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.