Brockmeier is a master of beginnings, and his new book is essentially a collection of intriguing openings. The Ghost Variations is no ordinary story collection. It consists of 100 thematically organized ghost stories dished in bite-sized chunks. Each self-contained flash story runs two pages long, just enough for a single epiphanic moment. This feature effectively goads the reader to finish any given tale in one sitting, capitalizing on the enjoyment readers take in discovering where and how a story will end. This same feature, however, could also make it quite easy to put the book down after any given reading—not from lack of enjoyment, but from the quick sense of completion inherent in the format. But this criticism is more definitional than damning ... Playfulness and horror never venture too far apart in these tales ... Anyone intent on finding an overarching consciousness or metaphysics behind this great assemblage of ghosts may come up short. Some tales fix ghosts to people or places, while others are so liberated they are capable of dislodging themselves from time and existence itself. A risky approach, but in Brockmeier’s masterful hands the payoff is profound. His work radiates with the brazen assertion that no two beings are entirely alike or endowed with the same legalistic strictures. Make no mistake: this book is haunted, possessed by a plurality of minds that can be found within the author’s imagination, animated by a patient and finely attuned control of the written word that propels to the foreground of every story the beauty, delight, and fluidity of language itself. From austere and sentimental to cerebral and cynical—and sometimes outright bizarre—the collection’s flash format highlights Brockmeier’s remarkable tonal and stylistic range. Like musical variations whereby material is repeated in altered form, with each literary variation Brockmeier sets out to alter not only the form of the ghost story but the form of his own vast stylistic capabilities.
His unique new collection...continues his quiet, wondering, taxonomic approach to envisioning the spirit world. Included are 100 quicksilver sketches ... These entries are too spacey and speculative to be read straight through; one ought to approach them in snatches, as with prose poems or philosophical pensées. Sometimes a phantom’s primary role seems to be to allow Mr. Brockmeier a flight of lyricism ... But always they offer a strange kind of comfort: Who could ever feel wholly alone in a universe as teeming as this one?
Hell is hell, of course, but even Heaven doesn’t seem all that appealing in this collection of stories, each of which can be read in less than two distressing minutes ... In the hands of Stephen King or Karen Russell, such horrific ends might yield nasty, morbid thrills. But Brockmeier isn’t out to raise goose bumps, though easily spooked readers no doubt will shiver here and there. The Ghost Variations leaps over 'the neat picket fences of death' to chase after the very idea of existence itself, 'this terrible gumminess of being,' as one poor specter puts it ... Brockmeier wants his book to have at least the appearance of fun. The first page of every story is topped by a cute, cartoonish illustration that seems borrowed from Pac-Man. Light sneaks in through the cracks ... It would require a supernatural effort to fill a 100-story collection with nothing but winners, and Brockmeier is, after all, only human. He reaches his quota with more than one dud ... Even a medium would have difficulty reading more than a few of these stories in one sitting.
By turns philosophical, ironic, dark, and humorous ... Such spare prose highlights clever opening lines, ironic twists, and crisp, vivid descriptions ... One can see how these distilled, clever ghost stories could, read aloud, thrill readers crowded into a dimly bookstore, or around a neighborhood firepit. But while brevity may be the soul of wit, in this collection it often gives short shrift to the inner lives of characters. Instead, these miniature stories focus on flights of imagination and big ideas. What is most poignant in these fabulist tales is the sense people and ghosts share about time ... How fleeting life is. But how wearisome eternity can be ... It is this elegiac theme threading through one hundred ghost stories that is so moving.
... present a range in tone from unsettling to terrifying, and pack a fearful punch with an economy of language, even for readers primed to feel uneasy. Despite the episodic format, the book as a whole is cohesive, with stories thoughtfully organized into categories ... This is no gimmick; Brockmeier doubles down on these groupings, including a compendium after the last story which places the tales into different thematic areas such as ghosts and plants, animals, or technology. Readers could use this index to go back and encounter the stories in a whole new order for a completely different, but equally enjoyable, experience. The tales themselves are gems: modern, haunted treasures to be discovered no matter the order in which they are read. A great option for those who enjoy horror flash fiction.
... these ghost stories do their haunting in a wide variety of tones and moods and modes. These miniatures aren't always long on narrative. Many are thought experiments, meditations, fables, allegories, head-of-a-pin paintings. What unites them is first and foremost Brockmeier's questing sensibility, a fascination with abstract ideas that find form in fiction the way spirit is said to find form in phantasm ... Uncanny and unsettling but also consistently amusing ... Brockmeier has created an elaborate organizational schema...Ultimately this apparatus seems labored, clunky—but that minor flaw doesn't detract much ... Varied, inventive, uncanny, and playful: a gifted fabulist's cabinet of curiosities, his book-length memento mori.