Gidney, Craig Laurence. “A Spectral Hue”, Word Horde , 2019.
Art, Obsession and Ghosts
The marsh-surrounded town of Shimmer, Maryland has hosted a loose congregate of African-American artists, all of whom work in different media, but all using the same haunting color. This art includes landscape paintings, trompe l’oeil quilts, decorated dolls, mixed-media assemblages, and more, all with the same peculiar hue, a pigment “somewhere between purple and pink, the color of the saltmarsh orchid, a rare and indigenous flower.”
Graduate student Xavier Wentworth finds himself drawn to Shimmer ; he hopes to study the work of artists like quilter Hazel Whitby and landscape painter Shadrach Grayson in detail. Xavier experienced something like an epiphany when viewing a Hazel Whitby tapestry as a child. He will also find that others have been drawn to Shimmer and they are called there by something more than art, something in the marsh itself, a mysterious, spectral hue.
I was immediately drawn into “A Spectral Hue” thinking that the idea is a wonderful approach to a novel with is air of mystery. This is, of course, a fantasy and the emphasis is on obsession and artistic pleasure. Xavier met Hazel when he was just a child and he became completely fascinated with her quilts. His obsession with this is what brought him to Shimer and saw that it is a place for which time is unimportant. He had come to write his Master’s thesis on the black artists that came from the town.
He soon has suspicions that many of these artists, especially queer ones, were inspired by something from a nearby marsh. Xavier’s story comes to us piecemeal, told through chapters that incorporate the perspectives of several of Shimmer’s residents, Gidney brings forth questions about the nature of art and its effect on artists. What he shares with us is disturbing and unsettling.
This is a tale of identity that although it is a fantasy seems to be very real. It mixes horror, folklore, dark fantasy, and magic realism that is haunting. Even though the book is short, there are multiple points of view across different historical eras, and a carefully detailed background featuring an entire fictional art movement.
Upon his arrival in Shimer, Xavier rents an AirBnB from Iris, a woman whose past ties her to the artists Xavier wants to learn about. There is Linc, a drifter who is trying to find a job in Shimmer and Fuchsia who has been around for seemingly forever.
Aspects of horror are present, and the past of Shimmer is rooted in slavery, but this is fantasy even with the presence of supernatural creatures and happenings. We see the interaction of magic and tradition. The mysteries of the art are revealed hypnotically to the black folk in the town while the white visitors to the museum dismiss it all as primitive and idiosyncratic folklore that is more craft than art. There is a white museum staff member who knows endless factual details about the art, but who stops mysterious events from happening but does not realize the power he has. The white people in Shimer seem to be involved in some way. The Ogress is an elderly, disabled white Scottish woman who knows the power of magical places still. She comes from a place with its own marshland tradition but she is from the past, not the present.
The depictions of spirituality and its interrelationships with art are brilliant and even though the art movement is fictional, it seems to be very real.
The story is actually about queer people searching for community and belonging as seen through African-Americans in relationship with a landscape that was forced upon them but that they came to know and live in intimately. We read of artistic obsession and the fear and ecstasy that comes out of and how culture seeks to rope it in, understand it and label it. We also see the ways that humans adaptor choose not to.
Inspiration and creativity best oppression and we see this through the group of people who have been drawn to Shimmer through time and are haunted by a creative force that could reveal their full selves. We certainly see America’s legacy of racism and homophobia through personal connections and a small town and it is disturbing yet the book is not depressing. Rather, it is inspiring.