A ghost story is a difficult tale to tell. Many and most fans of the supernatural or horror vacillate between egregious jump scares, nonsensical plot twists, or straight up romance nerf-ing. This makes it especially difficult to tell a comic story. Fortunately, Brian Corley’s Ghost Bully gives readers a novel bucking superficiality in favor of an authentic thriller at once serious and light-hearted.
I’m not really an enthusiast when it comes to urban fantasy or urban horror stories. Often, I find it too difficult to suspend my disbelief or, rather, allow for the speculative device of the story. This is a failing on my part as a reader, so I have to keep at it. One way I’ve found to warm myself to the genre is by easing into it. Ghost Bully is a perfect mix of banal realism and speculative premise taking on the tone of horror movie spoofs like Tucker & Dale vs. Evil or Shaun of the Dead. Or as the author himself put it, “if Tim Burton and Richard Linklater wrote a ghost story and Seth Rogen directed it.” Only this time, instead of lurking gratuitous violence we get restlessness, possession, and the kind of existential dread endemic to your twenties.
Willard Hensch, a suicide whose spirit refuses to leave the house where he died, torments new home owner Jonah Preston. However, Willard is more of a Reddit troll than a proper poltergeist. When Willard succeeds in killing Jonah, well, that’s when the story really takes off. Suddenly we find ourselves with Jonah who it turns out makes for a pretty good ghost given his years of pop culture study as he encounters a slew of otherworldly beings in Austin, TX.
There are aspects to Ghost Bully I love. Its casual humor like when Jonah’s roommate Max decides to eat cobbler with a knife for dinner:
“‘I’m a grown man, Jonah. I’ll do what I want. If I see cobbler, I eat cobbler. There is fruit,’ he said, opening the freezer door. ‘There is dairy.’ He snagged a half-pint of vanilla-bean ice cream. ‘And there is sugar. The three major food groups.’
as well as how everyone in this depiction of Austin from cops to neighbors to coworkers to random spiritualists all simply accept what’s going on. Perhaps it’s the city or maybe just the story Corley wants to tell, but no one in this story is as freaked out or surprised or as skeptical as they ought to be and it’s played for genuine comedy. Readers will also find following from this tone a protagonist in Jonah that’s active and not reactive. He takes action and rolls with punches and you find yourself admiring him in a very fraternal sort of way.
Ghost Bully does a good job of slowly raising the stakes until readers find themselves immersed in a rather enjoyable action adventure. This also allows for it to earn its moments of drama. Corley has written a novel at once local color, supernatural adventure, mild horror, and coming of age. It’s quite a feat for a first time novelist and certainly worth your time.
Brian Corley is based out of Austin, Texas, and enjoys looking for the strange underbelly of his beloved city. When Corley isn’t exploring the unknown, he can be found in his home office dreaming up his next comic fantasy novel. For more info, visit his website or on Twitter (@nicebookbrian) and Instagram (@nicebookbrian).