We all want to believe (until we stop believing): Craig Davidson’s The Saturday Night Ghost Club (Review)

Cover courtesy of Penguin Random House

Did you have an “I Want to Believe” poster on your wall? You know, the one with the blurred image of a flying saucer floating over a forest – the one that hangs in Fox Mulder’s office in the basement of the FBI in The X-Files? If so, Craig Davidson’s The Saturday Night Ghost Club (2018) is essential reading, as it poses the question, “What would you get if you stuck Fox Mulder in 1980s Niagara Falls with a wide-eyed, twelve-year-old nephew instead of skeptical Dana Scully?”

Okay, so it doesn’t literally ask that question; I’m sure Davidson had a far more sophisticated agenda in mind when he sat down to write the novel. Fox Mulder and The X-Files were just the first thing to popped into my head upon being introduced to Calvin “Uncle C” Sharpe, who owns a shop called “the Occultorium” and takes a group of kids and his adult best friend, Lexington “Lex” Galbraith, on adventures around town in search of the supernatural (ghosts, to be precise).

Of course, what Davidson strives to accomplish in The Saturday Night Ghost Club really is more profound than a tale about a domestic Fox Mulder. It is a coming-of-age narrative, told in-the-moment by twelve-year-old Jake Baker and reflectively by his adult self, about the complexity of the human brain, the trauma associated with intense grief, and how the brain processes that trauma. Uncle C is, in a sense, Jake Baker’s first case study as a medical practitioner, as he grows up to become a neurosurgeon and, as an adult, reflects upon the significance of the stories that his uncle told them all that summer in the ‘80s.

By formatting his novel in such a way, Davidson beckons his readers to question what “the truth” really is; is it steeped in facts, or is it merely what we choose to believe? One must then ask the question, is it valid to believe the existence of ghosts and other supernatural entities to be true? Why is it any more or less valid to believe in God, the Devil, angels, demons, Heaven and Hell than it is to believe in ghosts or aliens? Both exist to us only in the celestial sense and have the same levels of proof attributed to their existence: there are books written about them and several people claim to have had encounters of a spiritual sense, be it religious or supernatural. Just because someone else’s concept of what’s true differs from your own, is it necessarily wrong?

Headshot courtesy of Penguin Random House

Thought-provoking and informative, The Saturday Night Ghost Club is a book for wide-eyed believers and skeptics alike. It brings us all together using the shared experience of emotion to make it accessible to every reader. We have all, like the people in Uncle C’s ghost stories, experienced tragedy to some extent. We have all loved. We have all lost. Whether we choose to believe that our lost loved ones become angels or ghosts (or perhaps you believe in both) becomes secondary to the emotional charge at the heart of the story.

Additionally, Davidson’s complex use of narrative voice deserves commendation. He manages to make it clear not through explicit statement, but through the way that the character speaks, whether young Jake or adult Jake is narrating; young Jake’s voice is clear in its childlike innocence, such as when he called a marijuana joint a “funny cigarette” for lack of a proper name to put to it, just as how adult Jake’s voice is clear through its mature use of medical terminology and more grown-up analysis of what occurred during his childhood. Both blend together seamlessly and make for a beautiful method of storytelling.

His use of multiple narrative voices also makes the reader question whether an “intelligent” person can believe in the supernatural. When you transition from child to adult, or from naïve to knowledgeable, does the ability to believe dissipate? Davidson poses that question in the following (and fabulously written) way:

“[Childlike] fear is a kind of magic. As you get older […] you stop believing in the things my uncle believed in. Even if your mind wants to go there, it has lost the nimbleness needed to make the leap. The magic gets kicked out of you, churched out of you, shamed out – or worse, you steal it from yourself. […] By degrees, you kill your own magic.”

Is there any way to avoid losing the “magic” that allows us to believe in things not-of-the-natural-world so freely? Furthermore, does adult Jake Baker’s rather nihilistic statement apply to all of us? Surely it is not only people like Uncle C, with his spooky shop, who believe in the existence of ghosts or monsters. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who famously created Sherlock Holmes (one of fiction’s most prevalent rationalists), was an avid spiritualist who believed not only in ghosts, but in fairies as well. Was he any less of a genius for it? Some called him crazy, while others chose to believe that he was enlightened. It is impossible to say which was the truth – but Doyle certainly wasn’t stupid.

The Saturday Night Ghost Club is one of those rare works of fiction that leave you thinking about it and what it was trying to say long after you have finished reading. It is a book that begs not only to be read once, but to be read twice, and perhaps even many more times afterward; it asks you to consider questions surrounding truth and spirituality, mental health and science, facts and fiction, and more still aside from that. Craig Davidson has accomplished with his novel on memory what many writers spend a lifetime striving for: a truly memorable book. I simply cannot praise it enough.

Read more of Jessica Raven’s reviews here.