Adam B. Vary
February 21, 2005 AT 05:00 AM EST

Phantom Nights

Current Status
In Season
John Farris
Forge Books
Fiction, Mystery and Thriller

We gave it a B

Set in a spot-on sleepy Tennessee town circa 1952, Phantom Nights is near-bursting with the potential for top-rate pulpy thrills (”He had the face of a cranky fetus,” Farris writes of one character). And yet too often Farris settles for something more middle-of-the-road. Alex Gambier, a brazen kid of about 14, mute since diphtheria stole his voice box, tests his mettle by lying underneath oncoming passenger trains. That’s how he meets Mally Shaw, a black nurse whose instant friendship with Alex is cut short when she’s brutally raped and murdered. Farris brings Mally back as a ghost, but his graft of Southern gothic doesn’t take when he too often sidelines Alex in favor of his nice-but-boring sheriff brother. We’re promised spicy gumbo, but instead we get good-enough grits.

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