Adrian Van Young’s Shadows in Summerland Masterfully Captures Damage in Front of — and Behind — the…
The act of reproducing an image is, and always has been, an act of aggression. The camera is a weapon that reinforces power structures, tacitly assigning dominant/submissive roles. Although our daily routines and social media feeds are filled with selfies, cute cats, and baby pics racking up the “likes,” make no mistake: the camera inflicts as much damage as it reveals.
So is the case in Adrian Van Young’s Shadows in Summerland (ChiZine Publications), a humbling feat of Gothic, historic fiction. The novel follows William Mumler, the real-life spirit photographer who gained fame, moderate financial success and notoriety (plus the scorn of P.T. Barnum) in mid 19th century Boston with the help of his wife, Hannah, the celebrity medium Fanny Conant, and the sinister-yet-simple-minded “Spiritualist investigator” William Guay.
The story begins as they await trial, charged with fraud and murder: one of the ghostly subjects in Mumler’s photographs is believed to have been murdered by Mumler, but whose presence in the images proves his continued existence. So, either Mumler is a fraud or he is a murderer, and proof of one charge negates the other. But the tenuous truth and explanations behind each accusation — told through flashbacks from each of the four character’s distinct points of view — is what gives this novel its electricity.
The focus of the novel is undoubtedly Mumler, whose historic swindles provide the groundwork for one of the greatest unlikeable characters in recent memory. He’s simultaneously arrogant and lazy, an intellectual who’s helpless against confrontation, a momma’s boy, an elitist without class, and a depressed opportunist who will latch onto whoever makes his life easier. In these cases, it’s not difficult to imagine Mumler as an entitled Victorian hipster whose immediate connoisseurship of the en vogue photographic process mirrors that of the modern beer bro who is an expert after having a couple IPAs.
Young masterfully laces Mumler with tragedy, so while he may be an asshole, he’s prototypical of the American underdog — a role that had not even really solidified during the events in which this story takes place. We can’t help but love Mumler: there are his Mommy Issues (perhaps the only scenes where we experience the genuine Mumler are when he’s administering toxic amounts of laudanum to his dying mother). And then there’s the unrequited love of his cousin Cora, who died when they were young and whose death my or may not be the result of Mumler’s inaction (and what Gothic tale could be complete without sweet, sweet incest?)
Despite the focus on Mumler, the story’s driving narrative shines through in the cast’s relationships to each other. No one is honest. Everyone uses everyone else. Everyone needs everyone else. Mumler uses his eerily despondent wife Hannah Meir, whose (questionably) valid sixth sense enables her to see, and therefore, summon the ghosts for Mumler’s pictures. Hannah, in return, finds protection in Mumler after facing prejudice due to her ghostly sight. Fanny Conant, whose abusive upbringing has driven her to use the popular Spiritualism movement as a vehicle to drive the lesser-popular Feminism movement, sees a business relationship and amplified influence in Mumler; Mumler’s sexual attraction to Fanny further fuels this co-dependency. And William Guay, a hitherto transient, sees spiritual enlightenment in Mumler, and who will eagerly carry out Mumler’s dirty work.
The intricate clockwork of these relationships would be admirable by itself, but Young’s prose is the sort that lifts the narrative skeleton above the ground so it can grow flowers on the bones. To anyone who’s read and appreciated Young’s chameleon talent of co-opting different styles in his widely varied short story collection The Man Who Noticed Everything, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Carefully crafted with 19th Century Gothic flare, the language in Shadows in Summerland is a potent mix of Poe’s lyricism, Lovecraft’s viscera and Dickens’ utilitarianism. One could disassemble the book, tack the pages to a wall and throw darts at them with a good chance at hitting something beautiful.
For example, take this scene in which Fanny seduces Mumler in hopes of gaining an upper-hand in their business agreement, which ends in Mumler’s grotesque and poetic premature ejaculation:
Another button, two, three more and I felt the air rushing, alive, in between me. It was as though the force of him were prying at me to get in.
He groaned and he cramped violently and leaned toward me, and that was when he burbled forth. The milky gouts escaped from him from where he reared up through his shirt.
The act of balancing such lovely writing with a well-researched, intricate and entertaining story is precarious indeed, and, overwhelmingly, Young succeeds. If there is one minor qualm, it’s during the court scene in the final act. Not that the story or writing is any less engaging, but the practical need to infuse some answers to the novel’s ambiguities feels a little like Young shows his hand. It’s ultimately a necessary evil, and one that will certainly endear itself to the larger audience that this novel deserves.
Perhaps the most astonishing quality of Adrian Van Young’s Shadows in Summerland is how well it resonates in today’s modern era, despite its historic setting. It was a time period when a nation’s fears and grief — rendered by the bloody Civil War — manifested in demagogic beliefs. It was a time when people feared the loss of their own agency through new technologies. It was a time when photographic propaganda appealed to people’s most inflammatory desires and was powerful enough to bring about criminal charges. This novel is a reminder that damage has always existed behind the image.