In Ghost Town, the first fictional offering in Bloomsbury’s “The Writer and the City” series, British-born author Patrick McGrath turns his neo-Gothic gaze on Gotham. Three tales—set in the 18th, 19th, and 21st centuries—describe a New York wherein murder, madness, and quasi-incestuous alliances prove quite as endemic and perpetual as insalubrious bars and unaffordable real estate.
Just as the city itself is prone to contradiction and stark disparity (rich/poor, uptown/downtown, Yankees/Mets), it’s possible to admire McGrath’s macabre manner and project and yet find the book wanting. The grotesque trappings are present—insane asylums, cholera outbreaks, the odd unburied skull—but they serve only to suggest what other, better, more fully enfleshed narratives might have offered. In an unhappy irony, the stories are ghosts themselves.
“The Year of the Gibbet,” for example, takes place in the same era as McGrath’s Martha Peake: A Novel of the Revolution and often uncomfortably echoes it, seeming a frail twin rather than a tale in its own right. “Ground Zero,” a story of analytics and obsession just after 9-11, attempts surprise and paradox but telegraphs its twists with a crushing obviousness. “Julius,” set in the mid 19th century, fares best, but its patriarchs, artist models, and portrait painters might have benefited from a broader canvas. McGrath’s navigated the short-story form before, as evinced by 1988’s Blood and Water, but in Manhattan’s winding streets, he finds himself a little lost.