s building to a great dramatic crescendo, only to stop short of full satisfaction. Despite this, the book is a little work of art all its own, reaching down through decades and decades of history to find the voices of those whom history casts aside, who just don’t want to be forgotten.