Not Quite a Ghost
By Anne Ursu
From Poe’s “The Masque of The Red Death” to any good zombie movie, the horror genre provides fertile ground for the human anxiety around infection, especially when lack of understanding makes both illnesses and monstrous entities seem inevitable and invisible. Inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” this month’s Big Picture, Not Quite a Ghost, homes in on the insidious currents of disbelief that surround both topics, focusing on a sick middle school girl (who, frankly, is already part of a group that is easily dismissed based on age and gender) separately dealing with a supernatural entity. Ursu draws on familiar elements of ghost stories and the renewed attention Long COVID has brought to chronic illness to create a deeply poignant exploration of what it means to be sick in a way the rest of the world dismisses—if it even acknowledges the illness in the first place.
As a middle child with a tendency toward people pleasing, sixth-grader Violet is not about to complain during her family’s stressful move to an aging fixer-upper, even if it means she gets stuck with the creepy attic bedroom and its ugly yellow wallpaper. When she gets knocked down with a nasty, flu-like illness, Violet is determined to recover quickly to not be a bother, but her body refuses to cooperate. She finds herself exhausted on a daily basis, to the point where she’s missing weeks of schools and spending most of her time in bed. Violet is hesitant to argue with the several doctors who tell her that the illness is all in her head, especially since she’s started seeing a ghost-girl in the walls of her room, who also insists that she’s faking it all and that her family finds her more burdensome than loveable. As the girl in the wall becomes more present, Violet begins to question her ability to know the truth of both her body and mind.
Like Gilman, Ursu expertly frames Violet’s descent into her own disbelief within the classic trappings of a well-crafted ghost story, relying on the familiar but still effective setup of an innocent family moving into a suspiciously available house. Hints of unease—a moving shadow, a strange noise—increase, and the distance provided by the third-person narration allows readers to spot the supernatural threat long before Violet does, creating a grim sort of anticipation of the danger. When the girl finally crawls out of the wall, her body emerging with deliberate menace, the smooth straightforward prose shifts to staccato beats of terror as the book moves quickly from chillingly atmospheric to downright terrifying.
The supernatural element is cleverly employed, but the book is careful to disconnect happenings in the house from Violet’s illness early on. Violet’s suffering is very real, despite not having an easy diagnosis, and the girl in the wall capitalizes on Violet’s insecurities to wriggle her way into her head, nearly destroying her sense of self but not causing her illness. Visceral, urgent descriptions of Violet’s exhaustion, brain fog, and sadness render her sympathetic, as she tries to balance both her illness and a malevolent supernatural creature along with shifting friend and family dynamics, as well as the pressures of sixth grade. Scenes in which she is dismissed or accused of wanting attention are heartbreaking, as those who claim to care about her callously invalidate her lived experience.
The ending is satisfying but not quite tidy, brilliantly foreshadowed by the unseen narrator’s direct warning to readers: “Remember this: The family came as one to see their new house. Most of the house lied, but one room told the truth. Remember this, when you think about who the villain is.” Ultimately, readers never know enough about the girl in the wall to determine if she’s the true villain, only that she is a danger—an infection in the house, the narrator implies—that must be dealt with. In that way, her presence is a mirror of Violet’s illness: no one can quite pin down the source of either, but in the end, Violet must pull on all her strength to reckon with these challenges, otherworldly or literally, painfully corporeal.
Cover illustration from Not Quite a Ghost copyright © 2024 James Firnhaber. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, HarperCollins.